Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” was photographed in February 1936 in a pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California, while on assignment as a photographer for the Resettlement Administration (RA), which soon would become the better-known Farm Security Administration (FSA). As Lange told the story years later, the decision to stop at the pea picker’s camp was fortuitous. She was driving home after a month in the field when she happened upon a sign identifying the camp. She tried to ignore the sign and drive on, but after twenty miles she was compelled to return to the camp, “following instinct, not reason.” She shot six photographs in a very short period of time of the woman and members of her family, starting at a distance and working her way closer and closer after the fashion of a portrait photographer. Her photos first appeared in the San Francisco News on March 10, 1936, as part of a story demanding relief for the starving pea pickers. The feature was a success: relief was organized, and there is no record of death by starvation. This story of the photo’s origin and impact is, of course, a bit too good. Every icon acquires a standard narrative and often others as well. The standard narrative includes a myth of origin, a tale of public uptake or impact, and a quest for the actual people in the picture to provide closure for the larger social drama captured by the image. In this case, the photo’s origin is due to serendipity, not routine or craft. There is no mention of Lange’s government subsidy nor of the fact that the photo was retouched to remove the woman’s thumb in the lower right corner. Most tellingly, it slides over the fact that the iconic photo was not actually shown in the San Francisco News until the day following the original story. Iconic photos acquire mythic narratives: Lange becomes a poetic vehicle for the operation of historical forces; by mobilizing public opinion, the photographer provides the impetus to collective action. 1932 Who was Dorthea Lange's Migrant Mother?
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.”