Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

Tag Archives: Great Depression

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


Dorothea Lange ……..the greatest American documentary photographer

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) has been called the greatest American documentary photographer. She is best known for her chronicles of the Great Depression and for her photographs of migratory farm workers. Below are pre-World War II photographs, taken for the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA), investigating living conditions of families hired to work in cotton fields and farms in Arizona and California. Many of the families had fled the Dust Bowl, the lengthy drought which devastated millions of acres of farmland in Midwestern states such as Oklahoma.

Lange was educated in photography in New York City, in a class taught by Clarence H. White. She was informally apprenticed to several New York photography studios, including that of the famed Arnold Genthe. In 1918, she moved to San Francisco, and by the following year she had opened a successful portrait studio. She lived across the bay in Berkeley for the rest of her life. In 1920, she married the noted western painter Maynard Dixon

With the onset of the Great Depression, Lange turned her camera lens from the studio to the street. Her studies of unemployed and homeless people captured the attention of local photographers and led to her employment with the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

In December 1935, she divorced Dixon and married agricultural economist Paul Schuster Taylor, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Taylor educated Lange in social and political matters, and together they documented rural poverty and the exploitation of sharecroppers and migrant laborers for the next five years — Taylor interviewing and gathering economic data, Lange taking photos.

From 1935 to 1939, Lange’s work for the RA and FSA brought the plight of the poor and forgotten — particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers — to public attention. Distributed free to newspapers across the country, her poignant images became icons of the era

Lange’s best-known picture is titled “Migrant Mother.” The woman in the photo is Florence Owens Thompson.

In 1960, Lange spoke about her experience taking the photograph:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

In 1941, Lange was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she gave up the prestigious award to record the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans to relocation camps, on assignment for the War Relocation Authority (WRA). She covered the rounding up of Japanese Americans and their internment in relocation camps, highlighting Manzanar, the first of the permanent internment camps. To many observers, her photograph of Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the flag shortly before they were sent to internment camps is a haunting reminder of this policy of detaining people without charging them with any crime or affording them any appeal. 

Her images were so obviously critical that the Army impounded them. Today her photographs of the internment are available in the National Archives on the website of the Still Photographs Division, and at the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley.

Dorothea Lange (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965)

Walker Evans

“Stare. It is the way you educate your eye and more”
Walker Evans