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-=[ A Madonna for a Bitter Time ]=-
When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.
-- Chinua Achebe
The woman... her name is Florence Thompson; she is 32 years-old, married, with no permanent address and seven children to feed. Even in the best of times, keeping it together would’ve been herculean, but the Great Depression now threatens to bring the family to the brink of disaster. Florence Thompson is one of the many migrant workers who travelled the land seeking any work they could find. It turns out that in March 1936, the pea harvest is once again poor, and that means no work -- and no form of income -- for the pickers. Florence Thompson has managed to find temporary lodging at a camp for pea pickers in Nipomo, California. As the photographer, Dorothea Lange noted, “Of the 2,500 people in the camp, most of them were destitute.”
The portrait of the young Florence Thompson -- worn, tight-lipped, and gazing blankly into the distance -- is one of the most famous of photographic icons. Since its appearance in the Family of Man exhibit (1955) the photograph has become part of the American collective consciousness. Originally titled in 1955 as “U.S.A.: Dorothea Lange Farm Security Adm.,” the photograph is now known as Migrant Mother, correctly situating the work in its proper historical context. Many interpretations have been attempted: from comparisons to the Mother of God with the Christ Child, to the attribution of the success of the picture through its balanced composition. One critic referred to the “dignity and essential decency of the woman facing poverty.” Another pointed out its “simplicity of means, its restrained pathos, and its mute autonomy of language.”
Whatever the reasons for its success, it is certain that Dorothea Lange basically ignored all such theoretical perspectives when she took the photograph. She described her approach to her work in different language: “Whatever I photograph, I do not molest or tamper with or arrange... I try to [make a] picture as part of its surroundings, as having roots... Third -- a sense of time... I try to show [it] as having its position in the past or in the present... ”
What I find fascinating with photography is the relationship between the photographer and the subject. There are at least three (often subconscious) dynamics at work in a photograph. There is the subject, the artist, the relationship between the subject and the artist, and finally there is the observer (you). All this works to create the aural power of the work. It is known that Lange approached the family slowly, taking pictures all the while, giving the family members a chance to pose themselves (in contrast to her stated approach to photography). In the initial photographs, for example, the children are looking into the camera; only in the final photo of the sequence do they turn away, in the process emphasizing their position as social outsiders that Lange strived to capture.
To be sure, Lange was seeking to do more than provide evidence, her understanding of documentary work included using persuasion. She wanted to do more than simply register reality; she wanted to move the observer. In making human suffering an object of art, Lange discovered a way of eliciting sympathy, attention, and interest in a world already saturated with images. She took the concept of documentary photography beyond merely recording events.
When Lange took the picture in 1936, she was forty years old, and had been a committed photographer for some time. She had been married to her second husband, a sociologist, and was herself a mother of two. The market crash of 1929 eventually led to dissolution of her moderately successful portrait studio. The ensuing economic calamity, however, forced many agricultural workers into the street, and this was what Dorothea Lange had tried to capture with her camera. Her perspective of the down an out waiting in front of a soup kitchen set up by a wealthy woman became known as The Angel Bread Line , and it marks a turning point in her work. Increasingly, it was the social realities of a post-agricultural America that she wished to capture.
It was the end of long hard winter, and several weeks of working with the camera under harsh conditions. It was raining and she was on her way back home in her car. A sign announced the camp of the pea harvesters. She drove past, but could not put it out of her mind. Suddenly, following her instinct, she drove back to the rain-soaked camp, parked her car, and got out. She immediately saw the woman in the distance, a “hungry and desperate mother.” According to Lange she doesn’t remember how she convinced the woman, or explained her presence. She told her name and age and she said she was living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children had killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that makeshift tent with her children huddled around her, and she seemed to know that the pictures would help her... so she helped the photographer.
Update: For more of Ms. Lange's work check out the slide show (Music by Bobby McFerrin)