This photograph is Dorothea Lange’s most famous image, endlessly reproduced and discussed and that has become the most iconic image of the Great Depression. It is shown here with its original caption (i) as written by Lange. It goes beyond Henri Cartier-Bressons When? and Where? (ii) to meet the picture editor’s traditional requirement of “What? Where? Why? When? It anchors the meaning of the photograph on Lange’s own terms.
However, the photograph appears to have slipped away from Lange’s caption very early in its life as a published image (iii) and acquired the title of “Migrant Mother”. This sheds much of Lange’s original context, we no longer know her age, the number of her children or her form of employment nor any of the basic indexical information of where and when it was taken. The photograph has been depersonalised, the subject has become a symbol of migrant workers, motherhood and the Great Depression.
I have been unable to identify when it acquired the title of “Migrant Mother” but the word “mother” which carries forward from Lange’s original caption is a loaded word which triggers a broad band of social, emotional and religious connotations that affect the image’s meaning; the mother protecting her children or allusions to the Madonna and Child are obvious interpretations. Harman and Locaites report its “continual and frequent reproduction since the 1930s as a symbolic representation of America’s communal faith in its capacity to confront and overcome despair and devastation” (10). Given the plethora of alternative images from the period, one senses that it became elevated to this status primarily because of its content but also because of the “mother” connotations described above and the fact that “migrant” infers poverty, hard work, low pay, uncertainty, statelessness, effectively a paradoxical combination of security and insecurity. Put the words together with a strong image of a woman protecting her children whilst looking pensive and full of uncertainty and the many users of the image can expect an emotional and compassionate reaction from their audience. It is not inconsequential that Roy Stryker, who had hundreds of photographs of the depression crossing his desk every week, referred to it as the symbol for the whole FSA project:
“She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal.” (10)
We know this photograph so well that some of its inherent ambiguity has been lost; there is a certain level of meaning that has attached to it in the last eighty years that will be hard to shake off but the point remains valid that once it lost its original caption the image became vulnerable to appropriation by new titles or captions that shift or introduce meaning. One might argue that this is of no consequence, the floating nature of meaning being one of photography’s qualities; or, that any photograph’s meaning will change over time as we move further from the event captured. These are valid arguments but in the context of documentary or photo journalism there is a equally valid argument that the original context, and therefore its caption, is part of single piece of work, a combined meaning that should not be lightly broken. In that light the fluidity of captions and titles and the photograph’s tendency to detach and reattach itself to explanatory, indexical, or descriptive text is at times disturbing.
As an example of this photograph being appropriated one university website describes Lange’s intent as:
“Lange has manipulated her subjects, to imply that a poor mother with two children (an average amount) will be capable to lead her family (doesn’t her face express it?) out of their state of suffering, into the more prosperous future, if she is given the chance.” (1)
The BBC as well as displaying a cut-down version of the image that was certainly not the photographer’s crop also assumes that Lange’s intent was to produce political propaganda and by adding a new caption promotes the writer’s politicised view that the FSA was a propaganda organisation:
“She proceeds to reduce the size of the family which is identified in her captions as seven people down to three young children, one of whom is an infant and thereby the family suddenly conforms to middle class standards on family size.” (2)
Migrant Mother was one of the 503 photographs included in Edward Steichen’s landmark The Family of Man exhibition in 1955. In the book that accompanied the show it was given a caption that follows the structure Steichen used for all the exhibited prints:
“U.S.A. Dorothea Lange Farm Security Adm.” (8: p.151)
Steichen places the photograph in a group with three other images of the Great Depression including one other by Lange and a Robert Frank photograph taken in England. These images obviously impart a specific context but not one that we are interested in here; of greater relevance is the quotation from Virgil that acts as a title for the group:
“What region of the earth is not full of our calamities?” (8: p150)
By adding these eleven words Steichen has changed the context from local to global; the migrant Californian pea picker has been elevated from an iconic symbol of a specific humanitarian disaster in a single place to a symbol of all humanitarian disasters. By using Virgil as his source Steichen introduces an extended timeline, two thousand years between the writer and the photographer inferring that the image represents suffering throughout the ages. This universality also alludes to the Madonna and Child, imagery that has existed for a similar period.
The J. Paul Getty Museum has a print of the original photograph on their website with the title:
“Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother)” (5)
This caption uses “Migrant Mother” as its base, indexes the image to a specific location, which may provide an emotional trigger for contemporary Californians and expands its meaning by including the phrase “human erosion” linking it to Lange and her husband Paul Taylor’s 1939 book An American Exodus: Record of Human Erosion (iv). These adaptations to the acquired title add a historical and literary context to the image that is in keeping with the gravitas of the Getty museum.
I have previously discussed John Berger’s theories regarding the ambiguity of any photograph and have commented on the photograph’s ability to slip away from any text associated with it but what surprises me here, when discussing a truly iconic image, is that after eighty years and having been reproduced thousands of times it remains vulnerable to appropriation by changing its caption. In 2014 in an article by Ben Phelan, it is given a differently loaded caption:
“In 1936 Florence Thompson allowed Dorothea Lange to photograph her family because she thought it might help the plight of the working poor. “She always wanted a better life,” her daughter later said.” (7)
This caption changes the meaning of the photograph from being an iconic representation of the depression to an exploration of the relationship between Lange and the subject Florence Owen Thompson. In the accompanying article Phelan juxtaposes Lange’s fame and the subject’s ongoing struggle with poverty.
