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Posts Tagged ‘Florence Thompson’

Who Was Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother?

Posted by havealittletalk on June 2, 2009

In an earlier post I noted that one of the most famous American photographs of the twentieth century is in the public domain in the United States since it was taken by Dorothea Lange when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. What came to be known as “Migrant Mother” was one of six images shot by Lange on March 9, 1936 near Nipomo, California, where migrant workers were in a dire situation since the crops they had come to harvest had been destroyed by freezing rains.

On the following day,  according to Geoffrey Dunn’s essay for New Times: San Luis Obispo, “Photographic License,” the San Francisco News published this picture:

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 The next day it used the one that became known as “Migrant Mother.”3b41800r 

But who was this mother?

Lange didn’t ask her name when she took the pictures. In the 1970s she identified herself in a letter to a local newspaper editor signed Florence Thompson, and this is the name now associated with “Migrant Mother.”

In fact, in 1936 she was Florence Owens. It wasn’t until after WWII that she remarried and became Florence Thompson.

Florence Owens Thompson’s reason for writing her letter, which was picked up by the Associated Press, was distress at the picture’s fame:

In the AP story, Thompson declared that she felt “exploited” by Lange’s portrait. “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture,” she declared. “I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

Likely Lange couldn’t sell the pictures, but Thompson must have assumed she did when several appeared in the papers, and certainly after Lange’s assignment with the FSA ended, her career was enhanced by the fame she gained with “Migrant Mother.” Dunn reports that one of Florence’s children, Katherine McIntosh, says Lange

“also told mother the negatives would never be published–that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

Lange, indeed, sent the photos to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, where the photos had an immediate impact on federal bureaucrats, who quickly rushed 20,000 pounds of food supplies to pea-picker camp in Nipomo.

Florence and children, and her partner, Joe Hill, father of Norma Lee, infant in the pictures, were already out of the area.

Florence was from Oklahoma, but she first left the state in 1926. Florence Leona Christie [b. Sept. 1, 1903] was a full blooded Cherokee, which means that her ancestors were in Oklahoma not by choice but because of the forced migrations from their homelands along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears to the Oklahoma Territory.

She first arrived in California with husband Cleo Owens. When he died of TB in 1931, she had five children and was three months pregnant with her sixth (Katherine). Two years later when she was pregnant by a man whose family she feared would take their son’s child from her, she went home to Oklahoma. In 1937 she returned with members of her extended family to California, and became involved with Hill.

Lange’s pictures temporarily eased the sufferings of the stranded and starving migrants at the Nipomo camp. Many years later, finally, Florence saw some small profit from her portrait. In 1983,  sick with cancer, Florence had a stroke which left her in need of constant nursing attention. This $1400 a week care was more than her chidren could afford.

Her son Troy Owens asked Jack Foley at the San Jose Mercury News for help. Dunn reports,

The story Foley filed for the Mercury generated national attention. More than $35,000 poured into a special Migrant Mother Fund administered by Hospice Caring Project of Santa Cruz County, much of it coming in the form of rumpled dollar bills.

The contributions came in from all over the country. Nacaodoches, Texas. Russellville, Ark. New York City. Los Angeles. But a good many of them came from the farm towns of the San Joaquin Valley that Florence Thompson called home for most her life–Fresno, Wasco, Tulare, Selma, Visalia.

“The famous picture of your mother for years gave me great strength, pride and dignity–only because she exuded those qualities so,” wrote a woman from Santa Clara.

“Enclosed is a check for $10 to assist the woman whose face gave and still gives eloquent expression to the need our country still has not met,” expressed an anonymous note from New York. . . .

In all, nearly 2,000 letters arrived, and the overwhelming response forced the Owens-Hill children to reconsider Lange’s portrait of their mother in a new light.

“None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people,” said Owens. “I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”

 . . . On Sept. 16, 1983, a few weeks past her 80th birthday, Florence Thompson died at her son’s home.

Her gravestone reads: “Migrant Mother–A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

Another source of information about Florence is her grandson Roger Sprague’s website, Migrant Grandson, the Library of Congress’s overview, and the Art Department of the Oakland Museum of California, which has the largest collection of Dorothea Lange’s work (her work for the government represents only four years of a career in photography spanning from 1918 to 1965, most of which, of course, is not in the public domain).

In addition to the two photographs above, the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress also includes these three:

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This is Roger Sprague’s caption for the last of these photos:

Persons in picture (left to right) are: Viola (Pete) in rocker age 14, standing inside tent Ruby age 5, Katherine age 4, seated on box Florence age 32 and infant Norma age 1 year being held by Florence.

