Oxford School of Photography

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Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange the story of a picture

Probably one of the most famous images of depression era America, this image by Dorothea Lange sticks in the memory of everyone who has ever seen it. This is the story of that picture.


The image of a worn, weather-beaten woman, a look of desperation on her face, two children leaning on her shoulders, an infant in her lap; has become a photographic icon of the Great Depression in America. The photo was taken in March 1936 at a camp for seasonal agricultural workers 175 miles north of Los Angeles by Dorothea Lange. Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration as part of a team of photographers documenting the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions.

Lange had just completed a month-long photographic assignment and was driving back home in a wind-driven rain when she came upon a sign for the camp. Something beckoned her to postpone her journey home and enter the camp. She was immediately drawn to the woman and took a series of six shots – the only photos she took that day. The woman was the mother of seven children and on the brink of starvation…...read the rest of this story here

Florence Owens, the woman in the picture also has a story, here is that story Written by  Roger Spraque grandson:

She came to California some 15 years before, to a land of promise – a promise which, for her, had not been kept. In 1922 she had come, with her husband Cleo Owens and her three children. Her name was Florence and she was just 21 years old.

Her first house was in Shafter, California. Though it was small and poor, it was as much as she had in Oklahoma. But this place and these times held a promise of something more for her and her family. To own her own home, to raise her kids and give them more than she had, to live the American dream.

There was work in the mills and factories of California for Cleo. He was a frail man, light of build and weak of breath ever since a childhood fever scarred his lungs, making them a target for any germ that happened along, His only excesses were a tendency to overwork himself to provide for his family, and his deep, deep love for Florence.

Cleo had married Florence over the objections of his own family, who all felt that Florence was too headstrong. They all predicted that the marriage would fail, a “bad sin in 1917. A woman was there to raise the kids and do as she was told by her husband. Florence, in contrast, was only 17 when she informed Cleo’s family that they would never rule her or her kids. She loved Cleo, but she was who she was, and that was that! (Cleo’s people knew that Florence was a full blood Cherokee Indian, but they probably did not know that she was the granddaughter of the Indian renegade outlaw Ned Christy, who had died in a shoot out with a whole posse rather then be subdued by any man.)

In 1924 Florence and Cleo moved to Porterville, some 50 miles north of Shatter, where he and his brothers had found good work at good wages in the sawmill. But in 1927 the mill burned so they moved 125 miles further north to Merced Falls. There was no “Falls”, but there was a sawmill, a strong river to carry logs down from the hills, and the prettiest little town they’d ever seen…..MORE


One response to “Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange the story of a picture

  1. Pingback: 1930s ‘Killed’ photographs The American Great Depression — excised. | Oxford School of Photography

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