Away from the world of photography the image has been used as inspiration for a fictional account of a migrant workers life, a book shamelessly promoted by using a cropped and colourised version of the photograph for its front cover; and according to Linda Gordon, Lange’s biographer, it was also used in several advertisements and a Black Panther pamphlet (12). Gordon reports that Lange was often distressed by these appropriations but as the photograph belongs to the US Government it is effectively in the public domain.
Having discussed the tendency of photographs to slip away from their captions in “Migrant Mother” we also see the title escaping its bond with the picture. A Google search of “Migrant Mother” returns several images of other women and children, some posing like the original and some not. Time Magazine used an Albania women breast feeding her child as a cover photograph in its April 1999 “Kosovo Special Report” edition which appears to have Migrant Mother as a referent.
As well as appropriating the image to compose new meanings it is interesting to see that many sites describe the photograph as “Lange’s Migrant Mother” suggesting that by taking an iconic photograph Lange had taken ownership of the woman when in fact she didn’t even own the image. This in itself is a uncomfortable idea that would be interesting to explore at a later date. (v)
By using a single and exceptionally well known photograph I have tried to show two important points. Firstly that this or any other photograph lacks a fixed meaning, it is ambiguous and relies upon its context to develop any meaning. This context is most easily provided by text, in this case captions and titles, but the photograph is a slippery medium and continually escapes the bounds of any text we attempt to anchor it with.
The second point is that, even an iconic photograph that we all believe we know and understand, is vulnerable to appropriation; it can be used to describe a whole series of quite different ideas when associated with a loaded caption. In these few and very incomplete examples of how it has been appropriated we have seen it as a symbol of motherhood, the resilience of Americans in general and American women in the specific, universal suffering, a rebuttal of propaganda, the manipulative hand of the photographer and as an advertisement for a novel. I suspect a hundred other and different examples are waiting to be found.
A final footnote added purely through impatience with contemporary arguments that suggest the manipulation of documentary images is a plague brought about by Adobe and a general decline in moral standards. I include here the original photograph in which, the observant reader might spot an extra thumb.
Notes on Text
(i) Based on Whiston Spirn’s research it is reasonable to assume that this photograph was part of a series associated with a “general caption” that gave further context but, other than to state that the image has been detached from that context, there is no further need to refer to that here. In a 1960 interview Lange spoke about the taking of this 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.” (Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960) (11)
(ii) “The who or what and the why are incorporated in the subject – or should be – and the how is unimportant” (8: p.255)
(iii) The picture was first published in the San Fransisco News on 10th March 1936, “as part of a story demanding relief for the starving pea pickers. The feature was a success: relief was organized, and there is no record of death by starvation”. (
(iv) According to Google Books, this was one of the first books to combine documentary photographs with oral testimony. (6)
(v) I have no intent to judge the value of any of these altered contexts but it is worth noting that Florence Owens Thompson, the subject, was not a migrant worker in the true sense of the phrase and had lived in California for a decade when the photograph was taken. Her daughter described her:
“She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that’s one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn’t show her in that light.” (11)
The story of Florence Owens Thompson is well documented and not relevant here but I am intrigued that having discussed how the photograph slipped away from its original caption that the “Migrant Mother” title which it has long been associated with has itself detached itself from the Photograph. Florence Owens gravestone is engraved”
“Migrant Mother: A legend of the strength of American motherhood.” (8)
(8) Steichen, Edward (1955) The Family of Man ( 2015 60th Anniversary Edition) New York: The Museum of Modern Art
(9) Evans, Harold (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.
(1) American Studies at the University of Virginia – (accessed at Virginia.EDU 15.6.16) http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ug97/fsa/lang.html
(2) Curtis, James (2007) Dorothea Lange (accessed at BBC 15.6.16) – http://bbc.adactio.com/photography/genius/gallery/lange.shtml
(3) The Library of Congress – Exploring Contexts ( accessed at the Library of Congress 15.6.16) – https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awpnp6/migrant_mother.html
(4) Gordon, Linda (2010) Dorothea Lange: Drawing Beauty Out Of Desolation (accessed at NPR 15.6.16) – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126289455
(5) J. Paul Getty Museum – Human Erosion in California (Migrant Mother) (accessed at the Getty Museum 16.6.16) – http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/125690/dorothea-lange-human-erosion-in-california-migrant-mother-american-march-1936/
(6) Google Books – An American Exodus: Record of Human Erosion (accessed at Google Books 16.6.16) – https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/An_American_Exodus.html?id=lwHtAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y
(7) Phelan, Ben (2014) The Story of the “Migrant Mother” (accessed at Antiques Roadshow 16.6.16) – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/kansascity_201307F03.html
(10) Harman, Robert and Luciates, John Louis (2007) No Caption Needed (accessed at University of Chicago Press 16.6.16) – http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/316062.html