Art Study

Migrant Mother

The Museum of Contemporary Photography Staff, with contributions from Alissa Schapiro and Sara Jatcko

At first glance

When you look at this image, what is the first thing you notice? What other details in the image stand out? What do you notice about the people? What do you notice about the setting? Does this portrait look like others that you have seen? Why or why not?

Read to build knowledge

In this photograph, a woman wearing torn clothes sits under a tent. She holds a sleeping baby in her arms. There are two children leaning on her shoulders, with their heads turned away from the camera. The relationship between these figures suggests that this is a mother and her family. The mother stares into the distance, and not directly at the camera. Her wrinkled forehead, pressed lips, and hand resting on her chin suggest that she’s thinking deeply. But what might she be thinking about? Who is she, and why would a photographer make this portrait of her and her family?

Photographer Dorothea Lange created this portrait in March of 1936. Lange made many notes about the scene. She wrote that the family lived in a pea picker camp in Nipomo, California. The pea crop did not grow, which left many migrant workers (people who traveled to find work) and their families poor and struggling to survive. She noted that that this family was forced to sell their few belongings in order to buy food. Lange took seven photographs of this mother and her children, but did not write down anyone’s name. This frame (in photography, a frame is a single image on a roll of film) became the most famous. In time, it became known simply as Migrant Mother. Nearly forty years later, the mother in the photograph was identified as Florence Owens Thompson.

Lange created thousands of photographs to document the poor conditions of Americans during the Great Depression (1929–1939), the period after the stock market crashed, leading to little business activity in the United States and around the world. Lange photographed workers on strike, people living on the street, and hungry families waiting in line for food. Migrant Mother was just one of many images of the hundreds of thousands of desperate farming families who were forced to leave their homes in search of work. Some farmers couldn’t make enough money to keep their lands because of the struggling economy. Other farms were abandoned because of the horrible dust storms and a lack of rain. The dust and drought made the land impossible to use in sections of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas, a region that came to be known as the Dust Bowl.

In 1935 the United States government created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), an organization to help those most affected by the Great Depression. The FSA hired photographers including Lange to record the difficult conditions in rural America during the time in images. These photographs, like Migrant Mother, were used to help convince Americans that people, especially those migrants camping near rural farms, were suffering and needed help. Shortly after Migrant Mother was taken, the photograph was printed in a newspaper with the title “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squaller.” [squaller is another spelling of squalor] As a result of the image, the government rushed 20,000 pounds of food to the camp where the family was staying. It is now one of the most famous images of the Great Depression, and one of the best-known American photographs ever made.

Analyze and interpret

  1. Dorothea Lange originally called this photograph Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936. Do you prefer the title the artist gave it or the title Migrant Mother? What type of information can each of these titles tell you as a viewer?
  2. Why do you think Lange chose to only show the mother’s face in this frame?
  3. You can see all of the photographs of this family by Dorothea Lange here: Why do you think Dorothea Lange took so many? What makes the Migrant Mother frame special? Use details from the photographs to support your conclusion.
  4. Can you tell how Dorothea Lange feels about her subjects from this image? If so, how?
  5. What can this photograph tell you about life in America during the Great Depression that reading about it in a book cannot?

Extension activity

Dorothea Lange and the other Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s and early 1940s used photography to record and respond to the great problems of their time.

  1. What are some of the issues of our time?
  2. If you were to select one of these issues to document through photography, what would you photograph? Why?
  3. What places, people, or details would you show to tell the story?
  4. How would you make those pictures?

For further reading (teachers)

Library of Congress. “Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” Photographs in the Farm Security Administration Collection: An Overview,”

Museum of Contemporary Photography. “Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Documentary Tradition,” Mother_and_the_Documentary_Tradition.pdf

Maksel, Rebecca. “Migrant Madonna.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 2002.