Born in 1895, Dorothea Lange had 2 life-changing misfortunes during her childhood. The first happened at age 7, when she contracted polio. The disease left her with a pronounced limp that remained for the rest of her life. She referred to it as the most important thing that happened to her. “’It formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me. All those things at once. I’ve never gotten over it, and I am aware of the force and the power of it’” . She was teased at school, and didn’t fit in. But the greatest hurt was caused by her mother Joan’s embarrassment over having a daughter with a limp. Dorothea saw her mother as a weak woman overly concerned with others’ opinions. She was ashamed of the way her mother bowed to any kind of authority .
The second tragedy happened at age 12, when her father, a lawyer, walked out on the family, never to return. Dorothea, her brother Martin and mother Joan went from living a middle-class life to being penniless. Joan was forced to be the breadwinner, finding a job at the public library in New York’s Lower East Side. Dorothea attended a mostly-Jewish public school and had few friends. By the time she reached high school she was regularly cutting class. She wandered the streets of the city observing the sights, the noise and the squalor. She went to museums, concerts and parks. Her mother never knew she was cutting school. She credits her mother’s
neglect with allowing her to experience things that enriched her life. Upon graduating from high school, she knew immediately – after years of observing society – she wanted to be a photographer .
With no experience in photography, Lange approached Arnold Genthe, asking for a job in his Fifth Avenue photography studio. He hired her, and her training in portrait photography began. She learned the craft and techniques of the darkroom before moving to San Francisco and establishing her own portrait studio in 1918 at age 22. She married the painter Maynard Dixon. His 10-year-old daughter Consie moved in with them, but as Lange tried to juggle the demands of the portrait studio and motherhood, she exploded in rages and Consie was sent to live with friends. Dorothea and Maynard had 2 sons together, but Dorothea was never a traditional mother. She would watch out her window as photographer Paul Strand drove by each morning on the way to his studio, and then back home at the end of the day. She painfully realized the unfairness of it. “’There is a sharp difference, a gulf. The woman’s position is immeasurably more complicated. What Paul Strand was able to do, I wasn’t’” . To keep her studio going, she sent her boys to live with friends for days and weeks at a time, and later to a boarding school.
When the Depression began, Lange started to document the unrest in the streets, photographing unemployed men, bread lines, and labor strikes. "She photographed because she was shocked to see men living in parks or sleeping scattered like leaves on the pavement" .
Paul Taylor, an economics professor working on a research project on Mexican migration in California, needed a photographer to help him with his fieldwork and hired Lange. They began to notice carloads of families carrying all their possessions in a mass migration to California. Lange wrote: "'They looked very woebegone to me. They were American whites. I looked at the license plate on the car, and it was Oklahoma'" . These Okies were farming families displaced by the dust storms and the agricultural crisis in Oklahoma. The Depression had caused crop and livestock prices to fall, at the same time that farm machinery was taking the place of field hands.
Bill Ganzel, author of the book Dust Bowl Descent, quotes author Walter J. Stein: "'If this migration of white Americans had not occurred ...No Grapes of Wrath would have been written; no migrant problem would have attracted the nation's gaze...The tribulations of the Joads received attention, however, because the nation found intolerable for white Americans conditions it considered normal for California Mexicans or Negroes'" .
In her article "Dorothea Lange: The Photographer as Agricultural Sociologist," Linda Gordon quotes Paul Taylor's own words in describing the dust storms that led to the migration: "'Dust is not new on the Great Plains, but never . . . has it been so pervasive and so destructive.
Dried by years of drought and pulverized by machine-drawn gang disk plows, the soil was
literally thrown to the winds which whipped it in clouds across the country. . . . They loosened
the hold of settlers on the land, and like particles of dust drove them rolling down ribbons of highway'" 
Taylor and Lange's reports on the desperate living conditions of the migrants were submitted to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in Washington. FERA sent $20,000 to establish two emergency relief camps with hot water, stoves, toilets, an office manager and a community building . Roy Stryker saw the Taylor-Lange reports at the FSA. Based upon her impressive work, he hired Lange as one of his field photographers. Soon afterward, Taylor and Lange divorced their spouses and were married. Dorothea was in her forties at the time. She drove up and down California photographing migrant workers for the FSA. Because of the adversity that had left her with a limp, she was able to quickly gain the trust of the migrants .
Working in the field was difficult and Lange described her circumstances as not much better than those of the people she was working with. She faced bad weather, dust and sand storms. She witnessed filth, flies, starving families with sick children, and epidemics of scarlet fever and typhoid in the overcrowded migrant camps and shantytowns. She dealt with the horrible experiences of the migrant camps by working at a frantic pace to fulfill Stryker’s demands and to obtain government aid for the migrants . No photograph delivered the message to America better than Lange’s Migrant Mother.
