History

Migrant Fathers: Tender Portraits of Dust Bowl Dads

Searching for a counterpart to photographer Dorothea Lange's famous 'Migrant Mother.' Friday, 3 November

By Vaughn Wallace

Dorothea Lange's 1936 portrait of the "Migrant Mother" may very well be one of the most iconic photos ever taken in the United States. On a month-long trip to document migratory labour camps in California for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Lange made several portraits of Florence Owens Thompson and her children, a haunting look of worry and uncertainty frozen upon a mother's face, her children clinging to her shoulder.

The portraits were published first in the San Francisco News before being distributed across the nation by the FSA. Described by Edward Steichen as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures,” the images of Thompson resonated immediately with viewers—emotionally evocative and encapsulating of the hard times of the Great Depression, Lange's photographs became synonymous with the era. 

The FSA photographic record proved to be a robust, if not comprehensive, archive of American social conditions in the 1930s and 1940s, spurring a movement of inspiration and imitation within the field of documentary photojournalism that still continues today.

Earlier this month, I visited the Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs Division in Washington, D.C. There, some 175,000 images from the FSA collection are available for public review. Thumbing through the black-and-white reference prints, I searched for photographs of fatherhood—a companion image, perhaps, to Lange's portrait of Florence Thompson.

Initially I was surprised by the sheer variety of fatherly images I found: sharecroppers in the Deep South, migrant workers on the West Coast, fathers in neckties in the Pacific Northwest. But as I continued digging, it wasn't the diversity that struck me but the resonance of a single theme: tenderness. Despite the geographic differences, the hardships of life recorded, and the uncertain future many of the subjects grappled with on a daily basis, an intensity of care for children resonated through these photographs. Depression-era life was hard, and much was to be asked of young children as they grew to an age when they could work to support their families. But in many of these photographs, we see gentle affection through the rough hands and tired eyes of these "migrant fathers."

The photographs of the FSA collection earned their iconic status by the deep, simple truths they recorded. The images of mothers and fathers are the enduring parts of a collective history still being written today.

Vaughn Wallace is a senior photo editor at National Geographic. Follow him on Twitter.