A few weeks ago we discussed the American photographer Dorothea Lange. Her most well-known photo was that of Migrant Mother taken during the Great Depression. The story behind this photo and the people involved in it is a tale that tells of the hard life and times from that era.
Migrant Mother was taken in March of 1936 at a workers camp nearly 175 miles north of Los Angeles, California. The photographer, Dorothea Lange, had been out on a month-long assignment taking photos of the workers and the areas with the Farm Security Administration to document how the federal programs were improving the lives of the people. Lange was returning home from this lengthy assignment when she passed by a sign that read “PEA-PICKERS CAMP” while driving down the highway. At first, Dorothea ignored the sign and continued on her way home. However, after a lengthy internal argument, she turned the car around and drove back to the camp, capturing only six photographs of the Owens children and 32 year old Florence Owens. The family was living in the Nipomo workers’ camp and living off frozen vegetables scavenged from nearby fields and birds that the children killed. The pea crop had been a failure and the workers in the area were out of work.
Florence’s family did not work in the area at the time. Instead, they were on their way to Watsonville to look for work there. The car they were traveling in suffered a mechanical malfunction and the family had pulled into the pea-pickers camp to fix the car. Florence’s husband had taken the radiator into town to have it repaired and the family constructed a lean-to to stay in until the car could be repaired. Once the repairs were made, they were on their way to find work.
The photo, however, got the federal government’s attention and within a short time, 20,000 pounds of food had arrived at the camp to stave off starvation. Florence and her family did not benefit from this, however, as they had already found work in Watsonville.
For decades, the identity of the mother in the photos was unknown. Emmett Corrigan, a reporter for the Modesto Bee, received a tip in 1978 that led him to Florence Owens Thompson. He recognized her immediately from the 40 year old photo and was able to confirm that she was the subject of the enduring and iconic image.