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Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

By Pete      
Here's a classic photo by Dorothea Lange titled Migrant Mother. It appears in the book 50 Photographers You Should Know published by Prestel.

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was an influential documentary photographer in the United States and had a portrait studio in San Francisco. She turned to street photography around the time of the Great Depression and this photo of Florence Owens Thompson a migrant labourer and her children has become Lange's best know photo and one of the true classics.

What do you think?

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Comments


User_Removed 9 2.2k 3 United Kingdom
26 Jul 2010 1:12PM
While I appreciate the photographic quality of such images and their importance as documentary and commentary I have always felt uncomfortable with their prying and intrusive nature. Something that has perhaps become more heightened as the media have become more ruthless and exploitative. There's a fine line between something that needs to be said and something that needn't be said, if you see what I mean.

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ade_mcfade 12 15.2k 216 England
26 Jul 2010 2:10PM
I've done a lot of street stuff this year, most recently a full 6 hours in Manchester with Welshot on Saturday, and know that it's hard to get images that say something to people - most are just vacant stares as people go about their shopping, no real emotion on most of them.

So with this one I guess you've got a strong image of concern with the mothers look of anguish, and the fact that both kids are hidig their faces, probably crying, makes more thought provoking. We're only looking at the people involved, we don't know where they are, what the surroundings are, who's there with them etc. so everything boils down to the expression on her face - and that says it all really. Living through the depression must have been tough, and a shot like this gives us a human perspective on how people "felt" at the time.
JohnParminter 9 1.3k 14 England
26 Jul 2010 2:29PM
For me this is a powerful image, I have seen it before and knew of it's background but even if I didn't know the circumstances then I would still get a lot of impact and message from it. The children turning their heads away says scared and an unknown future or maybe unwilling to face it, the mother's face of anguish and hardship but perhaps a look of hope contrasts very well with her children.
The mother has striking and rugged appealing features as well which holds my attention. I'm also asking myself about the Father's existence, are they alone? His absence from the image says a lot to me as well.
Gaucho Plus
14 2.8k 2 United Kingdom
26 Jul 2010 3:00PM
I've known this photograph for more years than I care to remember and it always moves me. This is what Dorothea Lange had to say about it:

"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." (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).
brian1208 Plus
13 11.2k 12 United Kingdom
26 Jul 2010 4:08PM
I remember the impact that this made on me the first time I saw it, its very powerful emotionally and also tells the story of the time ,showing the stress (anguish) associated with moving a young family into a new environment.

I don't think it would work as well in colour?

Not a genre of photography I have any skill in but I admire those who can create this type of narrative work
Nikon_Tog 8 105 England
26 Jul 2010 8:23PM
A really powerful photograph which really depicts the hardships the migrant farmers went through during the depression. Dorothea Lange along with Walker Evans produced some really thought provoking work around this time. Yes they might make you feel uncomfortable, but that is a small price to have paid to stop othe people suffering those hardships.

Lange's and Evans's employment by the Farm Securities Administration allowed them to bring to the public's attention the plight of the poor and forgotten, especially the Sharecroppers, displaced farm families and migrant workers. Although, according to Florence Thompson's son, Lange got some of the details of the story wrong, the impact of the picture is based in the picture showing the strength and need of migrant workers.
NEWMANP Plus
8 1.6k 574 United Kingdom
26 Jul 2010 10:26PM
the first thing that comes to my mind is that a striking image dosnt need to be technically good to be sucessfull. i say this after a long argument with a camera club judge with his federation guidelines to dismiss poor printing quality if the image is strong and not to deduct marks for the lack in quality of printing and presentation. the whole of the marks to be given on the strength of the image.

now i dont think he had underdstood his guidelines fully but had taken something to the letter. its seeing an image like this that makes you question yourself. to take an image that reaches right into the soul of a person and tells a story that needs no words or description or even title is something that either happens by accident (yeh right) or needs a special empathy with that person and a level of humanity that can communicate with such understanding to enable the photographer take that image and use it to help the plight of others even though the subject may never benefit directly. just the ability to actually walk across and talk to someone you dont know who is in any way deprived or underprivaliged in any way is difficult enough as it is.

here the pose with the direct numbed stare that people who resign themself to something have and the ability to maintain dignity is so evident and the 2 children hanging on but looking the other way as if to hide from the intrusion seems to shout volumes. if i could achieve this once i would be happy.

