The Pandemic Begins: Strength & Worry – in Art & Life (Lange’s Migrant Mother)

Cher’s Famous Art

14 March 2020

Migrant Mother, Nipoma Valley, CA, 1935

Dorothea Lange, American Photographer

The whole world hit the PAUSE button this week as we were hit with the COVID-19 Corona Virus pandemic. With shock, everything and everyone went into shutdown. Schools and churches are closed. Restaurants and bars are closed. Countries have closed their borders. People are instructed to stay at home and shelter-in-place. It is a time of great uncertainty with the prospect of people losing their jobs, their health–and for many, their very lives. As my face-to-face university art history class has gone virtual during the shutdown, I want to share one of the famous art works we are studying! This photograph seems appropriate in our current crisis as it is a photograph taken during another national crisis: the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. “Migrant Mother, Nipoma Valley, CA, 1935” is an unforgettable photograph of a mother in which photographer Dorothea Lange captured the woman’s strength and worry.

During an era when there were few female artists, photography created a medium in which women not only thrived, but it was a medium in which women could compete with men in a male dominated culture. Dorothea Lange was one of these female artists who took to photography and had a major impact on the world.

Lange described how she got the picture: “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 remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. . . There she sat in her lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and she seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.” Within days after Lange’s photograph appeared in the San Francisco newspaper, people rushed food to Nipomo to feed the hungry workers.1

The woman in the photograph was eventually identified as Florence Owens Thompson. A great recap of both the history behind and the subject of the photo can be found at https://www.history.com/news/migrant-mother-new-deal-great-depression. A wider photograph of the scene in included below.

Having parents who grew up during the 1930’s and who lived through the Great Depression, I remember stories of difficulty finding work and making money just to buy food. They could relate to the worry and stress seen on the face of the Migrant Mother. They too survived and, in the end, it gave them strength to face anything that life put in their paths in the decades ahead.

I believe that this pandemic can also serve to make us stronger and more resilient in the future if we allow it make us grow and not allow it to overtake us physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually.

As with any photograph, there can be many “originals” but the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA owns a print in its collection. However, photographs are rotated regularly so it may or may not be on display when one visits the museum. http://www.artsmia.org

Migrant Mother with family

1 Kleiner, Fred S., Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 14th edition. p 894.

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