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From the Outside In: "Migrant Mother," Dorothea Lange, 1936

Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," Gernsheim collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Mother," Gernsheim collection, Harry Ransom Center.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This powerful portrait depicts the weariness of a hard existence in poverty. Florence Owens, the migrant mother of the title, crouches in the foreground flanked by two of her children, their faces hidden. Her eyes seem not to be directed outward, perhaps contemplating an uncertain future with little hope.

The photographer, Dorothea Lange, was born in 1895 and contracted polio in childhood, leaving her with a lasting limp. She believed that this impairment increased her empathy for those down on their luck. Her photographic career began at a New York portrait studio in 1914, and she studied at Columbia University under Clarence White. She then moved to San Francisco to do freelance photography until 1919, when she opened her own portrait studio. During the Great Depression, however, fewer people had money to spend on portraits, and Lange moved to Taos, New Mexico, where she began work with several of the New Deal projects.

Owens lived a very different life. Of Cherokee descent, she worked as a pea picker in California. She had six children by 1932, and on remarriage, three more arrived. In 1935, however, the pea crop failed, and the family was forced to sell their tent to get food. In the following year, when Owens was 32, Lange arrived on assignment for the Federal Resettlement Administration and met the family. She took six photographs of Owens, including Migrant Mother. It was published in a number of magazines, including as a full-page image in the September 1936 issue of Survey Graphic.

Despite the image’s fame, Owens never profited personally from her portraits. In middle age, she often acted as the straw boss—the one who negotiated wages—for her fellow migrant workers, and she continued to work in the fields until the age of about 50. She married again and settled down with her new husband in Modesto, California. Despite the difficulty of much of her life, she lived to be 80; she died of cancer and heart problems in September 1983, survived by many of her children.

The Ransom Center’s photography collection holds the work of important early-twentieth-century documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, as well as the more recent work of the Magnum Photos agency.

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

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