When photographer Dorothea Lange stopped by the road side by a sign for Pea Pickers, she took a few photos in fifteen minutes of a migrant family and then left. Those fifteen minutes changed her life and became the icon of the Great Depression. Incredibly she only took six frames. When I first saw her work I just stared at it, I think any humans instinct is to immediately feel sadness for this mother and her children. The infants face is grimy with dirt and the two children bury their faces in their mothers shoulder. As in portrait photos the other powerful feature is the mothers gaze. Instead of staring directly at the camera for all her suffering and her soul to see she looks away as though looking for someone, perhaps gazing into the distant past. People have noted that a father does not appear so maybe she is looking for him. That is the mystery and intrigue that draws the readers in.
Lange quoted this which I think describes everything about the situation and why she took it.
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 32. 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.
The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers. It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”
I find it such an emotive, powerful photo and you keep going back staring at it reading her story. A picture really does tell a thousand words. Though she does frown and is desperate there is also a lot of strength in her expression, she protects these three children and her grave stone reads “”FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”