On of the great innovations in a sea of great things accomplished during the Franklin Roosevelt administrations was the formation of the Farm Security Administration, a division of the government established to help farmers through the devastating Dust Bowl and Great Depression. A subset of the FSA was a photographic unit which was set up to document the progress made by the FSA (and provide, I am sure, for some much-needed good news, a hearts-and-minds campaign). This division was headed by Roy Emerson Stryker, who wound up hiring a collection of dream-team photographers unlike any ever assembled for a single purpose. Esther Bubley, Marjory Collins, Mary Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks, Charlotte Brooks, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Ben Shahn were sent out all across the country and wound up with the greatest and most beautiful photographic history ever assembled. There were about 77,000 images made, and I recall reading (somewhere) that the total budget for the Stryker group for the years 1936-19421 was about $100,000, meaning that each completed image cost just over a dollar apiece.
One of the most compelling of all of these images was from a series made by the new-hire Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) in 1936. On the tail end of a month-long road trip she was nearing the end of her day when she spotted a hand-lettered sign reading “Pea-Pickers Camp” by the side of the road near Nipomo, California. She briefly considered stopping but went ahead, and for the next 20 miles of hard road continuously questioned her decision. Unable to shake her better judgment, she turned around and drove back to the turn-off for the camp. Lange drove down the dirt road and found a ramshackle assembly of tents, one of which contained an exhausted mother sitting forlornly with her children, sheltered in a tent fashioned to the rear of the woman’s tireless car. Lange spent only 10 minutes with the woman, making five exposures. She learned that “the crops had frozen, and the woman and children were living on vegetables scavenged from the fields, and the few birds that the children managed to catch. The mother could not leave; she had sold the tires from her car".
Her photograph created an American Madonna in her Migrant Mother.
George P. Elliott, writing in the introduction for the Lange retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), grasped the essence of the image:
"For an artist like Dorothea Lange who does not primarily aim to make photographs that are ends in themselves, the making of a great, perfect, anonymous photograph is a trick of grace, about which she can do little beyond making herself available for that gift of grace".
Lange describes her encounter as follows:
"I 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. 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 the 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". (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960). Lange's field notes of the images read: "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."
Roy Emerson Stryker, who was in charge of the photography project (History Section) for the FSA said of this image:
"When Dorothea took that picture, that was the ultimate. She never surpassed it. To me it was the picture of Farm Security. She has all the suffering of mankind in her, but all the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage".
1. The photographic history unit of the FSA morphed into a propaganda arm for the Office of War Information (OWI) in late 1942.
2. Florence Owens Thompson (1903-1983) is the real name of the Migrant Mother.
3. The Library of Congress files for the series of photos