Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Margaret Olin reviews Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender

Sally Stein. Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender: Reconsidering Dorothea Lang’s Iconic Portrait of Maternity. London: Mack, 2020. 117 pp.

Review by Margaret Olin

12 August 2020

To define accurately the word “migrant” takes more than a dictionary definition. “A person on a journey” may have a “gig,” for example, while a migrant is more likely to have a “plight.” A famous photograph narrowed the definition further, ensuring that the word migrant generally evokes a victim, usually female, often with a child. Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother (1936), of a pea picker’s family, taken when she worked for the Farm Security Administration, remains a model for many an NGO that deals with refugees and migrants. Photographic historian Sally Stein, who has been puzzling over this image for many years, has now published Migrant Mother, Migrant Gender: Considering Dorothea Lange’s Iconic Portrait of Maternity, which will substantially alter our assumptions about this iconic photograph and its subject, Florence Thompson.

As an aspiring photographer in the 1970s, I admired Lange as proof that a photographer, and a woman at that, could tackle issues of social justice. Oddly, however, I found Migrant Mother less appealing than the despairing man in The White Angel Bread Line (1933), the anxious Woman of the High Plains (1938), and even a photograph seemingly without implications for human rights, one of her son, tenderly but gingerly holding his first-born. In this compactly written book, Stein places images like these and more in the context of Lange’s career and of Migrant Mother.  Lange made the photograph on a detour into Nipomo as she drove home to Berkeley from Southern California where she had been photographing agricultural conditions. In her brief time with Thompson and her children, she made at least seven exposures, one of them discovered by Stein during her research. Stein painstakingly sifts through these exposures to trace Lange’s process as she solved problems and developed her vision, and she proceeds to trace how one of the images became iconic.

The most illuminating analysis is of a thumb visible in the original negative in the right foreground, which Lange carefully excised as unaesthetic. Stein shows that this thumb marks the strain of holding the remarkable pose captured in the picture, raising the possibility that the effort accounts for Thompson’s tense look, rather than (only) uncertainties about the future and the anxieties of finding shelter and sustenance. The thumb becomes an index not only of the intrusion of the photographer, or of Thompson’s eagerness to cooperate to get her story out––but also of her struggle as a mother to take care of her children, and to play the expected role of which the photograph would make her the icon: as the Madonna of migration.

This brings me back to the photograph of Lange’s son, which Stein ties brilliantly to the Migrant Mother by way of Lange’s own ambivalence about motherhood. In many photographs, including those of migrants, Lange sought to portray men as caregivers. Perhaps her son, unused to being a caregiver, but nevertheless giving it a try, was as artificially posed as was the migrant mother, made to stand in an uncomfortable position, physically or maybe emotionally; or he, like she, cooperated in the creation of a new conception of fatherhood in which men, literally, help carry the burden of childrearing.

Dorothea Lange’s camera turned Florence Thompson into the classic migrant imagined as the classic mother of a white nuclear family. But the photograph, Stein persuasively argues, questions, rather than promotes, the myth of motherhood. Indeed, I would add to Stein’s analysis by suggesting that the image not of the Madonna, but rather of Charity is best suited to compare to the Migrant Mother. Charity, with children hanging off her greedily, is not an all-giving, adoring parent; she often seems rather put upon. As Charity, the beleaguered Migrant Mother makes more sense; not only do the  pressures of poverty and forced migration get to her, but also the demands made upon her by the myth of motherhood, and even by the photographer. Thompson does not, after all, gaze adoringly at the swaddled child in the crook of her arm as would a Madonna. She looks away, as charity often does.

That Lange excised the thumb aroused the anger of the governmental agency that hired her and probably helped lead to her firing just a few years later. The myth that caused this anger is that documentary photography should impart reality unaltered. Yet a photographer’s arrival already alters reality. The photograph taken records a different reality: a relationship between the photographer and her subject, in this case a brief, yet cooperative relationship between the woman with the plight and the woman who tells her story.