One more photo of Florence’s family didn’t make it to the Library of Congress. It’s on Roger Sprague’s site, however:

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Second of six (6) photographs taken by Dorthea Lange on March 9, 1936 at Nipomo, California. Pete has moved inside the tent, and away from Lange, in hopes her photo can not be taken. Katherine stands next to her mother. Florence is talking to Ruby, who is hiding behind her mother, as Lange took the picture.

 

 

Credits for Library of Congress holdings :

Child holding post: LC-USF34- 009095-C

Florence & Ruby: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03054

Nursing: LC-USF34-T01-009097-C

Girl in rocker: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03054

Posted in Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration, Historical, Library of Congress, People, WPA | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments »

Photographic Legacy of New Deal Stimulus Plan, or Images from the Farm Security Administration

Posted by havealittletalk on June 2, 2009

Have you ever heard of the Farm Security Administration (FSA)? I expect not, but this was a New Deal Department of Agriculture agency that made loans to small farmers. It also had an Information Division that employed 22 photographers to go cross country documenting the people and places of what we now call the Great Depression.

In the US, works created on the job by government employees are in the public domain.

And that is why two of the most widely recognized photographs of the twentieth century are designated as “no known restrictions on publication” at the Library of Congress. Note, however, that there are also laws pertaining to publicity and privacy.

I haven’t yet (but I will) researched whether the family of Florence Thompson has objected to any uses of her picture, but I am not doing so for profit, and so I decided to include it here. Photographer Dorothea Lange titled the portrait “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”; it has become known as “Migrant Mother.”   [Credit:  LC-DIG-fsa-8b29516]

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Here’s a curiosity, the type of thing you discover at the Library of Congress. “Migrant Mother” was retouched to remove a thumb on the tent pole in the original. Look at the right corner of this unretouched negative [credit: LC-USZ62-95653]:

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Here’s Dorothea Lange on the road in California in 1936. [LC-DIG-fsa-8b27245]

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Another FSA photographer, Arthur Rothstein, shot this iconic image in 1936, “Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma.”   [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00241 1936]

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Walker Evans was also an FSA photographer. In 1941 he and the playwright  James Agee published Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an impressionistic chronicle of the weeks they spent documenting the lives of three families of Alabama sharecroppers.

Here are two of Evans’s photos, “Church interior, Alabama or Tennessee” [LC-USF342-8285A ] and “Crossroads store, Sprott, Alabama. 1935 or 1936″ [LC-DIG-ppmsc-00243].

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Most of the pictures in the FSA collection document desperate poverty.  However unpalatable the effects of today’s downturn in the economy, they in no way compare to those of the 1930s. Here are some reminders, starting with Russell Lee’s February 1939 ″Interior of tent of white migrant family near Edinburg, Texas. Bed is on the floor. Tent was made of patched cotton materials of various sorts. The man said he had worked in a cotton mill in Dallas, Texas, and had obtained the materials then”  [LC-USF34-032320-D] and “Sick child in bed in trailer home. Sebastian, Texas” [credit: LC-USF34-032325-D]. 

 

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Jack Delano shot this portrait, “Children of a WPA (Work Projects Administration) worker’s family near Siloam, Greene County, Georgia” in June 1941 [LC-USF34-044507-D]:
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FSA photographer Marion Post Wolcott’s photograph “Home of old and sick mine foreman and WPA (Works Progress Administration) worker and their families, Charleston, West Virginia” was taken in 1938 [LC-USF33-030089-M5].

Then there are other images, stunning for entirely different reasons, such as Delano’s 1943 “Model airplanes decorate the ceiling of the train concourses at Union Station [Chicago]” [LC-USW3-T01-015950-D]:

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Also from 1943,  “Washington, D.C. Field trips for the “flying nun” pre-flight class, including inspection tours of hangars at the Washington National Airport. Here, Sister Aquinas is explaining engine structure to her students” by Ann Rosener [credit: LC-USW3-031400-D].00249r

You can see many more at the Library of Congress. They explain it best:

The photographs in the Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection form an extensive pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. This U.S. government photography project was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, who guided the effort in a succession of government agencies: the Resettlement Administration (1935-1937), the Farm Security Administration (1937-1942), and the Office of War Information (1942-1944). The collection also includes photographs acquired from other governmental and non-governmental sources, including the News Bureau at the Offices of Emergency Management (OEM), various branches of the military, and industrial corporations. In total, the black-and-white portion of the collection consists of about 171,000 black-and-white film negatives, encompassing both negatives that were printed for FSA-OWI use and those that were not printed at the time (use the “Display Images with Neighboring Call Numbers” link on the catalog records to see these uncaptioned images). Color transparencies also made by the FSA/OWI are available in a separate section of the catalog: FSA/OWI Color Photographs

The complete collection of FSA/OWI photographs — 171,000 black-and-white images and 1,602 color images — are available on the Library of Congress website at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html.

Posted in Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration, Historical, Library of Congress, People, WPA | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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