The captions Dorothea Lange wrote for her photographs have the compactness of Ernest Hemingway’s prose: “Three families, 14 children.” Her captions mimic the sparseness of her compositions, as if the words can remain sturdy without the buttresses of adjectives. “June 1935. Negro field worker, Holtville, Imperial Valley, California. He has just made himself shoes out of that old tire.”
The caption of “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea’s most famous photograph — the one that everyone has seen but no one knows by name — is no exception: “Destitute pea-pickers in California; a 32-year-old mother of seven children. February, 1936.”
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The mother was Florence Owens Thompson, born Florence Leona Christie in 1903 to Cherokee parents on Cherokee land. Florence lived almost an entire life before she turned thirty: she married, moved from Oklahoma to California, had six children, and watched her first husband die of tuberculosis.
Throughout the 1930s, Florence’s family changed shape and location, but she remained its stable center point as they searched for work. After her first husband died, Florence raised the children by herself. She worked outside during the day as a picker and inside at night as a waitress. Soon she became pregnant by a wealthy businessman, but she left him for fear of losing custody of the child. To make sure the infant, Charlie, would be safe, Florence brought him back to Oklahoma to leave him in the care of her own parents. “Her biggest fear,” her son Troy said later in an interview, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her.”
Later, she became pregnant by Jim Hill, a bartender and butcher from Los Angeles. The six children they raised together had, among them, three fathers. Without a house, their car was their constant. “Showers” must have been from canteens, and “doing laundry” meant digging into a trunk for clothing that was less soiled. Life was both a numbing monotone and a scramble for calories. Florence and Jim followed California’s crops as they came into season — carrots outside of Los Angeles, asparagus from Fresno, artichokes in Monterey, and then back down south again to repeat the cycle. They picked their destinations based on other pickers’ information. If they heard, through the grapevine, that the vineyards were ready — to Napa, then.
In February or March 1936 (documents differ), Florence, Jim, and the children moved north toward Watsonville, where they heard lettuce was ready for picking. On the way, their car broke down in Nipomo, a town two hours north of Los Angeles.
The family found themselves among thousands of migrant workers living in tents made of whatever canvas was lying around, waiting. A frost had killed Nipomo’s peas, and there was nothing to pick. Anyone with a way to leave or a place to go had already left. Florence and the girls set up a tent and waited as Jim and the boys carried the radiator into town to see if it could be fixed.
A southbound car pulled over near the girls’ tent. A woman wearing clean clothes and a bandana got out. She carried a long camera. The woman favored one leg as she walked over to the tent. She smiled and started asking questions immediately.
What work do you do? I pick vegetables.
How old are you? 32.
Do you have enough to eat? We eat frozen vegetables. Sometimes, the kids will kill a bird or two.
Can I take your picture? Why?
I think there’s a chance it’ll help people who are stuck like you. I suppose.
The woman started taking pictures. She had Florence move a pile of dirty clothes out of the frame and took shots from ten feet away, then twenty. She got up close at the end so that she could see the holes in their clothing. She grouped Florence and her three youngest girls so that they all appeared to be a single mass. Katherine was on Florence’s right, Ruby on her left, and baby Norma on her lap. Fourteen–year–old Viola was left out of the final few frames because the woman didn’t want people to look at the picture and think Florence needed birth control rather than sympathy. Ruby’s fist, on Florence’s left shoulder, looked like it was dipped in grime and left out to dry. Out of anxious habit, Florence put a hand on her cheek. She didn’t even look into the lens.
The woman thanked Florence and limped back to the car, driving off on 101–North. Florence and the girls kept waiting. A few hours later, the boys came back with the radiator repaired. The family folded up their canvas and continued north. They made it to Watsonville a day or two later, continuing on to another town after that.
The boys used to sell out–of–town newspapers to pickers and farmers. One day, in March, Troy paused after seeing a copy of the San Francisco News. On the front page was a picture of his mother and his sisters.
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The government sent Dorothea Lange up and down California’s 770 vertical miles to find and photograph migrant workers. By early 1936, Dorothea was averaging 14 hours of driving a day. Whenever she pulled over, she would sit up on top of her car to survey the area. Her assistant, who occasionally accompanied her on trips, says that she always had him drive slowly so that she could see everything.
