“Migrant Mother” by photographer Dorothea Lange is an iconic image of the Great Depression and one of the most famous photos in US history. But did you know that the photo was “Photoshopped”?
In the new book exploring the photo titled “Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother,” author and MoMA photography curator Sarah Meister shares that you can tell whether a print of “Migrant Mother” was made before or after 1939 by looking at the mother’s left thumb.
When Lange originally shot her photo of Florence Owens Thompson, Thompson was holding the log that was being used to prop up her makeshift tent.
In 1939, however, Lange instructed her assistant to retouch the photo and remove Thompson’s thumb because Lange “considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it,” the New York Times writes.
Thus, the iconic version that everyone has seen contains a blurry smudge where Thompson’s thumb once was while her left index finger is still present.
But Lange wasn’t shooting photos for herself — she had been commissioned by the US Government’s Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to bring the lives of the poor and downtrodden Americans to the forefront of public attention.
Because of this documentary purpose, Lange’s FSA boss Roy Stryker wasn’t happy with her decision to manipulate her photo. Although this type of retouching wasn’t uncommon in photography at the time — even the NY Times altered the photo — Stryker believed that Lange’s edit compromised both the authenticity of her photo as well as his far-reaching FSA documentary project.
Despite the behind-the-scenes controversy, Lange’s photo would go on to become one of the defining images of the era, and Stryker succeeded in his goals of raising public awareness.
In the late 1960s, the original Migrant Mother photo and 31 other unretouched photos by Lange were discovered by a man named Bill Hendrie in the dumpster at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce. Lange’s personal print of Migrant Mother was sold for $141,500 at auction in 2002, and the 32 rediscovered photos were sold at auction 3 years later in 2005 for $296,000.