Migrant Mother: Birth of An Icon

Lange’s most famous photograph almost didn’t happen, and its lasting impact was something of a mystery to her. Out of the thousands of images she made, why does this have such universal appeal? Considering its impact, it is ironic that Migrant Mother is not typical of Lange’s usual practice. Exhausted after a long road trip, she did not interact much with the migrant woman, Florence Thompson, and didn’t record her story accurately. Although Thompson became a famous symbol of white motherhood, her heritage was Native American. The photograph moved many Americans to support relief efforts, but it  distressed Thompson and her children and raised ethical concerns about the way photography can turn individuals into symbols.

I didn’t get anything out of it. I wish she hadn’t of taken my picture. — Florence Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” The Oakland Tribune, November 19, 1978 (Associated Press story)