JF Ptak Science Books Post 2244
Everyone knows this image: the Madonna of the American 1930's, the Migrant Mother, a photograph made by Dorothea Lange, a photographer for the Federally-funded Farm Security Administration. Lange was still very new to the FSA project when she made this photograph in the spring of 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 "Pea-Pickers Camp" by the side of the road. Lange briefly considered stopping but went ahead, questioning her judgment continuously for the next 20 miles, when she finally turned around to find the turn-off for the camp. She drove down the dirt road and found a ramshackle assembly of tents, one of which contained "an exhausted mother sitting forlornly with her children". 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". It was published almost immediately and quickly became one of the great iconic images of the Depression, as well as for the American century.
I was thinking about this because of a typewritte, offset-printed pamphlet I bought written Paul S.Taylor, "What Shall We Do With Them" ( an address before the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, April 15, 1938)--the "Them" being the dustbowler, the migrant workers, the disposed. Paul Taylor was at this time three years into his marriage with Lange—he was a progressive thinker and a FSA operative who helped Lange land her job and was a part of an extraordinary team of very expansive ability that documented a pivotal period in American life. He was also co-creator with Lange of their great documentarian centerpiece of the 1930's, An American Exodus, a Record of Human Erosion, which was published in 1939, the same year as the publication of The Grapes of Wrath and the release of the Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. (Two years later--1941--James Agee (text) and Walker Evans (photographs saw their long-developing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was published.)
In this pamphlet Taylor gave testimony on migrant workers and nearly the height of the Depression—he was an expert, having traveled and lived among them and written academic papers on what he found. He outlined possible answers to the question, which had mainly to do with stability, which of course was the primary concern for the many of thousands of individuals and families who were once-stable but now very mobile, not having place to live or places to go. Taylor thought that opening dams and supplying irrigation and affordable government-owned houses would be the first of many steps to take to relieve the widespread suffering. In all of the alphabet-soup programs uundertaken by the Roosevelt administration, none were nearly as "successful" in ending the national social erosion as the events that were to unfold less than a year later.
Dorothea Lange “Three Families, 14 Children” US 99 San Joaquin Valley, California, November 1938. An American Exodus
Lange describes her encounter with the Migrant Mother 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).