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Iconic Photo Exposed: Migrant Mother

For every iconic photograph that’s out there, there was likely a number of other photographs taken at the same time that many people probably have never seen. One such photo is Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange — an image that became one of the defining photos of the Great Depression. The woman in the photo, Florence Owens Thompson, had been travelling with her family when their car’s timing chain snapped. After setting up a temporary camp to wait while her husband and two sons went to town for repairs, Dorothea Lange drove up and spent 10 minutes capturing 6 photos.

Here are 4 of the photos Lange captured before the sixth and most famous shot was taken (one photo was never given to the Library of Congress):

Lange had this to say regarding the encounter:

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.

After Thompson’s identity was revealed 40 years later, she expressed regret over the photos, claiming that Langue had promised that the photos wouldn’t be published.

Finally, as an interesting aside, here’s a fact about Migrant Mother that you won’t be able to ‘unsee’: in the original shot the mother’s thumb can be seen wrapped around the tent pole, but it was subsequently “Photoshopped” out of the shot. It’s semi-transparent, but the index finger above the thumb remained untouched.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could look up the photographs taken immediately before and after any iconic photo in history?

Florence Owens Thompson [Wikipedia]


 
 
  • http://twitter.com/michaelcourier Michael Courier

    Interesting information about the manipulation on the finger. I wonder how that edit would have been received by today’s standards.

  • http://twitter.com/michaelcourier Michael Courier

    Interesting information about the manipulation on the finger. I wonder how that edit would have been received by today’s standards.

  • Wendy Stengel

    Dodging & burning to bring clarity & focus are part of the art of b&w film photography/developing. 

  • Wendy Stengel

    Dodging & burning to bring clarity & focus are part of the art of b&w film photography/developing. 

  • Joe

    Who care about the edit! I want to know how she did over the 40 years since that photo was taken. Obviously she made it out of the fields. People make to big a deal about Photoshopping a plane out of the sky or a transparent finger, I’m interested in the story the picture tells.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnDBRice John Rice

    According to Dorothea’s biographer, the removal of the thumb was the cause of a lot of controversy when she did it. The FSA was determined to produce only straight photography and the cosmetic change was against their wishes. Accordingly, if you get a print from the archive you get the thumb, if you get a Dorothea print, you get the change.

    An interesting debate from the early era of photography when it’s value as art was still argued.

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  • Keith Skinner

    I’ve seen this series of photos several times before. The first time, I can’t express how encouraged I was by the existence of the other photos. So Lange didn’t shoot masterpieces with every exposure. The thumb story adds to that feeling. We sometimes get what we think is the perfect shot until we’re editing. “What’s that doing there?”. I’m with Lange — I would have probably removed it too. We shouldn’t let good (exact record of reality) be the enemy of great (the impact of the image).

  • Akwa101

    watch contacts – a doco by william Klien which is based on showing the contact sheets of many famous photographers. Interesting to say the least.

  • http://twitter.com/johnfphotos John Farnan

    I had never seen this image till this article. No idea why not but i have now.
    Excellent image and with the added others i shows even the best photographers dont get them perfect first time :-) though the others are pretty damn good as well.
    The tighter crop makes you focus on the people only.
    John

  • Nigel Ingram

    I’ve also read that Lange (or more likely the FSA) preferred the close-up shot becuase it only shows two children-more ‘acceptable’ to middle-class and hopefully sympathetic viewers at the time. Don’t know if that’s ‘true’…
    Nigel

  • Jane

    It shows three children…

  • Anonymous

    Although Lange did promise Thompson’s name would not be published, if wasn’t her fault it was. Thompson’s name was discovered in 1978, and Lange died in 1965. Also, if that woman in the picture was me, I’d be extremely proud that it impacted history as much as it did. I can understand her embarrassment, but I don’t think she appreciated her “fans”, or the people who were curious about her, as much as her three daughters (pictured) did. All we know about her life is that she was pictured suffering in the 1930s as a widow and mother of seven, and that she was pictured in 1978 with her daughters.