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As suggested in the Researching Images section of this guide, awareness of the circumstances surrounding the creation of any given image enriches our interpretation of it. Exploring, however briefly, the multiple contexts surrounding a single, well-known picture vividly illustrates the point that many factors shape the making and meaning of images.
The photograph popularly known as "Migrant Mother" has become an icon of the Great Depression. The compelling image of a mother and her children is actually one of a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made in February or March of 1936 in Nipomo, California. Seeing the photograph in the context of related images, understanding the purpose for which it was made, and knowing something of the photographer's and subject's views of the occasion amplify our perspectives on the image, and, at the same time, suggest that no single meaning can be assigned to it.
Lange made the photographs toward the end of a month's trip photographing migratory farm labor for what was then the Resettlement Administration, later to become the Farm Security Administration. Her work was part of the administration's larger effort to document economic and social distress among the nation's agricultural workers and to advertise the agency's relief programs and the measures it was taking to address underlying causes of the dislocation. In 1960, Lange gave this account of the photographic encounter:
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. (Lange, "The Assignment I'll Never Forget: Migrant Mother," Popular Photography, February 1960)
Whatever the woman, Florence Owens Thompson, thought of Lange's actions at the time, she came to regret that Lange ever made the photographs, which she felt permanently colored her with a "Grapes of Wrath" stereotype. Thompson, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, had already lived in California for a decade when Lange photographed her. The immediate popularity of the images in the press did nothing to alleviate the financial distress that had spurred the family to seek seasonal agricultural work. Contrary to the despairing immobility the famous image seems to embody, however, Thompson was an active participant in farm labor struggles in the 1930s, occasionally serving as an organizer. Her daughter later commented, "She was a very strong woman. She was a leader. I think that's one of the reasons she resented the photo—because it didn't show her in that light." (quoted in: Geoffrey Dunn, “Photographic License,” San Jose Metro, January 19-25, 1995, p. 22.)