Dorothea Lange was one of the photographers hired by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to document the social condition as a result of the Depression. Exhausted from photographing farms in Nipomo, California, Lange turned down a dirt road to investigate a migrant camp of pea pickers. In less than fifteen minutes, Lange was back on the road after making five exposures of a woman (Florence Thompson) and her children in the camp. Lange thought Thompson’s nervous gesture of placing her hand on her mouth as dignified and framed one of the photos to echo Madonna and child, and American values of endurance in the face of adversity, and submitted it (titled Migrant Mother) to her agency.
The next day, the photo appeared on the front page of the San Francisco News and became instantly famous, putting a human face to the Great Depression. Lange admitted that she avoided asking the woman’s name because she wanted her photos to tell not just a personal story but also to symbolize the stories of hundreds of other migrant families: “I saw and approached a 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.”
Florence Thompson, then aged 33, was of Cherokee Indian descent and was mother of 7 children. She died in 1983 at age 80, bitter that her famous image had been sold around the world without any benefits coming to her. She tried to have the publication of the photograph stopped, but was told that it was then in the public domain. The girl on her left shoulder, Katherine, is alive today and at age 76, is living in Modesto, CA.