In 1902, seven–year–old Dorothea got polio. The disease left her with a lifelong limp, a handicap that would later grant her acceptance from the people society deemed down-and-out. She left New York at 23 with a close girlfriend, and hoped to make it as a photographer in San Francisco. She apprenticed under a portrait photographer who once documented the rubble of the 1906 earthquake.
Soon Dorothea had her own studio and was married to Maynard Dixon, a painter who rendered the American West with broad strokes. She took posed pictures of San Francisco’s elite, but after 1929 couldn’t help but notice the ever–increasing flow of the unemployed past her studio’s window. Her curiosity and what she imagined to be her “cloak of invisibility” began to take her to fields and bread lines — places where people told her not to go.
In the early 1930s, she fell out with Maynard and in with the social scientists at U.C. Berkeley. She went on a field trip with economics professor Paul Taylor to study Mexican migrant workers in the Southwest; Paul wrote the reports and Dorothea took the pictures. She fell in love. On the afternoon following their wedding ceremony, Dorothea took pictures of pea pickers and soil erosion.
Paul helped Dorothea find work with the government, which was interested in photographing the differences among America’s poorest people rather than their sameness. Because government agencies didn’t typically hire photographers at the time, the Resettlement Administration (later the Farm Security Administration) at first listed her as a “typist.”
Dorothea documented thousands of workers in her notebook but also recorded details as specific as the nitty–gritty financials: “Max income from produce–annual $11–apricots–”; “El Monte Federal Subsistence Homesteads three–room house, $17.70 monthly…Father, carpenter, earns $70 monthly. California.”
One day in March 1936, Dorothea completed a long–term project in Southern California and was driving home with a month’s worth of field notes and negatives on the seat next to her. The sky was pea–soup gloomy, and it was raining. Dorothea passed Santa Barbara, Los Alamos, and then Santa Maria, calculating in her head how long it would take to finally get home: 400 miles. 65 mph. 6 hours.
After Santa Maria was Nipomo. Dorothea drove through the waterlogged town, noticing a wooden sign with shoddy block letters that had started to run in the rain: “PEA–PICKERS CAMP.” She kept driving. She started to get a nagging sensation: “What about that camp back there, Dorothea?” She came up with excuses. Her work was done. She was almost home. Her camera might get wet. Twen-ty miles down the road, she gave in, U–turning on the open highway and heading back south.
The turn was remarkable given how many similar situations Dorothea had encountered that winter. None of her field notes correspond precisely with “Migrant Mother,” but she seems to have already seen the elements of that photograph — broken–down cars, families stuck in Nipomo, pea–picking — in various combinations:
“Family stranded on flat tire or transmission 1 mi from Bakersfield 4 mo baby––5 in family want to follow fruit”
“near Nipomo 3 exp. destitute family”
“Pea pickers from Kansas––Mexicans––going to Nipomo family of 7––the old story.”
She filed the photos when she returned to the Bay Area and a few days later, the San Francisco News ran one of her shots from Nipomo on the front page. She also sent her negatives to the Resettlement Administration offices in Washington and within a day or two, the government shipped 20,000 pounds of food to the camp in Nipomo. By then, Florence and her family were in Watsonville.
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It wasn’t until the 1970s that Florence started revealing her bitterness. “That’s my picture hanging all over the world, and I can’t get a penny out of it,” she told journalists. From her mobile home (she insisted on always having wheels under her) in Modesto, CA, she sent angry letters to publications both local and national. To U.S. Camera magazine, she wrote: “You would do Dorothea Lange a great Favor by Sending me her address That I may Inform her that should the picture appear in Any magazine again I and my Three Daughters shall be Forced to Protect our rights.”
Florence assumed that Dorothea was living comfortably in the Bay Area foothills off the royalties of a ten–minute pit stop in Nipomo. In fact, Dorothea received no such compensation, and Florence couldn’t take legal action— the photograph is government property, as it was created under the FSA. Anyone can purchase a print of it for a small fee.
As such, advertisers and anyone with a cause can easily obtain rights to “Migrant Mother.” It has been used to advertise Samsonite luggage (which was probably not the brand in Florence’s tent), anti–wrinkle cream (which Florence likely didn’t use), and the Gap (which sells clothes without holes). The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, a black newspaper in Oakland, even drew an afro onto Florence’s head. “POVERTY IS A CRIME, AND OUR PEOPLE ARE THE VICTIMS,” read the headline. This is about as perplexing as the fact that Florence, a Cherokee, became the face of white poverty.
