Depression Mother

Behind the camera:
Where: Just outside a temporary settlement called, Pea-Pickers Camp, on the outskirts of Nipomo, California. The camp was a temporary encampment for migrant farm workers and their families
Photo Summary: Florence Owens Thompson flanked by daughter Katherine (age 4) on the left and Ruby (age 5) on the right. The Baby on Florence’s lap is Norma aged 1
Picture Taken: Early March, 1936
This image is in the public domain because it was taken by Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange’s famous picture of Florence Owens Thompson was taken during the Great Depression. While the book, Grapes of Wrath, became the literary representation of America’s poor during the ’30s, Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ picture became the visual one. Lange took the image of Florence Thompson with her family near the small town of Nipomo as part of a photo assignment for the government covering the plight of migrant farm workers. The official in charge of documenting and photographing the American poor for the federal project saw thousands of pictures as part of duties but describes the “Migrant Mother” as the “ultimate” photo of the Depression Era. The picture itself is part of a series of 6 and shows from left to right: Katherine age 4(head turned), Florence Owens (later married as Thompson) age 34, and Ruby Owens (head turned) age 5. The Baby on Florence’s lap is Norma aged 1.

Depression photographer

Dorothea Lange, the photographer was born in Hoboken New Jersey on May 26, 1895. At the age of seven, she developed polio which ravaged her right leg giving her a life long limp. In New York, she studied photography, and in 1918 she moved to the West coast opening a successful portrait studio in San Francisco. After the Great Depression, she became famous for her portraits of the effects of the stock market crash. Her pictures got the attention of the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), later called the Farm Security Administration (FSA), who in the mid ’30s offered her a job documenting America’s poor.

Taking the Picture

It was during March 1936 that as part of her effort to photograph migrants for the government that she took the famous shot of Florence Owens Thompson. Lange was returning to her Berkley, California home after spending a month taking pictures of migrant farmers around Los Angles. She had just passed through Santa Maria and was on the outskirts of another small Californian town, Nipomo when she saw a sprawling settlement with a sign declaring its name, Pea-Pickers Camp. Thousands had descended on the camp in hopes of getting work picking Peas in the surrounding farms. Unfortunately, an early cold snap had wiped out the crop and over 2000 people were stranded at the camp. Lange actually passed the camp as she was anxious to get home but after much internal debate decided to do a quick stop before continuing home.

Dorothea Lange took a number of pictures of the family moving closer and closer each time.


A U-turn brought her back to the camp and she quickly noticed a subject. In a 1960’s interview, she would recall that “I was following instinct, not reason, I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.” Over 10 min and using her Graflex camera, she took 6 shots, with each exposure she moved closer to the family. The final vertical picture is what would later become the famous, “Migrant Mother”. The usually well organized Lange took detailed notes, but perhaps in her haste to get home only got the very basic of information, not even getting the subject’s name. Years later she would remember that the woman, “told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that her children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent, with her children huddled around her and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it”. She packed up her equipment and continued on her way, “I did not approach the tents and shelters of other stranded pea-pickers,” she remembered. “I knew I had recorded the essence of my assignment.”
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When she returned home, Lange developed the pictures and immediately sent them off to the San Francisco News who used two of the 6 shots but not the now famous, “Migrant Mother”. The paper ran the images in their March 10, 1936, edition under the headline: “Ragged, Hungry, Broke, Harvest Workers Live in Squalor.” The national media quickly picked up the story and used the “Migrant Mother” picture across the country. Public outcry ensured that the federal government quickly sent the “Pickers Camp” settlement 20,000 pounds of food.

Florence Thompson Emerges


Colorized version of the iconic Lange image

Colorized version of the iconic Lange image


The identity of the women in the picture wasn’t discovered until the late 70’s almost 40 years after the picture was taken. It was Florence Thompson herself who got in touch with the editors of her local newspaper, the Modesto Bee to tell her story.
Florence Owens Thompson was born on September 1, 1901, in the Indian Territory of the Cherokee Nation with the name maiden name, Florence Leona Christie. Both of her parents claimed Cherokee blood rights to the land making her a full-blooded Native American of the Cherokee Nation. She lived on a small farm on the Cherokee Territory and when she was 17 married Cleo Owens, a 23-year-old farmer. They had three children before they moved with other members of the Owen family to California where they found work in the forestry and farming industries. After Wall Street crashed in 1929, millwork dried up and the family, then with 5 children moved to Oroville in northern California where the Owen clan found work on the surrounding farms.
[bigquote quote=”we lived under that bridge” author=”Thompson”]
Florence’s husband Cleo, sadly died shortly after the move when he caught a fever one day while picking peaches. At the time of his death, she was pregnant and the Owen family offered to take some of the children, an offer Florence refused. She stayed with her husband’s family for two years working in the fields during the day and at a restaurant at night to support her family. In 1933 she found out that she was pregnant again and fled back to her parent’s home out of fear the father would take her child.
She lived with her family for a short time before they too moved out to California in hopes of better work. Over the next few years, the family along with thousands of migrant workers drove up and down California, camping along the way, in search of farm work so that she could feed her and her children. In 1935 she started a relationship with James R. Hill and soon she was pregnant again, eventually giving birth to a girl, Norma Lee in March of 1935. With Hill she had three more children, life was hard and they moved constantly throughout California always just making it, just getting enough food on the table. Thompson would later recall, “when Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath about those people living under the bridge at Bakersfield—at one time we lived under that bridge. It was the same story. Didn’t even have a tent then, just a ratty old quilt.” Hill who was remembered by her daughter as not having much ambition, eventually moved out of the family’s life and after World War II she married hospital administrator George Thompson who Florence was finally able to find stability with and resources to support her family.

