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Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mothers

Her Depression-era portraits of mothers and children are among her most powerful works.

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” is one of the most famous photographs ever taken. It first appeared in the San Francisco News on March 10, 1936, and since then it’s been reproduced countless times, in books and exhibitions, online and on postage stamps. As much as any one image can, it’s come to define not only Lange’s career, but also, arguably, an entire era of American history. But the subject — a mother and her children — is one that Lange photographed many times, beautifully, thoughtfully, and powerfully. And it was a subject she knew well. According to her biographer, the historian Linda Gordon, "Nothing in Lange’s personal life was as fraught as her own motherhood and she lived with contradictory impulses every day."

Lange took the picture that became known as &quot;Migrant Mother&quot; in a camp in Nipomo, California, about 25 miles south of San Luis Obispo, in February 1936. She’d been traveling on assignment from the <a href="http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa" target="_blank">Resettlement Administration</a>, which had hired her and other photographers to document the conditions of agricultural life under the Depression and to produce a visual record of the government programs that sought to improve them. Lange was making a long drive home to San Francisco, where she lived with her husband and children, when she stopped to visit the camp in Nipomo, where she met Florence Owens Thompson. Thompson was a 32-year-old Cherokee woman from Oklahoma, and a mother of seven. Lange took several pictures of Thompson and her children; this was one of them. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images Lange took the picture that became known as "Migrant Mother" in a camp in Nipomo, California, about 25 miles south of San Luis Obispo, in February 1936. She’d been traveling on assignment from the Resettlement Administration, which had hired her and other photographers to document the conditions of agricultural life under the Depression and to produce a visual record of the government programs that sought to improve them. Lange was making a long drive home to San Francisco, where she lived with her husband and children, when she stopped to visit the camp in Nipomo, where she met Florence Owens Thompson. Thompson was a 32-year-old Cherokee woman from Oklahoma, and a mother of seven. Lange took several pictures of Thompson and her children; this was one of them. Between 1935 and 1941, when she was regularly working on the road, away from her own family, Lange took numerous pictures like this, of mothers and their children. Though none achieved the renown of “Migrant Mother,” all of them capture something of the experience of motherhood — the pride, the joy, the weariness, the frustration, the endurance, the hope — and all of them reflect Lange’s sympathetic vision. (Pictured: a migrant mother and her baby near Westley, California, 1939.) Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Between 1935 and 1941, when she was regularly working on the road, away from her own family, Lange took numerous pictures like this, of mothers and their children. Though none achieved the renown of “Migrant Mother,” all of them capture something of the experience of motherhood — the pride, the joy, the weariness, the frustration, the endurance, the hope — and all of them reflect Lange’s sympathetic vision. (Pictured: a migrant mother and her baby near Westley, California, 1939.) IMPERIAL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA (1937) Dorothea Lange/Getty Images IMPERIAL VALLEY, CALIFORNIA (1937) MEMPHIS, TEXAS (1937) Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images MEMPHIS, TEXAS (1937) BLYTHE, CALIFORNIA (1936) Dorothea Lange/Getty Images BLYTHE, CALIFORNIA (1936) MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA (1940) PhotoQuest/Getty Images MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA (1940) CALIFORNIA (1935) Dorothea Lange/Getty Images CALIFORNIA (1935) NEAR FRESNO, CALIFORNIA (1936) Dorothea Lange/Getty Images NEAR FRESNO, CALIFORNIA (1936) TULELAKE, CALIFORNIA (1939) Fotosearch/Getty Images TULELAKE, CALIFORNIA (1939) NEAR GUADALUPE, CALIFORNIA (1937) Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images NEAR GUADALUPE, CALIFORNIA (1937)