top of page

Analysing a Photograph of "Immigrant Mother"

I choose to analyse a picture called "Immigrant Mother". The picture shows a mother who is living in poverty with her children. During the Great Depression in America, it was photographed by the photographer Dorothea Lange. The photo was taken in March 1936 at the crude oil "P-Pickers camp" in Nipomo, north of Los Angeles. (1)

The original photograph was taken on a 4x5 black and white negative film medium which Dorothea Lange captured from a Graflex camera, which she used at the time. (2)

Colour photography was rare in the 1930’s. Colour was challenging to process as it was sensitive to temperature changes. However, many documentary photographers thought that colour would only divert the viewer's attention thereby changing the intent of the photo. Therefore, many photographers like Lange, only used black and white film probably for this reason.

Dorothea Lange sitting on top of a car with her 4x5 Graflex camera
Dorothea Lange sitting on top of a car with her 4x5 Graflex camera

Lange shot the photo for the resettlement administration. The photo was used by the U.S. Government Farm Protection Administration (FSA) program, (which was established during the Great Depression), to raise awareness and aid farmers in need. It was the largest photography project ever sponsored by a Federal Government. The photographers, (Dorothy Lange, and other participants), were to build a "visual encyclopaedia of American life" containing 170,000 images over a nine-year period. Amongst them, Dorothea Lange's "Immigrant Mother" picture was recognised as an immensely powerful image. (3)

In this picture, the mother sits with her arm reaching up to her chin with her neck slightly forward. Her face is lined with worry. Her children huddle close behind her facing away from the camera, their heads resting on her back and shoulders. On the mother’s lap lies an infant wrapped in an oversized jacket.

Forty years after Lange took the photo, the migrant mother was discovered by a reporter. Her name was Florence Thompson. At the time, she was living in a trailer home in Modesto, California. She was ashamed of the photo and the poverty it portrayed. She considered the photo to be a curse. However, her children had a quite different opinion. The children proud of the strength she had, enduring suffering for the sake of her family. (4)

As a documentary photograph, this picture formed part of Dorothea Lange’s’ assignment. The personal intent of this picture was to draw the attention of the authorities just how much ordinary people suffered during that hardest time in America. Lange did not stop to obviously pay attention to this migrant mother when taking the picture. However, later, Lange informed the authorities’ as to the situation who donated 20,000 pounds of food to the camp.

The photos, commissioned by the Federal Government, and thereby in the public domain, spread quickly in many newspapers and magazines. Sadly, none of the readers at that time, appreciated the whole story of that iconic “Migrant Mother”.

There are two variation prints in the American Library of Congress Research service archive. A first print made without removing any objects from the negative film. The second print was made after removing some objects.

When taken, the mother was holding a wooden pole on one side of their tent. In 1939 however, Lange instructed her assistant to retouch the photo and remove Thompson’s thumb because Lange “considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she did not have a second thought about removing it”. (5)

Apparently, Lange only used the available natural light sources to shoot the picture. A gentle shadow fell on mother cheeks (on both sides of her nose and below her chin). Probably, the light was emitted from a cloudy sky. Lange captured five frames before the final photograph from one direction. Each time moved her Graflex camera closer to the migrant mother. No lighting changes can be found in the pictures when examined.

The mother's hair is very dark, and her skin is considerably lighter. This difference highlights the mother's face and emphasises her expression that captures the most powerful emotion in the photo. Her forehead is wrinkled, expressing her distress. Her face reveals her struggle. She is not looking at the camera but is probably aware Lange has taken her picture. The blank stare indicates that she is not curious or interested either in the photography or photographer.

“Immigrant Mother” was one photo in a six photos series. In the first photo in the series, we see Thompson with his three young children. To the left, a teenage daughter is sitting on a Bentwood rocking chair. However, in the last photo, this older girl was been edited out by Lange. (6)

The position of the teenage daughter in the photograph interferes with the primary purpose of communication. The girl's posture interferes with the idea of ​​poverty shown by the background images, (rather than the style evoked by the mother’s dress and hair). The teenager’s position is almost certainly raised, her gaze direct, making it difficult to understand the moment. All the subjects are looking at the photographer, and the two younger girls are smiling.

On the second photo, the camera appears to be positioned a few steps closer together. We can assume that the rocking chair was taken to the tent. Its markings were left on the floor. Lange may have asked for the chair to be removed for the second photo. In the previous photo, a car jack in the chair probably prevented the girl from sitting normally. Later, the object has was removed and is no longer visible. The younger girl is still looking at Lange, the other had moved to the right-hand side of the tent, we can only see her legs and hat. Could the teenage and older girl perhaps have been reluctant to have their photo taken later on?

In one picture in the series, we can see a wedding ring on mother’s finger, this perhaps disrupts the assumption built into a story about a single mother alone. The same photo shows the mother breastfeeding, revealing a white breast that is different from her dark, sun-exposed skin. According to their interaction, the mother may have been asked by Lange to feed the baby. To allow the baby (sleeping in all the other pictures) to wake up and begin feeding, the session time might have been no longer than 10 minutes, (enough time to get those photos).

Dorothea Lange has tried to emphasise the small details for this inspirational story in close-up frame rather than a detailed frame, (which spans a wide frame when viewed in parallel with the other photographs obtained alongside the main picture). The story is about real life. The characters in the story are symbols of this time in American history. Later, the picture achieved celebrity. It was widely recognised as the most popular social documentary photograph of all time. Lange’s style as a photographer proposed that social documentary photography is a humanist art form.

The visual appearance of this picture reminds me one of paintings in the catholic church, "Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus". According to other pictures from series, we can assume Lange staged this moment for her final photoshoot. Possibly an influence from the iconic panel painting "Madonna and Child" by the 13th century Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsega.

Certain elements make the image pleasing to the eye. This photo essentially consists of triangles. The centre triangle is made up of the mother and the two children behind her. The point is that the mother's head is usually where the viewer's eyes go first. The eye goes down towards the children's head and finally down the frame and the triangle. Another triangle is formed but by the mother herself. Her propping arm carries the baby from her head to the cloth and into her lap. These geometric shapes create an aesthetic pattern for the viewer.









25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page