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. –Dorothea Lange (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).
The other day our car was broken down (again, again) and we walked to the free art museum which happened to be 1.3 miles away. No matter the snow, or the biting wind–we had bags full of snacks and a blanket to wrap around the toddler. As we walked through the streets, past now familiar sights–the corner where all the deals go down, the popular cigarette shop, the statue made of melted-down guns kitty-corner against the park where people still get shot–we eventually found a tree-lined park, and the majestic columns of the art museum. We wandered in, unsure of how we had found this haven of calm, order, and beauty.
Between chasing our daughter (under the stern eyes of the guards) and wandering the many rooms of ancient art, we finally made our way to my favorites: the photography section. There, I was struck by a high-quality print of a photo I have seen time and time again: Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother, shot in 1936 in Nipomo, California. The look in the mother’s eyes, the way her children shun the camera–hair tangled, eyes never meeting our gaze–made me stop in my tracks and look long and hard.
I was gratified to read the above quote by Lange, which accompanied the photograph. The stories behind the photos are increasingly becoming more important to me. When she says there was “a sort of equality about it”, I want to believe her. I do believe her. I think Lange knew what she was doing, that she herself had been changed by the landscape, the shifting nature of migrant work, the way it bound and enslaved families in a desperate struggle for survival.
I went home and did some research. I found another article, talking about the photo from a different angle–that of one of the children in the picture, the girl huddled to her mother’s left. She talks of how ashamed they were of their situation, how they didn’t want anyone to know it was them in the picture. She talks about how ultimately, the photo did and did not come to define her mother (who died in 1982 and whose gravesite reads Migrant Mother: A Legend of the strength of American motherhood.). When asked to describe her childhood, the girl in the picture sees a fuller perspective: “50% good times and 50% hard times.”
That last bit struck me. When I see the photograph, all I see are the hard times: the people starving in the work camps, the way the depression settled like dust in the lines of your face, the strain such nomadic and unstable lives put on the children especially. What I don’t see are the other times–the music they loved (yodeling, it turns out), their fierce bonds, the normal imaginative play of childhood. But now I do, and it makes the picture even more impactful, makes it less of an exotic mystery (something I read about in a Steinbeck novel, for instance) and brings it directly into focus with the lives of the people I live next to every day. Lives full of hardships, lives full of joy. Moments of desperation buoyed by gratefulness, sickness tempered by celebrations, always the hope that the next crop will come in, that next year will be better.
This is just me; I have no thoughts on what exactly Ms. Lange would have me feel about the photos she took that day–but I do know that they changed her. They also changed the lives of the family in the picture, and deeply connected with the rest of the country. And the world has not changed all that much; Les Miserables are still all around us, dreaming for a better future, working and fighting and dying for it. And so, pictures like Migrant Mother continue to speak to us, and hopefully draw us along to something more inspired than pity, stir in us a curiosity for relationship and a longing for the kingdom to be fulfilled.
I’d be curious to know of other pictures/art that have moved you in such a way that you needed to know the back story behind them. For more information on the thought behind this series, go here.