Notes: The most famous photograph from the Depression and perhaps the most famous documentary image ever. This is a portrait of Florence Thompson with three of her children taken by Dorothea Lange in a migrant farmworkers camp in San Luis Obispo County, California. The image is usually called Migrant Mother, but Lange gave it the more descriptive title, "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."
Lange was not completely satisfied with the original picture which featured Thompson's thumb gripping a post in the immediate foreground. After making a few prints from the unaltered negative, Lange employed a bit of darkroom wizardry to partially mask the thumb, which remains as a ghost below the baby's face in all but a handful of the earliest prints of this picture. So while this was one of the most influential images to convey the plight of the poor during the Depression, it is also an example of how photographic "truth" can be subtly altered by the photographer to achieve a desired effect.
At the time she took this photograph, Lange was working for the Resettlement Administration and the Farm Security Administration (two WPA agencies) and as a result, the negatives belonged to her employer, the federal government. For decades they have been on deposit at the Library of Congress and for many years, anyone could ask the library to make prints, directly from Lange's original negatives. This is one of those silver gelatin prints.
Image, 7-1/2 by 9-1/4 on 8-by-10 inch Kodak paper.
Edition + Condition: A near fine example. This image is printed much darker than most Migrant Mother prints, which is closer to the way Lange tended to print the image (most of the 1930s prints are quite dark). The darker image makes the dirtiness of the Thompson family's clothes and arms more apparent. This image is stamped on the back (verso) with a single line of black ink, "Reproduced from the collection of the Library of Congress" with notes about the negative used, "58350 / 9058 / pt" in pencil. In raking light, small creases and dents are visible on the paper.
Prints from the Library of Congress are hard to date, but I suspect this is from the late 1970s or early 1980s. A substantially similar image (same size) sold at Heritage Auctions for $12,500 on October 8, 2021.
Publication: Washington, DC: Library of Congress, (1936 but printed ca. 1980?).
Item No: #360842