Paul Greenberg

Now I know her name. It was Florence Owens Thompson, who was a 32-year-old mother of seven in 1936, when she was moving from place to place, trying to find enough work to feed her kids in California's dusty fields. Hers was just one more face in the great migration of Arkies, Okies and the desperate in general during the Great Depression.

Yet it was hers that would became the face of that vast upheaval after Dorothea Lange came through Nipomo, Calif., taking pictures of migrant farm workers for the Resettlement Administration. I never knew the name of the woman in the photograph till a friend sent me a copy of an interview with her daughter on the CNN news wire.

Her name wouldn't be published, she was assured when the picture was snapped. Indeed, Miss Lange never even got her name. It didn't matter. She got what did matter. She got an entire era crystallized in one woman's face and plight. She caught the spirit of a nation in all its need, and its even greater strength.

Decades later, in 1960, long after the photo she snapped had made not only the newspapers but the history books, Dorothea Lange would recall that moment and meeting:

"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."

A sort of equality about it. Yes, that's it. As if this picture had been taken at that moment of crisis in any society when the need for human solidarity is in perfect balance with a respect for human dignity -- that fleeting pause in the pendulum swing of history when neither has yet overtaken the other. There is no need or desire at such a moment to politicize anything. Polemics, abstractions, sermons would only get in the way. For that one moment there is only instantaneous understanding. And that is more than enough. It is everything. This photograph needed no caption.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.