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A Concept of the Migrant Mother in Dorothea Lange’s The Gateway to the Art

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Gateway to Art: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, is a black and white photograph that depicts a homeless woman and her three children in a pea pickers camp in Nipomo California. The mother is holding an infant in her left arm while her two slightly older kids are resting their turned heads on her shoulders. Light shines on the woman’s arm and worried face as her right hand gently touches her cheek. Very little of the surrounding is shown besides what appears to be a part of a wooden pole in the foreground and a canvas in the background.

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This photograph was taken in 1936, during the Great Depression. Lange had been hired by a government agency, now know as the Farm Security Administration, to report on the social, economic and living conditions in the rural areas of the United States. “Migrant Mother” is now considered one of the most famous and frequently reproduced photographs of American social history.

Although photography is not considered a time-based art, the photographer is still very much concerned with the attributes of motion and time. They can achieve this by moving around their subject or by altering the focus of their shot. They use these techniques to help capture what they think is true or convey their message. We get a sense of this process when we look at the “Migrant Mother” series photographer by Lange. The first of six images focuses on the family and their surroundings. In the second frame, the camera moves closer to the tent, but gives little information about this family. As the series continues, the process of selection becomes clear as Lange focuses primarily on the individuals as seen in the sixth frame.

The media and processes section talks about the way Lange went about taking the photograph. She first took six different pictures of Florence Thompson and the most famous one became known as “Migrant Mother”. Lange says that she “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”. Lange was finishing up a trip where she had been photographing migrant farm workers for the Resettlement Administration when she passed the camp where Florence and her children were living. She went back as a second thought and took the six photographs using a Graflex camera.

The theme image of motherhood is depicted as the ideal mother in the Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance era. Later artist now show children as more precious than jewels and reveal the interactions of ordinary moments when depicting the theme of the ideal mother. Dorothea Lange captured the intimacy of a family that has very little but each other. The photo offers evidence of a mother’s strength and determination in extreme need. Lange had found the family surviving on frozen vegetables and birds they were able to kill. The photograph draws attention to the nature and bond between mother and children. The mothers face reflects the pressures placed on the family.

Migrant Mother is an iconic piece of American art, which became the focus of much attention during the Great Depression. It has been published many times since the 30’s and has been the subject of debate regarding the ethics of photography. It captures the devastations felt by many during this time and is recognized today as a symbol of people’s despair resulting from continual poverty. Photographs are capable of conveying powerful messages, as this piece clearly demonstrates. Lange herself explained this photo achieved her goal, which she said was “to register the things about those people that were more important than how poor they were, their pride, their strength, their spirit.

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