Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Seeing It Again

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a show up of photos from its collection, called Strangers in a Strange Land: Photographers’ First Impressions. It includes Dorothea Lange's famous Migrant Mother image:

Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange, black and white close up of a worried, haggard-looking woman with two young children hiding their faces against her shoulders
I've seen this photograph many times, but I don't believe I've ever read much about the woman in the photo. At the MIA, it's accompanied by this quote from Lange:

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. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).
Just thirty-two years old. So much worry and stress in so few years.

Wondering about the woman, who was identified on the MIA card as Florence Owens Thompson, led me to her Wikipedia entry. It sounds as though Lange got some of her facts wrong, and that the context of the photo shoot wasn't as nonexploitative as she remembered it. Quoted in 1978, Thompson said, "She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."

It's a bit reminiscent of the Henrietta Lacks story.

This is a photo of Florence and her daughters taken in 1979, 43 years after the iconic photo:

black and white snapshot of an elderly woman seated in a chair surrounded by three middle-aged women
It's good to see that they all came out okay, and appear to have lived their lives in relative comfort in this, the most comfortable of all countries in history.

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

Thank you for sharing the story. I have always been haunted by that photo. It bothers me that the photographer imagined there was some kind of equity between that poor starving woman and children and herself when she used their images for her own purposes.