It was a time in the USA when 11,000 out of 25,000 US banks had failed; 13 million people became unemployed; there was a fall of 30% in GDP; Stock Market lost 90% of its value; more than one million families lost their farms; 60% of Americans were categorized as poor; nine million savings accounts were wiped out.
It was the Great Depression -worst economic crisis of the world in 20th century. The crisis was so severe that today Great Depression is used as a benchmark as to how far world’s economy can decline. This horrible time started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s in some countries. Virtually every country in the world was affected by this event.
It was Dorothea Lange who took this photograph. This photograph gained iconic status as face of the Great Depression. The woman featured in this photograph is Florence Owens Thompson. Mother of seven children, Florence, aged 32 at that time, was a pea picker (a derogatory term for an unskilled laborer in USA). Taken in California, the photograph shows two of her children huddled around her. Lange had taken six photos of Florence on that day and it is the sixth one that became known as the Migrant Mother. In the photo, shadows of worries are apparent all over the face of Florence. This photograph has achieved almost mythical status.
From an Indian’s perspective, an interesting thing for me was that the Thompson family owned a car!… Though they were categorized as destitute; referred to as pea pickers; living in a shanty; surviving on frozen vegetables… but… they had a car! Lange wrote in her field notes:
“Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”
Troy Owens rejected Lange’s claim about selling tires and recounted:
“There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson [car] and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”
Identity of the woman in the photograph remained unknown for more than 40 years after the photograph was taken and had become famous. In 1978 Florence was discovered in Modesto Mobile Village. At that time Florence was quoted as saying
“I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. 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.”
This portrays Lange as a wrong-doer. But to be fair to Lange, she did not get any royalties for this photograph because she was funded by the Federal government and therefore the photograph was in public domain.
However, ironically, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold in 1998 for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. In November 2002, Dorothea Lange’s personal print of Migrant Mother sold at Christie’s New York for $141,500
And yes, it was in the USA where the Great Depression actually begun. I have written about another iconic photographs from that period. It shows construction workers having lunch atop a skyscraper.
This is it for today. How did you like this photographs and the story behind it? Please comment and give your feedback as it helps me in writing better content for my readers. Thank you for reading and stay connected with my website as I will continue to bring even more iconic photographs to you.