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Posts Tagged ‘Dorothea Lange’

Dorothea Lange’s Images of the WWII Internment of People of Japanese Ancestry

Posted by Laurie Frost on August 10, 2009

Dorothea Lange, whose work we’ve looked at in several previous posts, is remembered for her work documenting the displaced and impoverished people of the Great Depression. A year after her assignment with the Farm Security Administration ended, she won a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship. But rather than concentrating on work of her own choice, in 1942 she accepted a position with the War Relocation Authority (WRA) to photograph the forced removal of all people of Japanese ancestry, citizens and non-citizens alike, of all ages and backgrounds to makeshift camps located in rural regions.

These photos were not to have the audience that Lange’s FSA work found; the WRA deposited them in the National Archives where they were ignored, with perhaps six being published before 2006, when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro included roughly an eighth of the total in Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment (Norton, 2006).



Writing for Japan Focus, Gordon says that Lange, a resident of San Francisco with many Japanese-American associates, was opposed from the start to the the internments, but what she

saw was worse than she had expected. Every stage she observed—the peremptory directives to Japanese Americans to “report,” the registration, the evacuation, the temporary assembly centers and the long-term internment camps—deepened her outrage…. She worked nonstop 16-hour days for half a year…traveled … in cars not air-conditioned despite the scorching heat that prevailed toward the end of her undertaking. She did this as a disabled woman already beginning to feel the pain of bleeding ulcers and the muscular weakness we now know as post-polio syndrome. She patiently faced down continual harassment from army officers and guards who threw at her any regulation or security claim they could think of to prevent, slow, or censor her work.

I came across these images not by way of Impounded but by looking for other Lange photographs at the National Archives and the Library of Congress, so I don’t know what overlap there may be between my selections and the book’s. What you won’t see in the pictures are barbed wire fences, watch towers, or armed guards and signs of resistance. Lange was not allowed to photograph these kinds of things.

The National Archives is not as easy to search for images as the Library of Congress: you can’t preview a page of images for results, and different versions (e.g. print or negative) of the same image appear to be listed separately: the titles are the same but not the ID numbers. However, with far fewer exceptions than in the Library of Congress’s digital collection, if it is in the National Archives, it is in the public domain. Here is their statement:

The vast majority of the digital images in the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) are in the public domain. Therefore, no written permission is required to use them. We would appreciate your crediting the National Archives and Records Administration as the original source. For the few images that remain copyrighted, please read the instructions noted in the “Access Restrictions” field of each ARC record.

Please note that a few images on other areas of our web site have been obtained from other organizations and that these are always credited. Permission to use these photographs should be obtained directly from those organizations.

To find Lange’s work, start at When you get to Lange’s “People Description” page, you’ll find she appears in 1,361 descriptions. Click through on that, and you get a list of her work. If you see a CD disc next to the entry, there’s a digital file (and I think this is true in 1,360 of Lange’s entries). Click on the title. Now you are at a tabbed page. The “Digital Copies” tab gets you to the picture. The full caption is under “Scope and Content.”

LC means that the image is from the Library of Congress; ARC, the National Archives. Captions are from either the Library of Congress or National Archives records.

Lange began by photographing families in their pre-removal, normal lives, and then their preparations, their transport, and their camp lives.

20-1927aFlorin, Sacramento County, California. A soldier and his mother in a strawberry field. The soldier, age 23, volunteered July 10, 1941, and is stationed at Camp Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was furloughed to help his mother and family prepare for their evacuation. He is the youngest of six years children, two of them volunteers in United States Army. The mother, age 53, came from Japan 37 years ago. Her husband died 21 years ago, leaving her to raise six children. She worked in a strawberry basket factory until last year when her her children leased three acres of strawberries “so she wouldn’t have to work for somebody else”. The family is Buddhist. This is her youngest son. Her second son is in the army stationed at Fort Bliss. 453 families are to be evacuated from this area. (ARC 536474).

Doesn’t it seem odd that young Japanese-American males could serve in the military but their elderly mothers were sent to resettlement camps?

35483Japanese-American boarding up store front before evacuation, San Francisco (LC-USZ62-35483).evacJapanese evacuee, San Francisco (LC-USZ62-24815)

20-3147aOakland, California. View from window of the Wartime Civil Control Administration station. Moving vans are taking baggage belonging to evacuees of Japanese ancestry to the Assembly center (ARC 537700).



Left: Home of physician of Japanese ancestry, outside the Japanese quarter of town, prior to evacuation from this area of residents of Japanese ancestry (ARC 537864).

Right: San Bruno, California. A close-up of the exterior of a family unit. These barracks were formerly horse-stalls. Each family is assigned two small rooms. The interior one has neither outside door nor window (ARC 537903).

bored11San Bruno, California. Many evacuees suffer from lack of their accustomed activity. The attitude of the man shown in this photograph is typical of the residents in assembly centers, and because there is not much to do and not enough work available, they mill around, they visit, they stroll and they linger to while away the hours. (ARC 537941)


21-1371aManzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. An elementary school with voluntary attendance has been established with volunteer evacuee teachers, most of whom are college graduates. No school equipment is as yet obtainable and available tables and benches are used. (ARC 537964)graveManzanar Relocation Center, Manzanar, California. The first grave at the Manzanar Center’s cemetery. It is that of Matsunosuke Murakami, 62, who died of heart disease on May 16. He had been ill ever since he arrived here with the first contingent and had been confined to the hospital since March 23. (ARC 538184) 43-0012a Manzanar, California. Dust storm at this War Relocation Authority center where evacuees of Japanese ancestry are spending the duration. (ARC 539961)

Posted in Dorothea Lange, Historical, Library of Congress, National Archives, People, Places | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Who Was Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother?

Posted by Laurie Frost 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:


 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:




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:


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 Laurie Frost 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]


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]:


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


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]


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].



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]. 



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]:

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]:


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

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