The real life story of the 'Migrant Mother', the most iconic of Dorothea Lange’s photos

The real life story of the 'Migrant Mother', the most iconic of Dorothea Lange’s photos

In a migrant camp for pea-pickers at the side of America’s Highway 101, a pensive mother looks into the distance, her two children at her side, burying their faces into her shoulder. A simple black and white portrait, and one of a series of six images shot in front of their tent shelter, it was to become one of the defining images of the Great Depression and arguably, one of the most recognisable of the 20th century. For Dorothea Lange, its photographer, it was about to establish her reputation as one of the founding figures of modern photojournalism.

But it was the haunted face of its subject, Florence Owens Thompson, that was to truly capture the attention and imagination of the public; a starving but caring and resilient mother, a symbol of the strength of motherhood itself. For years, her name was not even known. Langue did not ask, simply noting: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.” It wasn’t until 40 years later when a journalist tracked Thompson down that a name was finally put to her iconic face.

The photograph was taken against the backdrop of an America in the midst of the Great Depression. An economic downturn of unprecedented proportions, the depression lasted from 1929 to 1940 and saw unemployment rates peak at 25 per cent in the US, with hundreds of thousands of people made homeless as banks collapsed. As is so often the case, it was the poorest in society that felt the impact most acutely, among them Florence Owens Thompson, then Florence Hill, and her family.

Then aged 32 and a mother of seven, she had by this point already been widowed once and was now married to Jim Hill, who has been described by his own daughter as very loveable but unable to hold down a job, leaving Florence to bear the majority of the burden of supporting her young family. They were among the thousands of migrant families following seasonal work across the country. At the time the photo was taken, they were heading across California hoping to find employment in the lettuce fields. By the time the photo was published in newspapers the very next day, the family had already moved on.

Lettuce picking was to be one of just many jobs Thompson would have over the years in order to support her family: “I worked in hospitals, I tended bar, I cooked, I worked in the field, so I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.” At one point, she was even working on the cotton fields where she "generally picked around 450, 500 [pounds a day]. I didn't even weigh a hundred pounds." By 1945, Thompson had moved to Modesto, California, and was working 16 hours a day in a hospital - a sad irony considering the incredible impact that the photo had had on Lange’s career.

The photo was taken on behalf of the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration so Lange didn't benefit from the royalties. However, she became regarded as among the foremost documentary photographers in the US, securing top jobs and winning a slew of honours. Undeniably talented, Dorothea Lange’s photos still appear in galleries and museums across the world.

Thompson originally agreed to have her photograph taken because Dorothea Lange told her it would help the plight of people in similar situations. In an interview with CNN, her daughter Katherine McIntosh, who is the child on the left of the photograph, explained that: “Mother let her take the picture, because she thought it would help." It absolutely did; dubbed the “Mona Lisa of the dust bowl”, the image helped to humanise the depression and bring the realities of the situation to a national audience.

The federal government sent 20,000lbs of food aid to the camp as a matter of urgency. Yet despite the relief that her image helped to achieve for other migrants, throughout the thirties, Thompson and her children continued to live in poverty, moving from place to place in search of work. "Her biggest fear," explained her son Troy Owens, "was that if she were to ask [the government] for help, then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life."

In many ways, and especially in later years, the image caused controversy, igniting debates on the ethics of photography and making normal people into public subjects, a sentiment echoed by Katherine McIntosh’s own experiences: “We were ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were". In a similar occurrence, the subject of Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 photograph Afghan Girl, whose eyes captivated the world when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine, was tracked down for a documentary in 2002, only to express a dislike of the publicity and recall her anger at being photographed in the first place.

As for Florence, she went on to have three more children and married George B Thompson in 1952. It was in 1978 when journalist Emmett Corrigan tracked her down to a mobile home park in California that she was identified and finally given her own voice, in an article published by the Associated Press: "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did." Thompson also revealed that the family had not, as Lange had claimed, sold their tires for food, dispelling just part of the myth surrounding her.

Florence Owens Thompson lived out the final years of her life in Modesto and passed away surrounded by her family on 16 September 1983, aged 80, after suffering a string of health problems. Proving that life is oftentimes depressingly circular, in her final days her family were forced to appeal for financial help to fund their mother’s medical care. The generosity of the public saw 2,000 letters of support sent and $35,000 donated. On her gravestone are inscribed the words “"Migrant Mother - A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” However, that is not how her children remember her: "Mother was a woman who loved to enjoy life, who loved her children," said Norma Rydlewski, the child on her mother’s right shoulder in the famous image. "She loved music and she loved to dance. When I look at that photo of mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her."