Lange’s work now sells for a lot of money in auction houses. In 1998, a signed print of “Migrant Mother” went for just under $250,000. A vintage print of “The White Angel Bread Line, San Francisco (1932),” another one of Lange’s most famous images, sold for over $800,000. It was a photograph of hungry men at a soup kitchen.
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In 2012, the Chumash Indians, who originally settled Nipomo, now run a casino nearby, right off 101. Driving southbound, Nipomo seems to be just another town under the flushed–toilet bowl sky in the yawning gap between Northern and Southern California. On the straight–shot drive down from the Bay Area — “Merge onto US–101 S. Drive 231 mi. Take exit 179 for Nipomo,” Google says — Dorothea Lange probably would have driven right by Nipomo, unless she needed to stop at a Starbucks.
Passing drivers who stop to fill up their tanks in Nipomo won’t see anything indicating that the town is where “Migrant Mother” was taken, even if they drove all the way down Thompson Road, the town’s main drag.
“I thought at least they named the road after Florence Thompson. No such luck. It’s some other Thompson,” says Paul Lester, a professor of visual communications at California State University, Fullerton. Lester visited Nipomo last April and was surprised not to find any traces of Florence or Dorothea. “There’s no monument or marker or anything for one of the most famous photographs ever taken,” he says.
When Lester studied photojournalism in the 70s, Lange was taught as a foundational documentarian, and now, in the visual communications textbook that he wrote, “Migrant Mother” is on the first page of the chapter on photography. Lester wants to commemorate the photograph in Nipomo with some sort of monument. A local historian once tried to put up a marker, but Lester figures that as an outsider with a Ph.D., he might have a little more sway.
The first step was figuring out where to put it. Those who study the photograph tend to believe that it was taken near where Thompson Road is now, because that’s where 101–N used to run. Lester wasn’t sure. He worked with a local historian and an engineer to determine where Florence’s tent must have been. The historian told Lester where all of the camps in Nipomo were in 1936, which limited the possible locations. The engineer laid Google Street View pictures over the hills in the background of some of Dorothea’s shots and came up with a location. Lester thinks that Thompson Road may well have been where Florence’s car broke down but that she set up her tent closer to what is now the 200–300 block of N. Oakglen Avenue, about a half–mile away from the previously–assumed location.
Lester has drafted a plaque and is working with the Olde Towne Nipomo Association to get some sort of marker placed. Because the 200–300 block of Oakglen is not an ideal location for anything, he plans to put it up in a park that the town is currently building. The marker will be simple, and — factoring in government permits — will cost only a couple thousand dollars. “I always wanted a marker with benches, and maybe some pea plants planted around it, so people, maybe old–timers,” he says, “can sit and kind of reflect on it all.”
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Farther north, El Camino Real runs through one of the nation’s richest ZIP codes. West of El Camino are plantation–style mansions and modern glass wonders with coded gates. East of El Camino is a neighborhood that, with its pastel storefronts and runny paint, looks like it was airdropped from Mexico. As grass is manicured, laundry is folded, and paint is applied to ever–freshened surfaces, one neighborhood polishes another.
East of El Camino, you can practice your white–boy Spanish with the woman at the register of the taqueria, who humors you, only to respond to your order with perfect English: “Will that be all?” On the weekends, and often during the week, men sit on the sidewalks and in parking lots, waiting. Anyone with a commute on El Camino has seen them. Believe it or not, you can go talk to them — no, not as someone who needs yard work done — and learn their names. The approach is hard because there is no social convention for these interactions; sometimes it can be subversive to treat people with respect.
But they will answer your questions. Naturally, they’ll be skeptical when a white person asks them where they’re from and where they work — the silences you’ll hear suggest fears of federales — but you can win them over if you’re honest.
They’ll smile, laugh even. Some have jobs. Others do not. Some paint. Some trim hedges. Some cook Italian food. Some exercise. Some are going back to Guatemala because the rent is too damn high.
You can learn these things if you throw some U–turns in your commute.