Not what she seems

Around the same time, the Modesto Bee article was published, author Bill Ganzel was writing a book, Dust Bowl Descent, about people photographed by the RA during the depression. During his research, he came upon Florence Thompson’s story, tracked her down in 1979. During his interviews, he was able to get Florence and her family’s version of what happened when Lange pulled into the camp and took their picture.
In March of 1936 Florence then still with Jim Hill had finished work picking beets and were off to the Pajoro Valley in their Hudson Sedan in hopes of finding work in the Pajoro Valley’s lettuce fields. On Highway 101, just outside Nipomo, the Hudson’s timing chain broke and they were able to get the car into the pea picker’s camp in hopes of making repairs. They were amazed at a number of people in the camp and the conditions they were living in. Florence would later recall that while making a meal for the family children from the surrounding camps came over to beg because they didn’t have any food. Disaster struck when the boys punctured the radiator with a screwdriver while trying to fix their car. They then had to remove the radiator and take it to town in order to do repairs.
While the boys were in town Dorothea Lange came into the camp and took her pictures. In Lange’s field notes, she described the family as, “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.” Florence insists that Lange never asked her any questions. According to Florence she just took the pictures and told her that they would never be published and her family would later tell Bill Ganzel, “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 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.”
When the story broke and the food was delivered to the Pea Pickers camp, the Owens-Hill family had already moved on and reached their destination, the outskirts of Watsonville, in Pajaro Valley.

Mama’s been shot, Mama’s been shot
Thompson’s kids

It was here while selling newspapers to make extra money that the family saw the front cover with their mother’s picture. Due to a typing error, a large ink spot appeared in the middle of Florence’s forehead and first the children thought that their mother had been shot. The boys remember running back to where their mother was camped screaming, “‘Mama’s been shot, Mama’s been shot,’ … We both ran back to camp, and, of course, she was OK. We showed her the picture, and she just looked at it. She didn’t say nothin’.” In 1979 Bill Ganzel recreated the “Migrant Mother” taking a picture of Florence Thompson and her three daughters, Norma Rydlewski, Katherine McIntosh and Ruby Sprague the same three who were present in the 1936 picture.

Florence always hated the picture and whenever she saw it would get angry because she thought Lange was getting rich off her image. However, because Lange was taking the picture for the federal government she never directly received any money. The picture did provide Lange celebrity and respect from her colleagues. Lange’s childhood polio would come to haunt her in her later years and she suffered from bleeding ulcers and post-polio syndrome. On October 11, 1965, she died at the age of seventy without ever knowing who the subject was in her famous picture.

Life moves on

Florence’s extended family grew through the ages and she passed on her legacy of hard work and loyalty to her 10 children, 39 grandchildren, 74 great-grandchildren. She always hated the picture but in 1983 it would come in useful. In early 1983 then 81 Thompson was diagnosed with cancer. Treatment of the disease triggered a stroke and she soon required round the clock care. By the summer of 1983, her bill was reaching $1400 a week. The family couldn’t afford it and turned to the public. Jack Foley of the San Jose Mercury News picked up the story and it got national attention. Soon envelopes started pouring in from all over the country eventually raising more than $35,000. Florence’s children were overwhelmed by the response and reflected that “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 a curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.” The response of the nation seemed to improve Florence’s health but she never recovered from the stroke. On September 16, 1983, Florence Thompson died at her son’s home. A nurse who was helping out with her care recalls, “Right before Florence died … she opened her eyes and looked right at me. It was the most conscious she had been in a long time. I went to get the family. They were holding her, kissing her cheek, stroking her hair. Telling her how much they loved her. And then she took her last breath. It was a beautiful, very peaceful moment. It felt very complete.”