back to the start i think the quality of the image is typical of its time but poor by todays standard but somehow it just adds to the story.
i just wish i had the soul to get close
Phil
randomrubble 12 3.0k 12 United Kingdom
27 Jul 2010 1:55PM
This is such an iconic image that it's hard to discuss. There is a vast amount of baggage that comes with it and the images of her peers for anyone at all versed in the history of photography. One thought that occiurs, there is a combination of strength and vulnerability in this image that reminds me a little of Steve McCurry's Afghan girl, another iconic image of a female in desperate circumstances.
Daisy_intheMill 12 145 1 United Kingdom
27 Jul 2010 3:44PM
I was drawn to this as I recognised it as the iconic image it is . My thoughts after reading all the above are how sad it is that we now need to ask for written permission for images of 'people on the street' - unlike in this day. I wonder if Ade had to do this? Just takes the fluidity out of the moment.
A beautifully moving image.
clicknimagine 6 221 88
27 Jul 2010 8:49PM
i will comment here tomorrow...
joolsb 12 27.1k 38 Switzerland
27 Jul 2010 8:51PM
The most telling part of this image is the absence of the father perhaps the subject of the wistful look on the woman's face? Perhaps he is working elsewhere. Perhaps he ran off or perhaps he succumbed to the tough times. The woman has a certain strength which shows in her expression; a certain indomitable spirit, despite the story hinted at by the lines in her face. Her children face away from the camera, perhaps too upset to face it? Interestingly, it's impossible to say, from this angle, what their gender might be - another source of mystery for us to wonder about.

The composition, is intriguing. The woman looks off to the middle distance at something unseen beyond the photographer - or perhaps nothing at all. She is framed by her two older children with the frame being completed by the baby in her lap. The raised arm allows the viewers eye to travel naturally back to her face and is elegantly echoed by the raised arm of the child on the right.

There is much more that can be read into this photograph and it has the multiple layers of meaning which is the hallmark of great art.
clicknimagine 6 221 88
28 Jul 2010 8:01AM
i have seen this image before, it is one of the great images i have seen so far,


this kind of images may be called a documentary, photo journalism or street photography etc., but in the broad sense it is an expressive image, and it is a good example of expressionism, photographers of this genre generally think photography as a medium of expression or a language, they usually do not give much emphasis on the technique/image quality, this is also an example of this point, but i also doubt on the point provided by Phil "back to the start i think the quality of the image is typical of its time",


personally i believe, simplicity is the main characteristic of a great image, this image is also an example of this point, i have a little knowledge about the history of depression as said all the above, but if i try to interpret the image, the first thing which i notice is a condition of homelessness, stress, despair or hungriness, to name a few is visible, the three kids and their positions say they are solely dependent on the mother (devoid of father, i doubt of his existence), the expression and condition of the mother indicates a struggle to nurture her kids, which might well show a scene of the then depression, the vulnerable condition of a migrant mother is very well painted here with the light,


i agree with Julian about composition, the mother is masterly framed by the kids, i like street photography, and to me it is the most difficult genre of photography, where i think, eye and brain can only produce this kind of brilliant images, the photographer might not have any control over the model, but i adore the photographer's vision here to spot it and her application of brain to represent a particular condition,



thanks for sharing this all time great image...
,
cats_123 Plus
12 4.6k 27 Northern Ireland
28 Jul 2010 8:24AM
perhaps to upset the apple cart, but this is the photography discussion group Smile

this may be iconic and after reading the quote from the photographer it sets the scene but never having seen it before I find it looks stage managed...the position of the hand and the way both children are turned away from the camera??

if you were a child with very little food and no security would you not be clinging to your mother, rather than just leaning on her..

no doubt a compelling photograph but, to me, without the context it lacks pathos
clicknimagine 6 221 88
28 Jul 2010 8:37AM
if you were a child with very little food and no security would you not be clinging to your mother, rather than just leaning on her..


wonderful point and question, you have asked, lets see first, if there is any one to say anything about it...
joolsb 12 27.1k 38 Switzerland
29 Jul 2010 5:19AM

Quote:but never having seen it before I find it looks stage managed...the position of the hand and the way both children are turned away from the camera??


A quick google turned up this . Posed? Maybe. Stage-managed? I don't think so. The other shots in the set tell a fuller story.
clicknimagine 6 221 88
29 Jul 2010 6:34AM
what do you want to say about stage management, can you please clear the point? i have seen the blog but where you are trying to indicate?...
clicknimagine 6 221 88
29 Jul 2010 7:25AM
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...



from this point, can we not say that the two kids were shy of the camera and hidden their faces? or do you want to say that the photographer had told to give a pose like that? or the photographer had just spotted it?...
cats_123 Plus
12 4.6k 27 Northern Ireland
29 Jul 2010 7:39AM
having seen the link I find the originals fascinating..there is much more feeling than the `manipulated' version...very gritty. The woman is `dirty' and there is still the noies in the photographs.........but you clearly see in Reproduction number: LC-USF34-9095 that the child is posing because he/she knows that they are being photographed.

"One of the true classics" ? to me represents what the newspapers wanted everyone to see at the time...a little like the images of Biafra back in the 60s... Image of Biafran child Not nice...but a shot taken at the time.

A good piece of photo journalism
clicknimagine 6 221 88
29 Jul 2010 8:10AM
Biafran child is a beautiful image, ok i am suspicious about the pose, if i suppose that the kids were told to give that pose, what does it make any difference, it is still application of brain?...
IanFlindt 12 740 21 United Kingdom
29 Jul 2010 12:50PM
It's a very powerful and poignant image. However, I wonder how much its power and potency depend on the viewer's familiarity with it and its historical context. Would its impact be lessened at all if we weren't aware that it represents the economic and social deprivations that were affecting so many families at that time, and if its title was less indicative of the subject's rootless circumstances.

