Migrant Madonna

On a raw, soggy day in March 1936, Dorothea Lange was driving home to Berkeley after six weeks spent photographing migrant workers in California, New Mexico and Arizona. Her staff position at the Resettlement Administration (RA), an agency set up to help tenant farmers during the Depression, was tenuous: since there was no budget for a photographer, Lange had been hired as a clerk-stenographer, and she invoiced her film and travel expenses under "clerical supplies."

As Lange drove along the empty California highway that day, she noticed a sign that said Pea-Pickers Camp. Knowing that the pea crop had frozen, she debated for 20 miles before finally turning back. After pulling into the camp’s muddy lane, Lange approached a female migrant worker, requested and got permission to photograph her and shot just five exposures. Lange’s field notes read in part: "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."

Back home, Lange developed the images and, clutching the still-wet prints, told the editor of the San Francisco News that migrant workers were slowly starving to death in Nipomo, California. The story the News ran about them featured Lange’s pictures; UPI picked it up, and within days the federal government supplied the workers with 20,000 pounds of food. By that time, however, the woman and her family, desperate to find work, had moved on.

Nearly 40 years later, in 1975, Bill Ganzel, a photographer and producer for Nebraska Educational Television, set out to find some of the people photographed by the RA during the Depression, an idea he would eventually turn into a book, Dust Bowl Descent. At about the same time, Florence Thompson, the woman in the photograph, decided to tell her story to the local newspaper, the Modesto Bee.

Ganzel read the story, tracked down Thompson and, in 1979, in Modesto, California, photographed her and three of her daughters—Norma Rydlewski, Katherine McIntosh and Ruby Sprague—the same daughters featured in the original photograph. Thompson told Ganzel that "when Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath about those people living under the bridge at Bakersfield—at one time we lived under that bridge. It was the same story. Didn’t even have a tent then, just a ratty old quilt."

In the 1970s Thompson’s ten children bought her a house in Modesto, but she soon moved back into a mobile home. "I need to have wheels under me," she said to Ganzel. When Thompson suffered a stroke in 1983, her children were forced to ask for contributions to pay for her medical care. Moved by her famous visage, people donated more than $15,000. Thompson died in Scotts Valley, California, on September 16, 1983.

Nancy Velez, manager of the photographic lab at the Library of Congress, says that Lange’s photograph of Florence Thompson continues to be one of the most requested items in their collection. "It’s the most striking image we have; it hits the heart," says Velez. "[Florence Thompson] is an American icon. If you know anything about photography, you’ll know Lange’s image immediately."

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