Actually, the Migrant Mother is a series of shots that Lange took in 1936 on behalf of the Resettlement Administration. Lange, on commission from this council, followed migrant workers in California for the course of a month's time, photographing them for a report (Maksel).
The 1930's especially marked the worst economic collapse the United States had ever faced and is typically referred to as the Depression Era. Unemployment was rampant, forcing many to migrate from place to place looking for work. In the case of the woman Dorothea photographed, she was a migrant farm worker. Unfortunately, the economy hit hard for them too, as the soil was exhausted and the dustbowl did not allow for the growth of sizeable crops. Many migrant farm workers whose only source of income and sustenance were devastated by the effects of the Depression. It is debateable as to whether Roosevelt's New Deal actually did as he proposed, but what it seems to have accomplished was to produce a type of government activism that brought about such additions to the government as Social Security, the FDIC for banks, and relief for these migrant workers. Dorothea and her pictures can be thought to have been of tremendous value and influence during this time. Though many might disagree, photography can lend itself to the same status as paintings and other such works of art. Consider that done right, photography has the ability to capture a moment in time and forever suspend it for the viewer. These moments in time can serve to epitomize an era, a mood and in some cases can even tell us something about ourselves.
In this case, then, capturing these historic moments on film becomes more than someone snapping shots for a state department report. Though ostensibly that was what Lange was there for, it has to be said that observing the rest of the series of shots in that Mother Migrant grouping that he set the shots up with as much care as an artist does in choosing subject, lighting and message.
In fact, the same factors come into play for a photographer as for an artist. Consider that like the artist, the photographer had to choose something that will communicate the message or mood as simply and directly as is possible, using such elements as lighting, balance of composition, focal point, and in the case photography, communicative body posture or language.
Consider, also, that many of the classic photos of our time have been based on primal symbols, such as the triangle, or the Madonna. In fact, it is the Madonna image that one especially sees in the Migrant Mother picture. Knowing this and seeing this at the moment that it is happening, is what made Lange more than a state department worker, and gave to the world an enduring icon. The image of the mother holding her child in the crook of her arm is touchingly reminiscent of many classical depictions of the Madonna with the infant Christ. That this woman is a displaced person, a migrant worker, seems to make a statement about the holiness of motherhood, and perhaps makes a statement about religion during the Depression Era it too was displaced, looking for a permanent place to live.
Later interviewed about the picture, Lange would state:
"You know there are moments such as these when time stands still and all you do is hold your breath and hope it will wait for you. And you just hope you have enough time to...