Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley

Why’s the Migrant Mother photograph by Dorothea Lange so iconic?

  • Defining the Great Depression
  • Strength, vulnerability, and shame in Migrant Mother
  • Assistance …and then regret

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Open an American History textbook and you’ll likely find the photo Migrant Mother. That’s because it’s come to represent the Great Depression. In fact, this picture did that right from the start. Dorothea Lange took this photo in 1935. It planted a seed in America’s collective unconscious right away. Lange was part of a government funded program. This Farm Security Administration (FSA) group sent artists like Lange on a mission.

The government showed surprising sympathy. They paid artists to depict devastation from the economic crisis. Lange visited pea picker migrants in Nipomo Valley, California. Drought obliterated their pea crops. So, many families starved. The American photographer took alot of pictures. But Migrant Mother was the most memorable. Lange’s portrait shows Florence Owens Thompson and her children. She wears the worry and disappointment from pea crop failures on her face.

Thompson’s kids hide their faces from the camera. But they cling to her. There’s hunger in this woman’s eyes. She also seems strong, though fretful. That’s thanks to chiseled facial lines and a hesitant hand at her mouth. Florence Owens Thompson embodies a stark portrait of poverty and motherhood.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley

Visual Storytelling Hits the Mark

The image of Florence Owens Thompson arouses several feelings. Her face reveals both strength and vulnerability. Worry registers through her brow and fingers at her lips. While resilience and edge show in those honed cheekbones. Viewers can also sense that Florence is a hard worker. That’s because her shirt’s rolled up to the elbow. It’s a universal symbol of toil. She’s haggard and looks exhausted. But there’s a strong feeling that this woman’s only just begun her work for the day.

That’s in her eyes and also thanks to the children beside Thompson. They clutch her close. This reminds viewers that these little ones depend on their mother in every way. She feeds, clothes, and shelters them as well as giving them warmth and love. Parents are providers. Viewers feel the weight of that primary purpose here. Her children also look away from us. They hide – shielding their faces from the camera lens. It’s a classic symbol of shame. We’re witness to a heartbreaking, intimate family moment.

They’re hungry and without a prospect of food in sight. The sun highlights their mother’s commanding face. While her kids cower in shadow. Lange brings this into the light for America to learn about the Depression. But these children remain shielded by their mother’s steady presence. She’s got her eyes set on a better future. That determination comes through to ring a bell of hope for us amidst this family’s crisis. The photo pushes and pulls at viewers with mixed emotions.

Dorothea Lange Misspeaks After the Fact

In the years since Lange took this photo, many have told its story. The photograph itself speaks loudest and best, though. Dorothea Lange contradicted Florence’s experience with her verbal take on the story. She claimed Thomson told her about selling the family’s car tires to buy food. But Thompson later said they never even spoke to each other. Florence also noted that she’d never sold their car tires.

It’s possible Lange confused her with another migrant. Or she may have embellished the narrative without realizing it. After all, Migrant Mother strikes a powerful chord as an image. Wanting an impactful story for it is understandable. But it’s also unnecessary. Thompson’s predicament says plenty without amplification. A mere glance at her expression says it all. That’s why this image became so iconic.

Turns out the bald truth behind this picture wields emotional strength too. Dorothea Lange sensed that Florence Owens Thompson would work as a meaningful subject. Thompson later said that she hoped letting Lange take her photo might help her somehow. It was this intuition behind the portrait that gave it a visceral force to transcend time. Most importantly, this photograph also helped Thompson. Highlighted in a San Francisco newspaper, the picture woke America to the migrant farmer plight. People started sending food and supplies to Nipomo Valley. Florence and her fellow workers got the help they needed.

That’s the difference great art can make. The masterpiece Migrant Mother achieved more than a mere photo ever could. It’s also why Dorothea Lange didn’t like the category “Documentary Photograph”. This artwork inspired social change to save lives. A documentary only records events. It may arouse more than that – but only if it’s a masterpiece.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo Valley – FAQs

What happened to the Migrant Mother portrayed in Dorothea Lange’s photo?

The good news is that this mother of ten died nearly fifty years after Lange’s photograph – in 1983. However, Florence Owens Thompson also lived to regret the picture that made her face famous. That wasn’t because of the fame itself, though. It was due to the poverty brand that the portrait gave her.

Thompson spoke of this and her children also talked about it in interviews. They pointed out that their mother was a strong woman. In fact, when Lange took this photo, Florence was already an organizer and advocate for migrant worker rights.

In fact, the picture led to immediate relief for Thompson and other pea pickers. But it also stamped Florence with a permanent label. After that photograph’s release, she would always be a symbol for the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Nobody wants that kind of shadow cast upon their legacy.

What is the story behind Migrant Mother?

The subject of this iconic photo, Florence Owens Thompson, was only thirty two. She also had seven children at the time. It’s not clear in the Migrant Mother photograph, but Florence was a Native American from Oklahoma.

Dorothea Lange took this picture in 1935. Thompson worked as a pea picker. A brutal frost had eviscerated the crops, though. So this photo captured Thompson’s anxiety about the loss of work and thus food for her family.

Why is Migrant Mother important?

This photo helped Americans understand the impact of the Great Depression. Of course, the economic crisis affected people in different ways. But this poignant image served to bring everyone together and relate with Florence Thompson. We all have families. We’ve all felt hunger, worry, and shame.

These feelings resonate through Migrant Mother. The image captures a mother’s pain and worry. Still, we also see her strength and resilience in those sharp cheekbones and set mouth. Even as she suffers, the children huddled at her side mean this mother’s determined to prevail.


Check out these other essays on Women Artists.

James C. Curtis. Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression. Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Spring, 1986), pp. 1–20.

James Estrin (November 28, 2018). “Unraveling the Mysteries of Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother'”The New York Times. Retrieved November 20, 2019. Ms. Thompson was not of European descent — as had been commonly assumed — but “a full-blooded Cherokee Indian” from Oklahoma.

Sarah Meister. Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019.

King, Peter H. (October 18, 1998) The Fresno Bee One defiant family escapes poignant portrait of poverty.

MOMA learning page on Migrant Mother.

 “Florence Thompson, ‘Migrant Mother,’ Dies”. Los Angeles Times. September 17, 1983. 

Nici, John (2015). Famous Works of Art—And How They Got That Way. Rowman & Littlefield.

“Girl from iconic Great Depression photo: ‘We were ashamed'”. CNN. 

Library of Congress Guide to Migrant Mother