Rich in Irony

A Depression-era pea-picker never saw a penny from Dorothea Lange's most famous photograph. Tonight, that picture could fetch upward of $150,000.

October 22, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Dorothea Lange's gripping photograph Migrant Mother, the stark symbol of a woman trapped in poverty during the Great Depression, goes on sale today at Christie's auction house in New York, and it's expected to bring $150,000 to $200,000 in the affluent America of this new century.

The woman was a pea-picker stranded alone with her six children in a makeshift campsite near Nipomo, Calif., when Lange took the photo in March 1936. Identified only in the 1970s, the subject was Florence Owens Thompson, a Native American forced west from Oklahoma to find work.

Her image has become a collectors' item now worth 30 to 50 times what she might have made in any year during the 1930s - if she could find work at all in the stoop labor fields of California.

In the picture, Thompson, her face pinched with doubt, despair and hunger, cradles her infant daughter while two other daughters press close and hide their faces. That image became one of the best-known photos ever made and emblematic of the Depression, the economic disaster that uprooted millions in a search for jobs that didn't exist. But people saw in her face not only fear, but also strength: "the indomitable spirit of America," a woman wrote shortly before Thompson died in September 1983.

In 1998, the U.S. Postal Service used the picture in the Celebrate the Century series on a 32-cent stamp entitled "America Survives the Depression."

Thompson remained a migrant worker until well after World War II. The median yearly income for farm laborers in 1939 was $309, the equivalent of about $3,900 in contemporary dollars. She found ease only after her marriage to Fred Thompson, a hospital administrator. But, by the 1970s, she was widowed again and living alone in a trailer her 11 children got together to buy for her. They had bought her a house, but she wouldn't live in it.

"I need to have wheels under me," she told a writer for the Smithsonian magazine.

Thompson was stricken with cancer in late spring of 1983 and forced to move into her son's home. Round-the-clock nursing care ran to $1,400 a week, and a national appeal for funds raised $35,000 before she died in September 1983, at age 79. Much of it came from the farming towns in the San Joaquin Valley where she worked most of her life.

"There is something so splendid about her face," wrote a man from Riverside, Calif., quoted by the Associated Press. "I've drawn courage from it many a time. I do not regard my contribution as charity. I owe it to her."

But Thompson never liked the Migrant Mother photograph.

"I wish she hadn't taken my picture," she told an AP reporter in the 1970s. "I can't get a cent out of it."

`Following instinct'

Dorothea Lange herself might never have made more than $150 for any photograph, says Beverly Brannan, curator of photographs at the Library of Congress. Brannan says the market for photographs as art objects dates only from the 1970s. Lange died in 1965.

Lange's story of the taking of the photo has been told numerous times. It's recounted in the Christie's catalog from a Popular Photography interview. She was returning to her Berkley home from a six-week assignment photographing migrant farmer workers for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration when she saw a sign that said: "Pea Picker's Camp." She drove on for 20 minutes then turned back "like a homing pigeon." She got the picture of a lifetime, an American classic comparable to Alfred Stieglitz's Steerage and Ansel Adams' Moonrise.

"I was following instinct, not reason," she recalled in 1960. "I saw and approached the hungry desperate mother, as if drawn to her like a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked no questions. ... I did not ask her name or 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. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it."

Thompson remembered the encounter a bit differently toward the end of her life. She told the Associated Press reporter she felt "exploited."

She said Lange never asked her name: "She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."

Lange shot six pictures that day, zooming in from a wide-angle view of the tattered and patched lean-to to the half-length portrait of the woman and her children.

There were 2,500 to 3,500 field hands in the camp, but Lange took only the Thompson pictures. She knew they told the story of hardship and suffering she wanted to convey.

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