Monday, October 26, 2009

More on the migrant mother

Perhaps because she felt rushed that mizzly afternoon in Nipomo, [Dorothea] Lange was uncharacteristically remiss in ascertaining information about her subject. The little she did record was largely misleading and factually incorrect, including the date of the photos, which her notes alternately report as both February and March of 1936.

Through her negligence, in effect, Lange perpetrated a case of historic deception on the American public.

The person most angry and, indeed, most bitter about Lange’s portrayal was the "migrant mother" herself, Florence Owens Thompson. The Lange photo stamped a permanent Grapes of Wrath stereotype on Thompson’s life–a life that was far more complex and complicated than Lange, or the American public for that matter, might have ever imagined. ...

In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: "Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food."

[Troy] Owens scoffed at the description. "There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell," he told this writer. "The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have."

"Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp," speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. "She also told mother the negatives would never be published–that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp."
--Geoffrey Dunn, New Times, on the truth getting in the way of a great photograph

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