In my mind, Dorothea Lange will always be identified with this image. I first saw it watching a documentary on the Great Depression in my sophomore History class. The impact it made was so strong that ever since that first view I can picture it whenever I want with perfect clarity and detail in my mind.
Even without knowing the historical context, you can guess it from the clothes, the expression, and the despair of the mother s face. Yet you can also see that though tired, and old before her time, this woman is strong, and her spirit is not yet broken, and that is a lesson for those of us more fortunate. Lange's great skill and craft, patiently learned over many years of portraiture photography, were justified and rewarded in the creation of this magnificent photograph. The Migrant Mother captures the concern of a weary mother for her children during the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lange (1885-1965)
Born in 1885 in New Jersey, Lange was studying to become a teacher when she discovered photography. She was fortunate to study with Clarence White at Columbia before striking out on her own. She opened a studio in San Francisco, and worked as a portrait photographer while raising a family. When the depression arrived in the 1930's she started to use her camera to record the plight of San Francisco s poor. Paul Taylor, an Economics professor and social activist, noticed these photographs and he persuaded her to work with him in support of the migrant workers.
In 1935 she was recruited to Roy Stryker's astonishingly talented team of photographers in the Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration). With other greats like Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, Russel Lee, and Carl Mydans she produced some of the finest ever-social documentary. The heritage can be traced right up to outstanding photographers of today such as Sebastio Solgardo.
The unit survived until 1942 when it was overtaken by the events of WWII. Lange left full time work with the unit in 1937, though she continued to do occasional work for it until its demise.
She continued to work and exhibit right up to her death in 1965, but her fame stems from those three extraordinary years from 1935 to 1937.
How Lange Has Documented Life, Why She Is Important
Ask most people who know her work where and what she photographed and they will reply: bread lines, strikers, tenant farmers, the Central Valley, and the Great Plains.
Dorothea Lange is remembered for her images of proud and destitute sharecroppers from the south, and of the people who moved west in search of a brighter future who ended up in camps in the Central Valley.
Her portrait of a Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1935 is a classic image of the dust bowl era. Several different versions of this famous image appear in exhibits of Lange s work around the U.S.
America was going through tremendous changes and Lange was there to document them. An explanatory placard at San Francisco s Museum of Modern Art states "By the 1930s, farm tenancy had essentially replaced slavery, making Black and White tenants equally vulnerable to landlords and reinforcing conditions of dependency and poverty. Here the causation of migration were manifest: the poverty of the overused and undernourished soil, the eagerness of farmers to produce mainly a 'cash crop' rather than living in harmony with what the land could produce and sustain, and finally the gradual introduction of large scale farming equipment, often financed by Roosevelt's various programs designed to help the poor farmer. Lange documented the change."
It is little wonder, that upon the outbreak of WWII, the population was on the move again.
The Lange show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is divided up into several categories and several rooms: San Francisco and the Central Valley; Changes, Rural America; The War Years, and After the War.
The impact of displaced farm workers moving to California that began in 1930s was followed by a mass migration of southern sharecroppers in the 40s to take the many wartime jobs that opened up in this bustling port city.
The Kaiser shipyards in Richmond built 727 ships during the war, including one-fifth of the country's Liberty Ships. The Anthony Wayne was completed in just four days. In Women Line Up for Paycheck Richmond Shipyard, 1942 happy workers are looking forward to rela after a hard day at work.
Due to housing shortages, people not only worked in shifts-they slept in shifts, too. Several images No Rooms; Camp, Richmond CA 1944; El Cerrito Auto Camp; Furnished Rooms, Richmond California, 1943; and Day Sleeper, Richmond, 1943 graphically display this problem. Many businesses were open 24 hours a day to cater to the defense workers. The pace was non-stop. In Cafe, MacDonald Street, Richmond, California, 1942, a young woman stands proudly in front of The Richmond Cafe, in her evening furs -- in the middle of the day.
The population of Richmond before the war was 20,000. After war broke out the Kaiser shipyard employed over 100,000 workers building freighters. The impact on the community was considerable.
The human aspect of this change fascinated Lange -- particularly by the ethnic and racial mix of people who worked along side each other (in Richmond). Lange found the energy and newness of the experience exhilarating and saw in it a premonition of the future.
The images of Richmond in the Lange exhibit were taken for an assignment for Fortune Magazine. The article, written 1944, documented a 24-hour sequence at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond.
Dorothea Lange had a partner in this assignment -- Ansel Adams. Known for his monumental landscapes, especially of Yosemite National Park, they seem a mismatched pair. Even their styles of working were different.
Dorothea Lange was almost invisible as she wandered around photographing; Ansel Adams, however, wearing his ten-gallon and bushy beard, attracted attention. Crowds gathered around him as he set up his bulky photography equipment. In this assignment Dorothea Lange's people photographs were more successful than Ansel Adams'.
You can see Lange's influence on Adams, though, in the photograph, Trailer Park Children, Richmond, California, 1944 in the companion show, Friends and Contemporaries - Documentary Photography in Northern California, where Adams captures a lyrical portrait of three children.
Life was not always that peaceful as shown in Relationship #2 Girl and Boy, Richmond California 1944 MacDonald Avenue. In Trailer Park Camp, Richmond, 1944, you can feel the tension between the unhappy couple.
Dorothea had a dream never realized of organizing a project modeled on the Farm Security Administration of the 1930s, to "study the ways society shift-change from a small rural community to an urban mass culture".
In addition to documenting the Richmond area, Lange also captured the changes occurring it the rest of the Bay area: Bill Board, Pleasanton CA, 1945, showing a large vacant field and a real estate sign. The hills probably look the same today, but I'm sure the fields are gone.
As you can tell, Dorothea Lange documented numerous things with her camera, showing us her view of society. She has photographed much more than I have listed, although I feel that I have shown why she is someone important in the world of the arts. I believe to be considered important, you need to have made an impact on a large group of people with your work. Certainly Lange has done so, she photographed during a period when change was normal, everything was changing, she took less than desirable conditions, and by photographing them turned them into pieces of art that have influenced many, and give you a true feeling of what went on. Dorothea Lange has definitely made an impact on people of America with her work, and has definitely been an important person in the world of the arts.
"While there is a province in which photograph can tell us nothing more than we see with our eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see."
+ Dorothea Lange: Photography of a Lifetime
+ Dorothea Lange: American Photographs
+ Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life
+ Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange
+ Dorothea Lange
+ The Photographs of Dorothea Lange