Dorothea Lange Historic Marker featuring her “Migrant Mother” photograph

by Paul Lester, Ph.D.
Clinical Professor in the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas

As a photojournalism major at the University of Texas at Austin, I was aware and had always been moved by the haunting portrait of Florence Thompson and three of her daughters taken during America’s Great Depression by the photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936. “The Migrant Mother” has been named one of the best photographs in the history of the medium—a remarkable designation. Subsequently, in the chapter on photography of my book, Visual Communication Images with Messages I detailed the story of the picture’s creation, the lives of Thompson and Lange, and its impact on the world. The research for that chapter involved several sources in books, articles, and websites.

Four years ago my wife and I were traveling back from San Francisco to our home in Orange County when we passed Nipomo. It suddenly occurred to me that there was no historical marker or sign on the side of the road that marked the location of the famous photograph. With help from historians, journalists, academics, and interested persons who live in the Nipomo area and around the world, the Migrant Mother Marker will find a home at the Jim O. Miller Park, about a 15-minute walk from where the picture was taken.

I haven’t talked with any Thompson family members, but I have communicated with Patricia Murray, Lange’s second cousin, and Dyanna Taylor, Lange’s granddaughter.

Proposed Historic Marker

The marker will be a bronze plaque mounted to a large bolder in the Jim O. Miller Park at the corner of Tefft and Carrillo streets, Nipomo, Calif.,one mile away from the site of the photograph. The “Migrant Mother” photograph will appear as a relief image on the plaque.

Projected Cost of the Project

The estimated the cost of this project is not more than $5,000.

For the historic marker, $2,000, for its installation, $500, plus funds for Thompson and Lange family members for travel to the dedication ceremony and unexpected expenses. The marker will be attached to a boulder that was donated and found near the site.

Any funds raised in excess of actual expenses will automatically go into the National Press Photographers Foundation general scholarship fund.

Links
https://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/128_migm.html
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/fts/kansascity_201307F03.html

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The following people or organizations have made contributions to the Dorothea Lange Historic Marker Project.
Mary Angela Bock
James Brown
Indiana University
Jon Bruschke
CSU Fullerton
Keith Graham
University of Montana
Christopher R Harris
Middle Tennessee State University
Matthew Haught
University of Memphis
Robert Heller
University of Tennessee
Berkley Hudson
Missouri School of Journalism
James D Kelly
Indiana University
Paul Lester
University of Texas at Dallas
John McClelland
Retired faculty, Roosevelt University, Chicago
William Reed

In 1960, Lange gave this account of the experience:

“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. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the 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.” (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).

Site of Photograph Geocache

Here’s the link to the geocache website, but you need to be registered to see the 94 comments.  Dr. Lester doesn’t know who created this geocache (and misspelled Lange’s first name), but the location for the photograph is actually a bit farther down N. Oakglen Avenue at 35.046132, -120.492307. Lester determined the location for the series of photographs by consulting a map of migrant camps in the Nipomo area at that time, first-person accounts documented in newspaper and magazine articles, books, and websites, and an analysis of the initial photographs Lange made of the family that showed the sandy soil, eucalyptus trees in the background, and similar lighting conditions.