1936 photos by Dorothea Lange for the Farm Security Administration. Now available through the Library of Congress.
In March 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange made a short stop in Nipomo, California. A ten minute photo shoot resulted in the iconic "Migrant Mother" image. This portrait of Florence Owens Thompson became the defining image of the Great Depression.
In a Sep. 17, 1983 obituary for Florence Owens Thompson, Los Angeles Times writer Burt A. Folkart reported:
Mrs. Thompson was a widow with six children working in a farm labor camp in San Luis Obispo (county) in 1936 when photographer Dorothea Lange took her picture–now immortalized as “Migrant Mother.” The photo showed three of her children at her side. Mrs. Thompson held one hand to her lips as if she contemplating her next misfortune while the other cradled her youngest daughter, who only moments before had been nursing at her breast.
The despair and poverty in the informal portrait–one of thousands commissioned by the Farm Security Administration–came to typify the tragedy of the Depression itself. It was chosen as the theme picture of “In This Proud Land: America 1935-1943” and was circulated around the world. …
Lange almost skipped taking this image.
In early March, 1936, Dorothea Lange just wanted to get to her Berkeley home. She’d just completed a month of photography for the Farm Security Administration. Her family was waiting.
While traveling through Nipomo, south of San Luis Obispo, she spotted a sign “Pea-Pickers Camp.” Lange didn’t stop.
In a 1960 Popular Photography interview Lange explained:
Having well convinced myself for 20 miles that I could continue on, I did the opposite. Almost without realizing what I was doing I made a U-turn on the empty highway. I went back those 20 miles and turned off the highway at that sign…
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 the the children killed. …
The pea crop at Nipomo had frozen and there was no work for anybody. But I did not approach the tents or shelters of other stranded pea-pickers, It was not necessary; I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.
Lange spent about ten minutes with Florence Thompson, then headed north. Once home, she processed the Nipomo images. Remembered the plight of the Nipomo farm workers, Lange contacted the San Francisco News.
Two of Lange’s photos were published in the March 10, 1936 San Francisco News accompanying the story “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor.”
A similar wire story appeared in the March 10, 1936 Los Angeles Times:
Santa Maria, March 9, (U.P.)–A camp of itinerant harvest workers, stranded without food or money due to a crop failure in the midst of a rich coastal pea farming country, tonight awaited food supplies doled by the Federal government.
Members of the camp, numbering several hundred workmen and their families, have been destitute since a blight and heavy rains destroyed the winter pea crop, which they were imported to harvest.
They have been living in tents, on scanty food supplies furnished by San Luis Obispo authorities. The camp in situated near Nipomo, across the county line from Santa Maria.
A Federal Survey Bureau photographer, sent to the area to photograph typical agricultural labor camps, discovered the plight of the harvesters, according to reports from San Francisco.
I’m guessing the photographer was Dorothea Lange.
A followup story in the March 11, 1936 Los Angeles Times reported that food rations for 2000 workers were headed to Nipomo.
The actual Nipomo location of the workers camp is in question. In 1936, Highway 101 used the current Thompson Ave. route. Highway 101 was later rerouted around Nipomo. The probable location is mentioned in this 2012 Santa Maria Times story Nipomo ‘Migrant Mother’ camp pinpointed.
A great help in building the photo gallery is the Photogrammer.yale.edu site where the 170,000 photographs created by the Farm Security Administration and later Office of War Information are organized. The original scans for these images are at the Library of Congress.
I could not find the original 1960 Popular Photography interview with Dorothea Lange online. This article EyeWitness to History Migrant Mother, 1936, reprints much of the interview.
Geoffrey Dunn wrote an excellent article Photographic license for the San Luis Obispo New Times.
The above photo gallery includes five of the images taken of Florence Thompson. I added 20 additional 1936 images by Dorothea Lange.
My thoughts on images past and present.