James C. Curtis, in his article "Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression" describes in detail how Migrant Mother came to be. Lange had just completed an exhausting day of fieldwork and was driving home in the rain. Her camera equipment was packed up in the car, with rolls of film ready to send to Washington. She passed a sign that said “Pea Pickers Camp,” but didn’t stop. She drove twenty miles down the road, persuading herself nothing was lost in passing by the camp. But an inexplicable impulse led her to turn around and drive back. She got out of her car and was drawn like a magnet to one tent at the camp, where a woman hovered with her starving children. Moving a little closer with each shot, Lange took only 6 photographs of the mother and her children. She was there only 10 minutes. The final close-up was carefully arranged by Lange after the first 5 experimental poses .
Lange’s experience in portrait photography, along with societal codes of morality, influenced what she decided to include in the final photograph. The first two pictures were of the entire group – a 32-year-old mother and 3 children inside their dirt-floor tent, and a teenage daughter seated casually in a rocking chair. Lange moved closer and excluded the teenage daughter. In America's eyes, the teenager would be old enough to be self-sufficient. The teen daughter would also raise the question of the mother’s age when she started having children. Also missing from all the photos were 3 of the mother’s 7 children, who were elsewhere at the time. This benefited the pictures because America would have frowned upon a woman bringing so many children into poverty .
The third picture was a close-up of the Mother and nursing baby. Lange wanted to portray a nurturing image like that of a Madonna and Child painting. The Madonna was a symbol during the Depression of renewal and regeneration. But the close-up was spoiled by the mother gazing downward, which Lange thought showed embarrassment. Lange brought in one of the other children to help the mother overcome her inhibition. For the fourth picture Lange had the child rest her head on the mother’s shoulder. The baby was now asleep, eliminating negative viewer reaction to seeing a nursing mother’s bare breast .
The composition was still not right. Lange switched from a horizontal to a vertical view for the fifth picture, eliminating the piles of dirty laundry that might also sit unfavorably with America. Lange wanted to show dignity, not dirt and disorder in the composition. Lange had the daughter rest her hand on the mother’s shoulder, to suggest the familial bonding respected by urban families. This was to counteract the notion that rural families were not loving or affectionate .
Still, Lange was not satisfied. The mother’s pose was too stiff as she held the sleeping baby with both arms. Lange brought in a second child and had both daughters rest their heads on their mother’s shoulders, but turned away so as not to distract from the mother’s expression which was the focal point. Lange knew the power of body language, especially the position of a hand, and directed the mother to look away from the camera and bring her right hand to her face. By framing the face, the hand called attention to the mother’s emotions .
The Migrant Mother photograph became the most iconic symbol of the Great Depression, published in LIFE, Look and other magazines and newspapers around the world. Decades went by before the identity of the mother was discovered, since Lange had never asked for her name. In 1983, when Florence Thompson suffered a stroke, her daughters made a public plea for funds to help with her medical bills. A nation moved by her famous photograph sent donations totaling fifteen thousand dollars . Florence Thompson died only 50 miles from the pea pickers’ camp where Lange had first found her.
Dorothea Lange was caught in a gender-stereotype-defined tug-of-war, pulled back and forth between her passion for photography and the 1920-30s societal expectation of a woman’s place as a mother. Society expected Lange to devote herself to raising her family, as she came of age in a time of gender discrimination. But the biographies of her childhood and educational decisions make it clear that Lange had a drive to break the mold, and chose photography as her vehicle to blaze a path to greatness.
As a person with a disability, Lange had experienced prejudice and exclusion. She was instilled with great empathy for the disadvantaged. Her social consciousness contributed to her decisions about how to portray her subjects. When looking at her body of work, it is obvious that Lange was not merely following the scripts of Roy Stryker, but that she truly believed in the dignity of each human being. In photograph after photograph, she was able to capture the essence of poverty because her subjects saw her compassion and willingly shared their pain with her.
It is interesting that in her Migrant Mother photograph, Lange cropped out any suggestion of poor mothering or bad housekeeping. She understood what it would take to get the upper class to sympathize with the poor and support the New Deal programs with their tax dollars. But Lange’s focus on the mother/child bond could also be attributed to her need to compensate for her personal losses. Lange did not revere her mother, and had her own conflicted feelings about being a mother, a role that took time away from her vocation as a photographer,
Lange’s photographs captured the face of scarcity, fear, and desperation. She accomplished her main goal of obtaining aid for America’s suffering and downtrodden. In the process, her photographs also defined the essence of the good mother, which people all over the country and the world identified as relevant and important. Skilled photographic technique alone could not have delivered Lange’s message. The person behind the lens - who had early in life formed a social conscience, empathy for human suffering, and the drive for greatness – had to be in the right place and time to give such a gift to the world.