Photographer Dorothea Lange’s determination to capture the disparity of the Great Depression led her to Nipomo, California where there was a camp for pea pickers. After an onslaught of freezing rain, there were no peas left to pick, and among the groups of discouraged workers, Lange spotted a mother with her seven children. She approached the woman and asked if she could photograph her and her family. Of the six pictures Lange took, the one above (named Migrant Mother) became the most famous.
“I did not ask her name or her history,” Lange said in her notes. “She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her children] 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.”
That was 1936. In 1978, a reporter found the woman in the photograph. Florence Owens Thompson, 75 years old at that point, was living in a trailer park. Thompson, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, had married at 17 and moved to California with her husband. There, she worked on farms and in mills until her husband died of tuberculosis. Thompson was 28 and pregnant with her sixth child, but she started working odd jobs to support her children. Mostly that meant she had to work on farms, picking whatever crop was in season. While picking cotton, she placed her babies in bags and carried them around all day. For every hundred pounds of cotton she picked, she earned 50 cents. According to Thompson, she “generally picked around 450,500 [pounds a day]. I didn’t even weight a hundred pounds.” On that wage, Thompson couldn’t afford housing for herself and her children. They lived in many different places, at times even living under a bridge. “When Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath about those people living under the bridge in Bakersfield – at one time we lived under that bridge. It was the same story. Didn’t even have a tent then, just a ratty old quilt,” she recounted.
In 1936, when Lange asked to take her family’s picture, Thompson had been hesitant. She didn’t want to be just a representation of poverty, and she didn’t want to embarrass her children. Lange convinced Thompson that the photograph would spread awareness of the starving people and children at the camp, so Thompson agreed to the photo shoot. It took only a few days for Migrant Mother to spread across the country. In 1945, nine years after the photo from the Nipomo camp was published, Thompson began working at a hospital, 16 hours a day, seven days a week. She took on other odd jobs as well, doing everything she could to support her children. Despite the popularity of her portrait, no one knew the woman was Thompson, and her family never received any direct benefit from it. Even without a completely steady income in their early life, Thompson’s eventual 10 children all worked up to the middle class. They bought Thompson a house, but she refused it. Thompson wanted to live in her trailer, saying, “I need to have wheels under me.”
“We just existed,” Thompson later told a reporter. But her daughter had a different perspective. “We never had a lot,” Thompson’s daughter admitted, “but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate.”
Below is a picture of Thompson with the three daughters pictured with her in Migrant Mother. Also included is a copy of Migrant Mother with color restoration.
PS – JP, to answer your question from last week – yes, it was George and Rita’s first date. As serendipitously romantic as their story is, I’m not so sure that’s how I want my first date with my future husband to go… what with kissing other women and such things.