“Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California”

“Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California”


Endangered Dreams covers the years of the Great Depression, when California became the lodestone for thousands of displaced, unemployed Americans. This excerpt tells the story behind one of the most famous photographs in the world: a careworn migrant worker gazing off-camera, surrounded by her children. Dorothea Lange, photographer for the Farm Security Administration, remembers the events that led to the photograph of Florence Thompson in a pea-pickers’ camp on a rainy day in 1936.


1 Among the photographs Lange forwarded to Washington was one which soon achieved the stature of an American masterpiece. Subsequently entitled Migrant Mother, Lange’s photograph has become not only the best-known image of the 270,000 plus negatives assembled by her Resettlement/Farm Security Administration team, but one of the most universally recognized and appreciated photographs of all time. 

2 She almost missed taking it. Returning in March 1936 after a month in the field, Lange was heading north to San Francisco past Nipomo. On the side of the road, on a cold wet miserable day, she saw a sign that said “Pea Pickers Camp.” She passed it. After all, at her side on the car seat rested a box containing rolls and packs of exposed film. Accompanied by the rhythmic hum of the windshield wipers, she debated over the next twenty miles the pros and cons of returning. In a sudden instinctive decision, she made a U-turn on the empty highway and returned to the pea pickers’ camp. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet,” she later recalled. “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 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.” 

3 Some critics have made much of the fact that Lange did not learn the woman’s name, which was Florence Thompson, taking this as proof of Lange’s photographic detachment. In the woman and her three children, stranded in a roadside canvas lean-to, such critics suggest, Lange found a subject for her photographic art: a subject removed in time and circumstances from her prosperous clients in her previous practice; but she approached her nevertheless from a similarly detached perspective. The primary subject of Migrant Mother, from this perspective, is photography itself. Such a criticism ignores the fact that as soon as Lange returned to San Francisco and developed these Nipomo negatives (there were actually six, not five as she remembered), she rushed with them to George West at the San Francisco News, telling him that thousands of pea pickers in Nipomo were starving because of the frozen harvest. West got the story out in both the News, using two of Lange’s photographs (but not Migrant Mother), and over the wires of the United Press. The federal government, meanwhile, rushed in twenty thousand pounds of food to feed the starving pea pickers.