The story behind the iconic "Migrant Mother"

Florence Owens Thompson was working as a pea picker to support her seven kids when she was photographed by Dorothea Lange. Her iconic portrait now symbolizes the struggles of the Great Depression.

The face of the Great Depression

“What it is about that photograph is the power of the glance, of the look of that woman, because I think her face expressed a great deal of suffering and the anxiety in the Great Depression of the 1930s.”, Linda Gordon, author of Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, told Brut. In 1936, 32-year-old Florence Owens Thompson became the face of the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange took the photograph of her known as “Migrant Mother"

“When she first started to photograph up close, the two young kids understandably wanted to look at the camera. But Lange saw this woman's face and she knew that she wanted nothing to distract the viewer from looking at the woman's face. And so, she asked the two little children to turn their heads away. It shows a woman who is actually quite beautiful on a way, but her face is very haggard.”, Gordon explained.

The thing no one knew at the time

“What no one knew at the time is that Florence Thompson was a Cherokee Indian. And that that is an interesting fact, because given the racial culture of the United States in the 1930s, I'm not sure that this photograph would have become so widespread and so powerful had people known that she was an Indian.”, she reveals.

Lange took the photo while working for the government’s Resettlement Administration, which was later renamed the Farm Security Administration. The administration hired photographers to travel around the country and document how farmers and workers were dealing with the Great Depression. Lange found the mother of 7 at a pea-pickers' camp in Nipomo, California.

“Dorothea Lange — not very many people know that she was a disabled woman. She had had polio as a child. She had a limp. She couldn't move very fast, but she had enormous stamina. And she was driving hour after hour after hour through the tremendous summer heat in the Central Valley. She was on her way home, dead tired, not intending to do any more photography that day. But somehow, a sign on the road that said, "Pea-pickers wanted," grabbed her attention. So, she followed the sign to a small town called Nipomo. And what you found there actually were a whole bunch of migrant farmworkers who were stuck there because there had been heavy rains. And she found this family. Actually, she found only a fragment of the family because the woman’s husband and elder son were gone. So, we have this woman alone with actually four children. One of them was a teenager. Lange first tried to photograph with the teenager, but the teenager was sullen. So, she focused on Florence Thompson and her two toddler-aged children.”, she shares.

The photograph was first published on March 11, 1936

That same day, the federal government announced it was sending 20,000 pounds of food to the starving pea-pickers. But Thompson had already left by the time the food arrived. The photograph was later published all over the world. “People took this photograph and changed it because it was so iconic. The Black Panther Party, for example, once put an afro on this photograph and used it. People used the photograph to sell goods, things that would have driven Dorothea Lange nuts.”, she admits.

Despite the photograph’s fame, Thompson’s identity wasn’t known for over 40 years after it was taken

“Florence Thompson was really a poor person all her life. After the depression when she wasn't doing farm work anymore, she was cleaning houses. She lived in a very small little place in a very poor community. Florence Thompson assumed understandably that Dorothea Lange had made a lot of money from this photograph. The fact is that this photograph was the property of the federal government. Lange made no money off of it.”, she acknowledges.

Thompson died on September 16, 1983

She remains a symbol of the era in the photo captured by Lange. “All of the skills that Lange used as a studio portrait photographer to photograph very well-off people, rich people, elite people. She used that same approach to photograph the poor and she gave her subjects an extraordinary dignity and respect.”, Gordon concludes.