SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Two women and a photograph

SOMBRE PORTRAIT: The one that moved a nation.

SOMBRE PORTRAIT: The one that moved a nation.  



GIRIDHAR KHASNIS

Reconstructing the true picture behind a famous American photograph.

"While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see." Dorothea Lange ON a dark, damp afternoon in the midst of Depression-era, a couple of worn-out tyres and a black-and-white photograph tied up the lives of two women: one, a full blood Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma and the other, a photographer who came to be hailed as the visual messenger of America's "everyman." This is their story. Dorothea Lange was born in New Jersey in 1895. Her parents, Joan and Henry Nutzhorn, were second generation German-Americans. Having contracted polio as a child, she had to endure a lifelong limp. By her own admission, Lange had a dull and unhappy adolescence.

Early life

She decided to be a photographer when she was 18. She didn't even own a camera then. In 1919, she moved to San Francisco and took on a medley of jobs in portrait studios. Her decade-long stay at San Francisco saw her develop into a good studio photographer. Her marriage to Maynard Dixon in the 1920s lasted 15 years. A painter of landscapes and portraits, Dixon exercised a profound influence on Lange and helped hone her sensibilities as a documentary photographer. By the early 1930s, however, the couple had grown apart. In 1935, Dorothea married Paul Schuster Taylor, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, after divorcing Dixon. The couple complemented each other in professional collaboration to document the poor housing and working conditions of migrant agricultural workers. They also advocated support for strike activities by unions, the establishment of work cooperatives and an end to discrimination against migrants. Their synthesis of word and image in advocacy broke new artistic and political ground. Dorothea's reputation as a photographer grew. Her work between 1935 and 1943 came in for special recognition. She was hailed for the sensitive and intense pictures she took while documenting the tragic consequences of the Great Depression. In 1941, Dorothea was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for excellence in photography, which she gave up after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and went on to record the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans (Nisei). Dorothea was afflicted with gastro-intestinal problems in the 1940s and suffered for the next two decades. The disease subsequently turned to cancer of the oesophagus. She died on October 11, 1965 in San Francisco.Florence Owens Thompson was born on September 1, 1903, in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation (now Oklahoma) and spent her childhood and early youth on a small family farm outside Tahlequah.

Much hardship

When she was 17, Florence married Cleo Owens and in the next decade, became mother to six children. Cleo died of tuberculosis in 1931 but a couple of years later, Florence became pregnant again from her relationship with a wealthy Oroville businessman and gave birth to son. Subsequently, James R. Hill, a butcher from Los Angeles, came into her life and a daughter was born in March 1935. (Florence had three more children by Hill. She married hospital administrator George Thompson well after World War II). For a large part of her life, Florence suffered unmitigated anguish, penury and hardship, moving from one place to another, giving birth to and raising children. But she was also a woman who enjoyed life and loved her children. In 1983, Florence was stricken with cancer. A surgery resulted in a stroke. In order to raise about $1,400 for her nursing, her son Troy Owens sought the help of Jack Foley, who filed a story in San Jose Mercury News. Public response to the special "Migrant Mother Fund" was a staggering $35,000! Sadly, Florence never ever recovered from her sickness. On September 16,1983, a couple of weeks after her 80th birthday, she died. She was buried at a cemetery in Empire, California with a gravestone that read: "Migrant Mother: A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood."

The true picture

Dorothea's picture of Florence, "Migrant Mother", is among the most famous photographs of American history. The iconic image - snapped in March 1936 at the Pea-Pickers Camp in Nipomo - captured the heart of the public, moved a nation, got reproduced thousands of times and now hangs in the U.S. Library of Congress.According to Geoffrey Dunn, award-winning documentary filmmaker, film professor and historian, "no other image in the American archive resonates with the emotional urgency and tragic poignancy of this photograph ... Indeed, Lange's sombre portrait has achieved near mythical status, symbolising, if not defining, an entire era in our nation's history." Dunn is, however, quick to add that for all its acclaim, the photograph remained shrouded in mystery and behind-the-scenes controversy. For one, the identity of the sitter (Florence) in Lange's picture was not known till the late 1970s when Florence expressed disdain for the image and declared that she felt "exploited" by Lange's portrait. "I wish she (Lange) hadn't taken my picture," she fumed. "I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did." Lange herself had recalled in 1960: "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed..." In the field notes, she recorded: "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." Dunn remarks, "Lange was uncharacteristically remiss in ascertaining information about her subject. The little she did record was largely misleading and factually incorrect ... Through her negligence, in effect, Lange perpetrated a case of historic deception on the American public." While reconstructing the day when the famous photograph was made, Dunn reveals that Florence, the children and Jim Hill packed up their Hudson sedan and headed north to find work. On Highway 101, just outside of Nipomo, the timing chain on the Hudson broke and they were forced to pull into the pea-picker's camp to mend their car. "We got the radiator fixed and hurried back to camp to fix the car," he quotes Florence's son, Troy Owens. "When we got there, Mama told us there had been this lady who had been taking pictures, but that's all she told us, you know. It wasn't a big deal to her at the time." On Lange's assertion about their selling tyres to buy food, Dunn quotes Troy again: "There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't believe 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.... That photo may well have saved some peoples' lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn't save ours." The picture had a silver lining. When Florence's sickness generated national attention and contributions and touching messages poured in from all over the country, Owens admitted: "None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama's photo affected people. I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride."





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