Chapter Entry: The Misrecognition of Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange
Migrant Mother
1936
source: Library of Congress

In “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity,” Sally Stein sifts through the legacy of a familiar image with a history of misrecognition. Migrant Mother, which Stein asserts is the “most widely reproduced photograph in the entire history of photographic image-making” is a portrait of Florence Thompson that Lange took at a labor camp in Nipomo, California in 1936 [1]. Since its conception, the photograph has been criticized from various points of view, and Stein spends the beginning of her essay recording these reactions, from the outrage of Lange’s boss at the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker, when he learned that Lange had retouched the “documentary” image, to cultural historian Wendy Kozol’s critique of the image as “a quintessential example of the FSA traffic in conservative stereotypes” [2].  Stein’s real interest lay in how Thompson gained iconic status as a white “New Deal Madonna” despite her Cherokee heritage and unmarried status, information that began to circulate as part of the photograph’s history only half a century after it was taken. The paradox of iconicity thus seems to be that Thompson was not the iconic white matriarch that she was initially taken to be; she is instead an icon of the Euro-American tendency to misrecognize Native Americans as both heirs and foils to their own racial identity.

Early in her essay, Stein demonstrates how the image was misrecognized as a symbol of conservative family values. The photograph shows Thompson flanked by two young children as she cradles a sleeping infant. The older children turn away from the camera, using Thompson’s body as a shield, while the baby dozes near her breast. Thompson’s body is thus a source of protection and sustenance, even as her worried eyes betray concern. Stein paraphrases Kozol’s argument that such images of mothers and children “chiefly served to reassure the public in the Great Depression that the most fundamental social unit—the nuclear family—was beleaguered but still strong” [3]. In reality, however, Thompson’s social unit was fractured: Thompson’s first husband died of tuberculosis in 1931, and the infant in the picture is the son of Jim Hill, from whom she would separate in the 1940s.

The perception that Lange’s subject was married and that all of her children had the same father is an example of how photographs invite assumptions that may belie the actual circumstances of the people they depict—a disconnect that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to photography’s false transparency. For spectators bring a wealth of culturally embedded assumptions to bear on the photographs they view, imbuing them with meaning that is external to the image. For instance, in this photograph, there is no patriarch, so why would a spectator assume that Thompson is supported by a stable marriage? That assumption comes not only from what a spectator may want to believe—she might feel better looking at this worried woman and her soiled children if she believes there is a man off screen who is supporting them—it also comes from the context of the photograph, which was indeed a government-endorsed image. Migrant Mother is part of a body of images taken by photographers who were dispatched by the FSA to “make a dent in the world” [4]. Their portraits of struggling Americans elicited a wide range of emotions—empathy, admiration and pride among them. FSA photographs may have been relevatory of American poverty and struggle, but they were also a screen on which spectators could project their own desires, namely about the perseverance of fellow Americans in the wake of catastrophe.

FSA photographs like Migrant Mother invited spectators to see what they both wanted and expected to see. This is not only how a widow with children out of wedlock became a “New Deal Madonna,” it is also how her Native American ancestry was mistaken for European ancestry. Stein shows how the FSA did not favor ethnic diversity by including a passage in which Roy Stryker, the aforementioned head of the FSA, explicitly discourages photographer Arthur Rothstein from photographing Native Americans: He writes,“You know I just don’t get too excited about Indians. I know it is their country and we took it away from them—to hell with it!”  [5].  For me, this is the most interesting part of the story, because it reveals how certain populations were denied visibility in the portrait of Americanness that was articulated through the visual culture of this period. Scholars like Erika Doss have pointed out how the Index of American Design, a visual encyclopedia of American folk and decorative arts that was another federally-funded Depression era initiative, largely depicted the work of Anglo Americans, including only token pieces done by Native Americans, African Americans, Southern European Americans and others who didn’t pass a certain benchmark of whiteness [6].

