You Gotta Know When to Hold Them…

by Miserere


…Know when to fold them,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.

So goes the chorus of the Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler. I’ve always thought there were plenty of Life lessons in that song, and I was recently reminded of it again while reading Annie Leibovitz at Work. Ms. Leibovitz recounts how Dorothea Lange told the story behind Migrant Mother, the portrait of migrant farmer Florence Owens Thompson and her children, which became her most famous photograph, and an icon of American photography. For those who will read the book, please note that Ms. Leibovitz places this story in 1938, when in reality it took place in 1936.

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother
Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother

After spending a month on the road in southern California she was finally heading home. It was raining and she was exhausted and she had a long drive ahead of her. She [Dorothea Lange] has been working up to fourteen hours a day for weeks and was bringing back hundreds of pictures of destitute farm workers. Somewhere south of San Luis Obispo she saw out of the corner of her eye a sign that said PEA-PICKERS CAMP. She tried to put it our of her mind. She had plenty of pictures of migrant farmers already. She was worried about her equipment, and though about what might happen to her camera in the rain. She drove for about twenty miles past the sign and made a U-turn. She went back to the sign and turned down a muddy road. A woman was sitting with her children on the edge of a huge camp of makeshift tents. There were maybe three thousand migrant workers living there. Lange took out her Graflex and shot six frames, one of them of the woman staring distractedly off to the side while two of her children buried their faces in her shoulders.

The image of the woman and her children became the most important photograph of Dorothea Lange’s life and the iconic picture of the Depression.

Dorothea Lange - Portrait
Dorothea Lange sitting on top of her car, the same year she made the U-turn that would put her name and photograph in history books.

We cannot be certain of many things, which is why we should follow our intuitions. We never know where they will lead us, but intuitions are the truest manifestations of our real feelings, and the simplest way we can allow ourselves to be…ourselves. Dorothea Lange wanted to fold them, but her intuition told her she should hold them. Needless to say, she was able to walk away, not run.

PS: If you’re wondering what happened to the migrant mother and her children, read here.


4 Responses to “You Gotta Know When to Hold Them…”

  1. You have illustrated the essence of photography being the intuition and a unique approach from the photographer. Not only taking an image with a message but a passion for revealing a deeper inspiration

  2. Can anyone point to any other photo by D. Lange that they can think of?


    What about ?
    Or another Wikipedia entry:

    Thought not. Dorothea Lange is the ultimate one-hit wonder, seriously. The fact is, she was a pretty-good photographer who lucked-in to an image that became an icon. She was lucky, but she was no genius.

    She took five photos of Florence Thomas (she didn’t even bother to get the name, that was only discovered later, and Thomas bitterly related that she never received anything for her efforts). The only thing that’s really interesting about the set is the positioning of the children with their heads turned away, and that the picture of Thomas breast-feeding her youngest was automatically rejected.

  3. The latest news about this photo is that in fact there were 11 children, and Lange decided not to show them because the reaction would certainly have been “Oh, the poor! They breed like rabbits!” She also TOLD the children to hide their faces, to make them seem more vulnerable. So although she may not have done other photos that were as famous, we can at least say that this photo, completely posed in the end, was a conscious choice on her part and therefore deserves our admiration. It was NOT an accident that it came to have such force.

    • Thanks for this information, Ken. We cannot forget that Dorothea Lange was commissioned to take these photos by the FSA (Farm Security Administration) with the objective of helping the struggling farmers during the Great Depression.

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