Framework

Capturing the world through photography, video and multimedia

March 1936: Portrait of Florence Owens Thompson known as "Migrant Mother" taken in Nipomo, Calif., by Dorothea Lange. This is the retouched version.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

March 1936: Portrait of Florence Owens Thompson known as "Migrant Mother" taken in Nipomo, Calif. This is a copy of the unretouched version showing a thumb in the lower right corner of the frame.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

March 1936: Portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, Calif., one of five images of Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

March 1936: Portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in Nipomo, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

March 1936: Florence Owens Thompson holds her baby to her breast in an image taken by Dorothea Lange at a Depression-era California migrant workers camp.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

March 1936: Photo of Florence Owens Thompson and her children living in a tent at a migrant workers camp in Nipomo, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress

November 1936: Drought refugees from Polk, Mo., await the opening of orange picking season at Porterville, Calif., in a portrait by Dorothea Lange.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A makeshift auto trailer under construction in a squatter's camp outside Bakersfield.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A community well provides water for a camp of migrant cotton pickers in the San Joaquin Valley.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Migrant workers' "kitchen" in a squatters camp near Shafter in Kern County.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Company housing for cotton workers near Corcoran, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A 14-year-old boy living with his family at a migrant workers camp near Sacramento who were too poor for him to go back to school.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: The pantry of a migrant family at the American River squatters camp near Sacramento.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A destitute family with five children, ages 2 to 17, at the American River squatters camp near Sacramento.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A child at a squatters camp near Sacramento.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Daughter of a former Tennessee coal miner living in the American River camp near Sacramento.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Members of a migrant family near Porterville, Calif., waiting for work in the orange groves.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: A woman originally from Greece living in a cotton camp near Exeter, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Migrant workers camp on the outskirts of Sacramento, where 80 families, after building their own shacks, paid $1.25 a month rent, including water.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: The license plate of a migrant cotton picker in the San Joaquin Valley near Fresno.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

November 1936: Forced from her home on an Oklahoma farm, an 80-year-old grandmother of 22 children now living in a camp on the outskirts of Bakersfield, declares: "If you lose your pluck you lose the most there is in you -- all you've got to live with."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

August 1936: Members of a family of seven from Oklahoma camping by the roadside near Blythe, Calif., hoping for work in the cotton fields.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / photogrammar.yale.edu

August 1936: Crates of lettuce picked by migrants are loaded onto a truck in fields near Salinas, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

February 1936: Rain falls on a migrant camp during pea harvesting season in San Luis Obispo County, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

February 1936: One pea picker's home on wheels a half-mile off Highway 101 at Nipomo, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

February 1936: A grandmother from Oklahoma and her prized pieced quilt in Kern County, Calif.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

February 1936: A labor contractor known as "One-Eye" Charlie who hires workers to pick peas in San Luis Obispo County, said, "I'm making my living off of these people [migrant laborers], so I know the conditions."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Dorothea Lange / Photogrammar.yale.edu

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80th anniversary of ‘Migrant Mother’ image

March 1936: The iconic Depression-era portrait of Florence Owens Thompson taken by Dorothea Lange in Nipomo, Calif.

In March 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange made a short stop in Nipomo, Calif. A 10-minute photo shoot resulted in the iconic “Migrant Mother” image. This portrait of Florence Owens Thompson became the defining image of the Great Depression.

In a Sept. 17, 1983, obituary for Thompson, Los Angeles Times writer Burt A. Folkart wrote:

Mrs. Thompson was a widow with six children working in a farm labor camp in San Luis Obispo in 1936 when photographer Dorothea Lange took her picture–now immortalized as “Migrant Mother.” The photo showed three of her children at her side. Mrs. Thompson held one hand to her lips as if she contemplating her next misfortune while the other cradled her youngest daughter, who only moments before had been nursing at her breast.

The despair and poverty in the informal portrait–one of thousands commissioned by the Farm Security Administration–came to typify the tragedy of the Depression itself. It was chosen as the theme picture of “In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943” and was circulated around the world. …

Lange almost didn’t take this image.

Nearing the end of a month on the road taking photographs for the Farm Security Administration, she just wanted to get home to her family in Berkeley.

While traveling through Nipomo, south of San Luis Obispo, she spotted a sign “Pea-Pickers Camp.” Lange didn’t stop.

In a 1960 Popular Photography interview Lange explained:

Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign…

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 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds the the children killed. …

The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents or shelters of other stranded pea-pickers, It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.

Lange spent about 10 minutes with Florence Thompson, then headed north. Once home, she processed the Nipomo images.  Seeing again the plight of the Nipomo farm workers, Lange contacted the San Francisco News.

Two of Lange’s photos were published in the March 10, 1936, San Francisco News accompanying a story headlined: “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor.”

A similar wire story appeared in the March 10, 1936, Los Angeles Times:

Santa Maria, March 9, (U.P.)–A camp of itinerant harvest workers, stranded without food or money due to a crop failure in the midst of a rich coastal pea farming country, tonight awaited food supplies doled by the Federal government.

Members of the camp, numbering several hundred workmen and their families, have been destitute since a blight and heavy rains destroyed the winter pea crop, which they were imported to harvest.

They have been living in tents, on scanty food supplies furnished by San Luis Obispo authorities. The camp in situated near Nipomo, across the county line from Santa Maria.

A Federal Survey Bureau photographer, sent to the area to photograph typical agricultural labor camps, discovered the plight of the harvesters, according to reports from San Francisco.

I’m guessing the photographer mentioned was Dorothea Lange.

A follow-up story in the March 11, 1936, Los Angeles Times reported that food rations for 2,000 workers were headed to Nipomo.

The actual location of the Nipomo workers camp is in question. In 1936, Highway 101 used the current Thompson Avenue route. Highway 101 was later rerouted around Nipomo. The probable location is mentioned in this 2012 Santa Maria Times story headlined Nipomo ‘Migrant Mother’ camp pinpointed.

A great help in building the photo gallery is the Photogrammer website, where 170,000 photographs created by the Farm Security Administration and later the Office of War Information are organized. The original scans for these images are at the Library of Congress.

I could not find the original 1960 Popular Photography interview with Dorothea Lange online. The interview is extensively quoted in an article at the EyeWitness to History website.

Geoffrey Dunn wrote an excellent article about the photo’s history for the San Luis Obispo New Times.

The above photo gallery includes five of the images Lange took of Florence Thompson and  20 additional 1936 images by Lange.

4 Comments

  1. March 10, 2016, 1:17 am

    this remind us of the grapes of wrath of john steinbeck
    with it eponymous movie by john ford featuring henri fonda and john carradine
    dorothy is the perfect illustration of our precarious condition

    nguyen buena park

    By: hoalu@hotmail.fr
  2. March 12, 2016, 9:43 pm

    What a time and the people in these pictures are amazing to look at ad think about.

    By: loyolamd82@gmail.com
  3. March 22, 2016, 6:53 am

    Nice pictrures

    By: Royal
  4. April 13, 2016, 5:15 am

    good share mate love it.. you know its too emotional image

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