In her recent book, The History of White People, Nell Painter demonstrates how the category of whiteness has been in flux throughout United States history, expanding and contracting at various historical moments to include peoples of different ethnic backgrounds [7]. The Depression era was a moment when the Anglo Saxon paradigm of whiteness was reasserted in a variety of ways, especially through the veneration of folk art in English (Shaker) and German (Pennsylvania Dutch) traditions. Stein uses the words of Edmund Wilson, a literary critic and social journalist, as a testament to the privileging of Anglo heritage, despite its dilution through racial mixing, in this period: “the pure type of that English race which, assimilated on the frontier to the Indians’ hatchet profile and high cheekbones, inbred in Boston and Virginia, still haunts our American imagination as the norm from which our people have departed, the ideal towards which it ought to tend” [8].

Wilson’s words, particularly his phrasing “haunts our American imagination” reveal how Anglo Americanness has always been more of a fantasy than a reality, and that is certainly the case with Migrant Mother. After the photojournalist Bill Ganzel tracked Thompson down in 1979, the truth about Thompson’s Cherokee heritage was finally acknowledged. Whether Lange failed to be vigilant in recording the personal details of her subject or whether she willfully elided them due to her boss’s open disdain for photographs of Native Americans, the end result is the same: For decades, Thompson has been misrecognized as an ideal Euro American woman, attaining an iconicity that cannot be undone easily. Stein points out, for instance, that a recent book on race in 20th-century America continued the misrecognition of Thompson, reprinting Migrant Mother with a caption that identifies her as a “Nordic” woman and claims, “Her suffering could be thought to represent the nation in ways the distress of a black, Hispanic, Italian, or Jewish woman never could” [9]. The enduring perception that Thompson was a white woman is an example of the persistence of myth. According to Roland Barthes, “It does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” [10].

Perhaps the widespread misrecognition of Thompson is too entrenched to be undone, but Stein’s essay demonstrates how this image is wrapped up in another kind of iconicity—as a representation of  how Euro-Americans have a history of appropriating Native Americans likenesses when imaging their own identities. Artists like Edward S. Curtis pictured Native Americans as a “vanishing race,” an approach that was not only primitivizing but also added gravitas to the definition of Americanness, in the sense that it created an evolutionary depth to the American people, despite the coevalness of native and non-Native Americans. Migrant Mother was taken about a century after President Jackson used the rhetoric of the progression of civilization in a speech to Congress in which he justified the violent means of Indian Removal as  “the extinction of one generation to make room for another” [11].

If the FSA photographs are read as a kind of yearbook of Depression-era Americans, then on the surface Native Americans appear to be as extinct as Jackson intended they would be. The irony is that Migrant Mother, the photograph which has earned the superlative of “Most American Woman” by virtue of its unrivaled circulation, actually pictures a Native American woman passing as a Euro-American woman. The inclusion of Migrant Mother in Only Skin Deep is crucial, because this image and its history of misrecognition demonstrate how racial categories are constructed through subjective perception and projection. Thompson’s skin color was light enough and her motherly obligations were prevalent enough for generations of spectators to project a fantasy of white motherhood onto her, but in reality, her misrecognition and mythologization as a white Madonna reflects more truths about what those spectators wanted to see than truths about what was actually there.

Endnotes:

1. pg. 345, Stein, Sally. “Passing Likeness: Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ and the Paradox of Iconicity.” In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

2. & 3. pg. 346, Stein.

4. See Mora, Gilles, and Beverly W. Brannan, eds. FSA: The American Vision. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

5. pg. 352 Stein

6. See Doss, Erika. “American Folk Art’s ‘Distinctive Character:’ The Index of American Design and New Deal Notions of Cultural Nationalism.” In Drawing on America’s Past: Folk Art, Modernism, and the Index of American Design, edited by Virginia Tuttle Clayton. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

7. See Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

8. & 9. pg. 354, Stein

10. pg. 130, Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

11. pg. 79, Truettner, William H. The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979.

Quoted in William H. Truettner, The Natural Man Observed: A Study of Catlin’s Indian Gallery (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979), p. 79.

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