Dorothea Lange’s photograph of the Migrant Mother is notorious for its kinetic portrayal of human struggle during the Great Depression. Lesser known, however, is a mystery surrounding the small matter of a missing thumb.
In 1936, the U.S. Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired Lange and other photographers to document American Life during the Great Depression. The agency believed that pictures had the power to incite the middle class and move the Roosevelt government to take action for the better.
At the close of her month-long assignment, Dorothea was driving down Route 101 in California when she stumbled on a migrant workers camp for farmers who were displaced by the severe dust storms of the “Dirty Thirties”. It was there, in the small town of Nipomo, where she encountered Florence Thompson, a “destitute peapicker” and “32 year old mother of seven children.”
Lange took six pictures of Mrs. Thompson that day, but it was the last image from her Graflex Series D that would be forever etched into American iconography as the Migrant Mother. The photograph was a telltale of the bootstrap mentality at the time—a desperate and uncertain lower shade of middle class that was trying her hardest to make ends meet.
To Miss Lange, however, it was not the telltale of perfection: she removed a thumb from the bottom right-hand corner of the image because she found it to be distracting.
There isn’t a lot of information about the retouch in question—only that the offensive thumb was removed in 1941 in preparation for a gallery exhibit. One can only assume that the editing would have been done under Lange’s supervision, as today’s photographers typically review prints and lend approval prior to installations. Curiously enough, the original—unretouched—version of Migrant Mother was discovered 19 years later in a dumpster behind the San Jose Chamber of Commerce. It would auction for $300,000 some 45 years later.
Dorothea was 46 years old during the 1941 exhibit, and Migrant Mother had been circulating for five years. By then, it’s quite possible that Lange foresaw longevity in her work that stimulated self-awareness. Perhaps it was this realization that transformed Dorothea the Documentarian into Dorothea the Artist?
The direction by the FSA suggests that a transformation to art was verboten. Under the leadership of Roy Stryker, government photographers were to adhere to the scientific method. Images were merely observations—strictly data. The FDR administration would use the data to problem solve the living and working conditions of struggling Americans. Retouching would conflict with scientific objectivity because it introduced bias.
Or was bias the conclusion… and later the intent? Retouching is a subtle hint towards commercialism, after all. Maybe photography was a form of dinosaur social media that FDR used to sell the New Deal to Republicans? Could his administration have urged Lange to further iconize her work—retouch the so-called bad parts—so that the Migrant Mother could be America’s very own Lady Madonna?
Dorothea the Documentarian transforms into Dorothea the Clean Cut American Propagandist. There was certainly enough puffery in advertising to be had during World War II. Perhaps there was no other way.
THE TRASH BIN
Speculation aside, the fact remains that someone threw away 25 year-old originals into the San Jose Chamber of Commerce dumpster. That’s California’s Lady Madonna… without makeup… in the trash… in the heart of today’s Silicon Valley, a hotbed of innovation. Genius. And don’t tell me it was some form of spring cleaning. It’s springtime all year round.
Why would the government dispose of material that it considered to be data? Why not return the undesired thumb to Lange? She was still alive and well in 1960 and lived another five years beyond that. Dorothea had gained so much notoriety by then that it would have been easy to get in contact with her. The original negative had a file number on it, for crying out loud.
Retouching is nothing new in the world of documentary. W Eugene Smith famously fused two negatives together into a single image of Albert Schwietzer. Which leaves us to wonder—is the Migrant Mother better with or without a thumb?
There’s a saying in art that goes, “it’s not what you put in, but what you leave out.” Personally, I think Dorothea Lange left some meaning on the cutting room floor. Florence Thompson was the anchor for her three daughters in the photograph. What anchored her in such a time of despair? To see her hand brace the side of the tent might suggest that she is simply trying to hold on—both literally and figuratively. I don’t find the thumb so offensive. To be honest, I didn’t notice it in the first place.
Today, in the age of digital tomfoolery, we can only hope for truth in media. But we only know what they’re willing to share.
Makes you wonder what else is in the garbage.
By Joe Santa, Corbis Senior Art Director