Their clothing is torn and threadbare, but there is little else that points unambiguously to the family's impoverished predicament. The mother's understated expression is of preoccupation and uncertainty, not of hopelessness; while the children's turned backs and bowed heads could be as much a symptom of youthful coyness as of tearful despair. Is this an example of a photograph that relies on an accompanying narrative; or, if you strip away all the elements that are associated with it (our knowledge of the photographer, of her dedication in documenting the human consequences of the Depression, our awareness of the Depression itself), is the image still strong enough to stand on its own?

In some ways I find the image reminiscent of the work of social realist painters (Frank Holl, for example) who used their art as a means of making a statement about the suffering of the Victorian poor. And for me, that begs the question: to what extent, if any, was Lange involved in the construction of the scene. Did she organise the grouping in a way that made them models for the message that she wanted to put across? Or is the image a testament to her ability to recognise and capture a spontaneous and unmediated moment in a way that symbolises, without overt Victorian sentimentality, personal struggle under circumstances beyond the victims' control?
Gaucho Plus
14 2.8k 2 United Kingdom
29 Jul 2010 1:15PM

Quote:Is this an example of a photograph that relies on an accompanying narrative


Absolutely. Isn't that what photojournalism is precisely about? Without the background, this would be just another photograph, albeit a pretty good one Smile

Malcolm
clicknimagine 6 221 88
29 Jul 2010 1:29PM
Exactly, very well thought out, but some points are controversial,


Would its impact be lessened at all if we weren't aware that it represents the economic and social deprivations that were affecting so many families at that time, and if its title was less indicative of the subject's rootless circumstances.


at this point, i must say, i am still unaware of the historical context, but the image title gives me a relevant clue of the image and the situation,


Their clothing is torn and threadbare, but there is little else that points unambiguously to the family's impoverished predicament.


at this point, i must say, it depends on your expectation and your imagination, what else you need to mean as such?



The mother's understated expression is of preoccupation and uncertainty, not of hopelessness


it is true, at this point, the expression coupled with the position of the kids is giving an expression of uncertainty/homelessness/stress/a miserable condition,


while the children's turned backs and bowed heads could be as much a symptom of youthful coyness as of tearful despair


but to me it may be seen as an act of searching security/restlessness/tiredness as a result of prolonged struggle,


is the image still strong enough to stand on its own?


to me it is really very strong, and i believe it can stand on its own,


Did she organise the grouping in a way that made them models for the message that she wanted to put across?


this may be true, but what does it matter as an image, if it is successfully giving a massage,


Or is the image a testament to her ability to recognise and capture a spontaneous and unmediated moment in a way that symbolises, without overt Victorian sentimentality, personal struggle under circumstances beyond the victims' control?



it is absolutely true that the image is a testament to her ability to recognise and capture a spontaneous moment, if a pose is given here, then also i salute to her vision and brain to imagine it and to execute it at that moment...
Paul Morgan 15 18.4k 6 England
2 Aug 2010 11:19PM
A picture I`ve alway`s loved, and from an era dominated by male photographers.

Dorothea Lange along with Helen Levitt and Lee Miller(from the same period) stood out, they just seemed better connected with there`s subjects than there male counter parts.
Nick_w Plus
9 4.3k 99 England
3 Aug 2010 5:55PM
I've not read all the comments, but this was one of the images that fired my passion for Black and White photography. This along with the image from Eddie Adams of the Execution of a Vietcong prisoner are amongst the most striking journalistic photographs of all time.

I have subsequently read claims that the photoshoot for this image was staged - Whether it was or not is irrelivant it was an iconic image of a time with extreme depression and the image depicts it perfectly - the starkness suits mono, would it have been as striking in colour? I doubt. The hidden childrens faces freightened to look out on the world - the mother looking forlorn, fearing what lay ahead. Even today over 70years on the technical merits of the image are outstanding.

This is my first contribution to the group and I look forward to seeing more - probably some familiar and some not so familiar images.
clicknimagine 6 221 88
4 Aug 2010 11:51AM
very well summed up, i agree,


i too do not think the image would work well in the color version,


both color and mono have some merits and demerits, but according to me if the mono can enhance the feel or mood then i think the mono is best, but at the same time i do not have any apathy to color images, unless it constitute a distraction,


so i will prefer the image here as black and white...
15 Aug 2010 12:43PM
a very powerfull and moving image! two thumbs up!
Opinions on this and other similar photographs might be better informed after reading this little story about what happened to the woman and children in the photo. The woman lived until 1983. Her children married and had families, and are now in late age. That photo Lives on forever, always telling that same story from just a moment in their lives.


From the interview:- "Did you ever lose hope?"

"Nope," she said " if I'd a given up hope, this country would never have made it!"

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2290879/I-lost-hope-Startling-interview-unearthed-woman-iconic-Great-Depression-image-talking-just-years-death-1983.html

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