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Disaster and Government Response

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the New Deal

Migrant Mother: Selecting the Most Impactful Photograph

Learning Targets

  • I can identify how different elements in a photograph help portray a message in the viewer.
  • I can explain how photographs provoke or elicit an emotional response to the viewer.
  • I can explain why “Migrant Mother” was distributed across the United States to help build understanding of the plight facing farm workers and to build public support for New Deal programs.
  • I can describe the challenges facing farmers, sharecroppers, and migrant workers during the 1930s Dust Bowl.

The United States federal government documented the Depression and used photographs to reveal the plight of the poor and homeless to the country. As stated earlier, the photography of the Dust Bowl and Depression era is vast and rich, with images that were often commissioned by the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA). FSA Director Roy Stryker promoted the collecting of more than 270,000 images that were commissioned from a large group of photographers who worked in rural and urban areas across the country. The images intended to provide the urban and suburban population of America with visual depictions to evoke humanitarian responses to the plight of those facing adversity from the economic and environmental crises of the 1930s. Many images of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers were used by the government to increase public attention.

In 1935, Dorothea Lange, a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (part of Roosevelt’s New Deal) was hired to provide photographs of how the Depression was affecting farmers in the West. Her role was as a documentary photographer, and her images also began to challenge the political forces in favor of and against the New Deal.

One of Lange’s most well-known photos was taken while she photographed migrant farm workers. The picture, titled “Migrant Mother,” was taken in the late winter or early spring of 1936, and captured the plight of a woman named Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, California. In 1960 Lange provided the following account of this experience:

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. (see References and Further Reading) (Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

We do not know the order in which these photographs were taken, since they are 4” x 5” individual negatives rather than 35mm film strips, which provide a record of the sequence of continuous exposures. However, Lange indicates in the above statement she moved closer as she continued to photograph. If that is true, then we have a good idea of the general order. We do know that one was selected, likely as a joint decision between Lange and representatives of the Resettlement Administration.

While “Migrant Mother” is well known, what is far less known is that Lange took six or seven pictures, five of which still exist. Lange posed Ms. Florence Thompson in different positions and used some of her seven children to create a series of compelling images. She asked Thompson to shift the position of the child in her arms to get the greatest emotional effect. Linda Gordon’s biography of Lange describes this as follows:

Lange asked the mother and children to move into several different positions. She began with a mid-distance shot. Then she backed up for one shot, then came closer for others. She moved aside a pile of dirty clothes (she would never embarrass her subjects). She then moved closer yet, focusing on three younger children and sidelining the teenage daughter out of the later pictures altogether…she offered the photographs to the press. The San Francisco News published two of them on March 10, 1936. In response, contributions of $200,000 poured in for the destitute farmworkers stuck in Nipomo. (Gordon, 2009, p. 237)

One was eventually selected to represent this scene to the nation. [1]

Questions to Consider

  • Why did the United States government think photographs would be effective in communicating certain ideas and information about living conditions throughout the United States?
  • How do photographs create an emotional reaction or response?
  • Who is the audience for Dorothea Lange photographs?
  • What position of the children and the mother creates the greatest emotional effect?


Begin the Activity

Provide students with the five photographs of “Migrant Mother.” (They could be projected or printed.) Brainstorm with the students possible reasons that Dorothea Lange was hired by the Resettlement Administration to create these types of photographs. List these on the board. The list might include reasons such as: to show others to know about the hardships, to document this time in history, to show America to see what was happening with farm workers, or to show people who were struggling economically that others were also struggling.
Ask students to focus their thinking on two main ideas:

  • Lange was hired by the federal government to make known the difficulties of sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers.
  • In the days before the Internet and digital photography, these pictures provided many Americans with their only insight into the setting. In addition, photographers took many pictures in hopes of having one be appropriate for portraying the setting and context they wanted to present to viewers.

Following this introduction about these photographs, have the students examine all five of Lange’s photographs, but do so one at a time. If we try to match Lange’s approach (she took a mid-distance photo, and then came closer), present images in this order: 8015, 8018, 8016, 8017, 8014.

Discuss what message they think is conveyed by each photograph. As you show each photograph, ask students to reflect on what they already said about the previous images. Have them write down the strengths and weaknesses for how each photograph shows the challenges facing sharecroppers, displaced families, and migrant workers in 1936. Probe students to go beyond simple statements (such as “shows a lot of dirtiness”) and use their prior knowledge about the Dust Bowl to justify their comments (such as “their clothes show the dirt that was always around during the Dust Bowl”).

As students look at each photograph, prompt them to reflect on their reactions of what they see by considering questions such as: Does one image provoke a stronger emotional response than another does? If so, why? What themes or details does Lange retain throughout the sequence of photographs? Do you have a different emotional response when the photograph is of a group versus when it is more of a close-up?

After the students have examined each photograph, place them in groups of three and have each group discuss and then decide on one picture that they would want the federal government to use. Have the groups provide a short paragraph “argument” supporting the selection of this image, and then post the paragraph and the picture in the front of the room.

Lead a brief discussion about common ideas around the selected photographs. Ask questions such as: What are some reasons we all agreed on? What are some photographic elements we all thought were important?

Show Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph and announce that this is the one actually selected. Ask students if they can understand why it was selected. Post the “Questions to Consider” from above on the board, and have students explain their answers either to a partner and then to the class, or during a whole-class discussion.

You might want to allow time for the students to say what they think of the image, and to articulate the emotional response it creates. Follow up with questions such as:

  • Why we are drawn to this image of a single woman?
  • Would it be the same if there were a father figure present?
  • Are the ages of the children important?
  • Why is it effective that the older child is removed from the frame?
  • Why are audiences still drawn to this image today?

Alternate Approach

Another option for examining these five photographs is to begin with the famous image first, hear reactions from students, and then engage in a discussion about the photo. Then work back by showing the other frames and asking students to reflect back on what they already said, and what they see or do not see in the ensuing images. Whether you follow this approach or the approach described above, it is most effective to discuss the photographs one at a time. Controlling how the photographs are introduced to the students offers them the opportunity to reflect and study more closely.

Footnote

 [1] Florence Thompson’s identity came out many years later, as did the fact that she described herself as a “full-blooded Cherokee.” Some speculate that if her ethnic background was known in the 1930s, then the picture might never have been distributed. Many years later, in the 1950s, Thompson saw her photograph literally everywhere. It was reproduced in every newspaper, in every magazine, and people starting using it for advertisements. Thompson thought that Dorothea Lange made money off of this photograph, and did not realize that it was owned by the federal government. She wrote a letter to a newspaper. The letter reached Lange, and they were able to interact with each other. Lange had no control over the distribution of this photograph or any of her photographs. Ironically, Lange’s photograph did actually come back in a certain way to help Florence Thompson: Thompson cleaned houses near the end of her life, and the trailer-home in which she lived was destroyed by fire. At this point, people knew who she was, and a news article reported the fire. Tens of thousands of dollars were donated for her to rebuild her home after the fire.

next: Creating a Town

Grade Level

High School

Subjects

Earth and Space Science
English Language Arts
Geography
Literature
U.S. History

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