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Smiling Sada Abe

Behind the camera: Published in the Mainichi Newspaper
Where: Leaving the Takanawa Police stn in Tokyo
Photo Summary: Sada Abe with policemen after her arrest
Picture Taken: May 20, 1936
This image is in the public domain because of its age

In 1930s Japan a Japanese woman became infatuated with and strangled her lover to death. After his death, she cut off his penis and carried it around with her while being chased by the police. When news of the crime broke that a “sexually and criminally dangerous woman was on the loose,” the nation was gripped with what was called “Abe Sada panic.” On the run for a few days, she was caught and spent six years in prison. She later became a sensation in Japanese culture for many decades. At the time of her arrest police were struck with her calm demeanor.

Sada Abe’s life

Born in 1905 Sada Abe was the youngest child of four. An independent girl at a young age she was sexually assaulted and perhaps due to this assault became difficult for her ageing parents to control. Abe was always fascinated with the Geisha lifestyle and so her father sold her to a Geisha House although there is some debate on whether she wanted to go or not. Abe found living the life of a Geisha extremely frustrating and quickly fell out with the house and turned to prostitution. She spent years working in the brothels until becoming the mistress of Kichizo Ishida.

Kichizo Ishida

The two became incredibly infatuated with each other spending days in hotels with marathon sex sessions that didn’t stop even when maids cleaned the rooms. When Ishida would return to his wife Abe became incredibly jealous and flirted with the idea of murdering him. Buying a knife she even threatened him during the next visit to the hotel but Ishida thought she was just role playing and didn’t take her seriously. While making love she tried to strangle him with a cord but he actually enjoyed the restriction of his breath and told her to continue which threw her off. Later in the night, he passed out and Abe wrapped the cord again around his throat and strangled his sleeping body to death. Using the knife she removed his genitals with a knife, using the blood from the wound she wrote “Sada and Kitchi together” on the sheets, and carved her name on his arm with a knife. Later when the police asked about why she took Ishida’s genitalia, Abe replied, “Because I couldn’t take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories.”
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“Abe Sada panic” and arrest

Another photo with more somber police


When the body was discovered the police released a media alert that sparked a public panic over a crazed woman running around Japan chopping of genitalia. Police were swamped with sightings from around the country. After the murder, she drifted around Tokyo eventually ending up in a hotel in southern Tokyo. After a massage and beers at the Inn, she fell asleep.
Police who were visiting all hotels, trying to find her, became suspicious of the alias she used to sign in. After apologetically entering her hotel room Abe Sada supposedly told the police, “Don’t be so formal, You’re looking for Sada Abe, right? Well that’s me. I am Sada Abe.” The police didn’t actually believe her but were finally convinced when she displayed Ishida’s genitalia. While interrogating Abe officers were struck by Abe’s demeanour. When they asked why she had killed Ishida. “Immediately she became excited and her eyes sparkled in a strange way [and she said] ‘I loved him so much, I wanted him all to myself. But since we were not husband and wife, as long as he lived he could be embraced by other women. I knew that if I killed him no other woman could ever touch him again, so I killed him…..’ William Johnston who wrote the book, Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan suggests that what made Abe so fascinating to the Japanese public was that “she had killed not out of jealousy but out of love.”

Later life

Abe was sentenced to six years in prison which she served and was released. She tried to live her life in obscurity but the nature of her crime brought her back into the limelight. She wrote a book about her life and there were many other unofficial bios published.
The Abe craze started a little cottage industry in Japan. The hotels they stayed at saw a huge jump in business as young couples wanted to stay in the same room. Shinagawaka, the Inn where she was arrested, kept the room in the same condition as when the police caught her. In addition to the books published there are even some movies about her life, including a number of A/V films or Porn Movies.

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Falling Soldier

Behind the camera: Robert Capa
Where: It was for decades thought that the shot was taken at Cerro Muriano on the Cordoba Front. However new research has determined that the photo was taken 30 miles (50 km) away, near Espejo, a Cordoban town
Photo Summary: A Spanish Republican (Loyalist) soldier supposedly the moment he is struck by a bullet. The soldier was identified as Federico Borrell García based on the assumption the photo was taken at Cerro Muriano.
Picture Taken: September 5, 1936 around 5:00PM

Robert Capa, a photo journalist, arrived in Spain in August 1936 to cover the Spanish Civil War, which had broken out a few weeks before. During his coverage as a war photographer, he took the famous Falling Soldier image. The image came to symbolize the Civil War between the Spanish government and General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebels. In World War II Capa would later take another famous image on the D-day Normandy beaches.

Taking the photo

 

The subject of the photo taken before his "death shot". He is standing on the far left

The original title was Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936. The Falling Soldier was first published in the September 23, 1936, issue of the French magazine Vu. The Vu article read, “With lively step, breasting the wind, clenching their rifles, they ran down the slope covered with thick stubble. Suddenly their soaring was interrupted, a bullet whistled — a fratricidal bullet — and their blood was drunk by their native soil.” There was no mention in the article on where the picture was taken. Then on July 12, 1937, Life magazine published an article with the Capa image and the caption, “Robert Capa’s camera catches a Spanish soldier the instant he is dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Córdoba.”

