Critical Interpretation of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”

by Carlo Levy

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is a black-and-white photograph displaying a mother and her three children – two toddlers, one a boy, the other a girl, and an infant.[1] The mother is in the center of the photograph and is the largest individual, taking up most of the image. The three children frame her with their bodies. The two toddlers clutch to either of her shoulders, burying their faces into her body and away from the camera. The infant gazes up at her. The mother herself looks off into the distance past the camera. The family appears impoverished – their clothes are old, dirty, and torn. The hairs of the mother and the two toddlers are unkempt and wild. Their skin appears soiled and stained. She wears no make-up so as to reveal deep wrinkles in her face. Instead she wears a look of worry and sadness.

For the original context of the photo, Lange wrote the following:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. 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 thirty-two. She said that they 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. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.[2]

Finally, for the external context, after Lange returned home from her assignment, she contacted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper. She exposed the suffering of the migrant families. After presenting two of her photographs, one of which included “Migrant Mother”, the editor alerted federal authorities and released a news article that showcased Lange’s photos. Consequently, the government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the families whom Lange photographed.[3]

Taking all of these contexts into account, I interpret this photograph to be ethically evaluative. Clearly Lange is not explaining nor describing something neutrally; rather she is using an image of a destitute family charged with her personal pursuit for social change. The fact that she used this photo to compel a newspaper editor into action dictates that the photo was but one of many photos that collectively called to light the plight of the migrant families in California.

In the end, something as seemingly simple and ordinary as a photograph can bring about the change that this world needs.

[1] Lange, Dorothea. Destitute peapickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California. 1936 March. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-9058-C.

[2] Lange, Dorothea. “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960.

[3] Curtis, James. Mind’s Eye, Mind’s Truth: FSA Photography Reconsidered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1989.


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