The Making of Migrant Mother

Rarely is an artwork the result of a sudden flash of inspiration or of a single act of creation. Because art does not come into the world fully formed: more often than not it is the result of experimentation, of trial and error before the final work takes form. Works of art have an origin story, and Dorothea Lange’s iconic image of a Depression-era mother is no exception.


Lange herself has commented on the genesis of her photograph in an article in Popular Photography published in 1960. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction.”


The fifth exposure from that series became a symbol of the hardships faced by migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. Video essayist The Nerdwriter reverse engineers the making of that photograph, now known as Migrant Mother. In doing so, he reveals the artistic choices that shaped the final image: choices that concern mise-en-scène, emotional effect and storytelling. Even though some of his assertions are speculative, he does show that this iconic photograph was the result of carefully considered staging and with an ideological purpose in mind. Does that detract from the force of the image? On the contrary, one might argue: knowing these origins only enhances our appreciation of the end result.