Robert Capa

Robert Capa was born on October 22, 1913. He was born with the name Endre Ernő Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary. When he was 18 he left Hungary for Germany but when the Nazi’s took power he emigrated again to Paris. It from Paris that he went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War. After Franco defeated the Republic Capa returned to France until the Nazi invasion upon where he left for America. He went on to become a celebrated war photographer covering five different wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe (He was the only “enemy alien” photographer for the Allies), the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and the First Indochina War. His two most famous pictures are the Fallen Solider and his image of the 1944 D-day Normandy invasion. In 1947, Capa co-founded Magnum Photos with, among others, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Magnum Photos was the first cooperative agency for worldwide freelance photographers. In 1947 Capa travelled to the Soviet Union with his friend, John Steinbeck. When he was leaving the country Soviet officials wanted to look through his undeveloped images. Capa refused to give them access unless Yevgeny Khaldei developed them. Capa had befriended the photographer while the two covered the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg Trials together. Both men were hard-drinkers and recognized as playboy lady killers.
On May 25, 1954, at 2:55 p.m. Capa was with a French regiment in Vietnam when he left his jeep to take some photos. While walking up the road he stepped on a land-mine and lost his leg. He was quickly rushed to a small field hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival due to massive trauma and loss of blood.
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Faked?

The hand of the solider supposedly showing his hand in a death grip.

The hand of the solider supposedly showing his hand in a death grip.

Starting in the 70s historians began to question the authenticity of, Fallen Solider image. Much of the confusion revolves around Capa’s inexperience as a photographer. The Spanish Civil war was his first and he often didn’t caption or take notes about where and when he took his photos. His editors many times had to guess where his pictures were taken. Further complicating things is that there is no negative of “Falling Soldier” known to exist.
The first accusations came from O.D. Gallagher, a South African-born journalist who was also covering the war. In an interview he gave for the book, The First Casualty: From the Crimea to Vietnam; The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker (1975) Gallagher claims that “at one stage of the war he and Capa were sharing a hotel room. … there had been little action for several days, and Capa and others complained to the Republican officers that he could not get any pictures. Finally … a Republican officer told them he would detail some troops to go with Capa to some trenches nearby, and they would stage some manoeuvres for them to photograph.” However, Gallagher’s account was discounted when in a later interview for another book the 1978 Jorge Lewinski work, The Camera at War, Gallagher claimed that Franco’s troops, not Republican ones, had staged the photo. Controversy has continued to surround the image. The most recent accusations have been levelled by research carried out by José Manuel Susperregui for his book “Shadows of Photography”.
Susperregui by studying the background images of the surrounding hillsides was able to determine that the image took place near a village called Espejo. There was some intense combat near Espejo in late September but no fighting occurred around the 5th of that month when Capa was in the region. This lead Susperregui to conclude that the photo was staged because there were no battles when the picture was taken. Capa’s supporters have replied that the image might be of a sniper hit behind enemy lines but Susperregui disregards these criticisms because there was no documented use of snipers on that battlefront.
When the Gallagher debate emerged the issue was resolved when in August 1996, Rita Grosvenor, a British journalist reported that Spanish historians were able to determine that on September 5, 1936, the only soldier that was killed in battle at Cerro Muriano was one Federico Borrell García. Borrell’s younger brother, Everisto, confirmed the identification. However, Susperregui in his research noted that the Cerro Muriano battleground was in “a wooded area, with century-old trees,” not at all like the open hillside shown in Capa’s photograph. He backs this up with an obscure anarchist magazine article first published in 1937 that states Borrell was hit while positioned “behind a tree”. The article quotes fellow soldiers saying they remember that “I can still see him stretched out behind the tree that served as his barricade, with his unruly hair falling over his face and a trickle of blood dripping from his mouth.”
Magnum Photos the company that Mr. Capa was a co-founder of has used the 1996 revelation of the identity Federico Borrell García as the final proof that the photo was authentic. Although they have not responded to Susperregui’s accusation there has been some recent forensic evidence that supports the photo is indeed one of a man dying.
When asked to view the images, Captain Robert L. Franks, the chief homicide detective of the Memphis Police Department, made an interesting observation. Zooming in on the left hand you can observe that the fingers form a claw with fingers curled towards the palm. This indicates that there is some sort of muscle spasm. It is almost impossible for any person to resist the impulse of while falling to splay your fingers and stick out your wrist to break your fall. To claim that Capa trained the man to fake that reflex seems unlikely.

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