Migrant Mother, Nipoma, California, 1936, Dorothea Lange, printed later, Photogravure, 30.4 x 23 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago
OK - a little more background detail. FDR's New Deal programs are in place and at work. Among the tasks of the Resettlement Administration's mission was to provide loans to farmers, set up camps for migrant workers, work on soil conservation and reforestation programs, and document all of this work under the RA's Historical Section. Photography was a fairly new technology and was really efficient at documenting the problems of the Great Depression. Roy Stryker was appointed the head of the Historical Section of the FSA and was in charge of directing the imagery that would capture the story. His photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, travelled around the country capturing the details of people as they moved through this extraordinary life situation. He was the consummate promoter in that he knew how to use the images in magazines and newspapers to show people what was going on across the country. This work of his produced an enormous body of documentary photographs of the Great Depression.
Dorothea Lange suffered polio at the age of seven, but survived the disease and went on to study photography in New York City. When she moved to San Francisco, she set up a successful portrait studio but eventually began to document life on the streets of San Francisco. It wasn't too much of a leap then to begin taking pictures for Roy Stryker who recruited her to the Historical Section in 1935. This began her work documenting migrant workers in California. Her work is some of the most compelling photography of the Great Depression, and this photograph, Migrant Mother, is iconic of the time.
Like Shahn's Riveter, Lange crops into the image tightly. The mother and her three children fill the frame. The composition is powerful - the mother's face is full of anxiety; she is deep in thought, her brow furrowed. She clings to her children as the cling to her. Their faces are turned away or only partially revealed. The are worn and dirty, gaunt and miserable. This image of a mother caring for her children in a world of misery is a universal one and produces a visceral response in the viewer. Here is her quote about taking this photograph:
"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 32. 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 bury 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."
That migrant mother was Florence Owens Thompson. Listen to an audio file of her talk about that time.