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The Face in the Photograph

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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.

The picture would be published in the local paper the morning after it was taken, but by that time the family, living out of their car or sometimes pitching a tent, had left and moved on. "People were starving in the camp," the daughter recalls. The camp wouldn't last. Neither would the Resettlement Administration.

But the photograph would. Most Americans would come to know it as just "Migrant Mother." And never forget it. Why would that one image among so many stick in the national consciousness? Why that one woman with her furrowed features at 32, a couple of her little girls huddled next to her, as if around a slender tree in a swirling dust storm? Why that one picture?

You don't have to be told. Here was the very face of Hard Times, but it is also the face of astonishing, unconquerable life. No wonder it became etched in the American memory, like an acid engraving. You didn't need to know the woman's name. She was America in distress but never despair.

What ever happened to her? The same thing that happened to the country. She survived, and thrived. She would die in 1983 at the age of 80. Her daughter remembers the good times, too, and how much her mother had liked listening to music on the radio, especially a yodeler named Montana Slim.

As for the Resettlement Administration, with its Soviet-style communes, it didn't last long. (For that matter, collectivization wasn't popular in the Soviet Union, either, despite the Russians' long tradition of communal agriculture going back to medieval serfdom.) Long before he became a national institution and his gravelly voice immediately recognizable, a young Johnny Cash and his folks were among those who moved to Dyess, Ark., to take part in the Resettlement Administration's brave new -- and all-white -- experiment there. But not even a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt could save its original, collective set-up. Dyess would instead become a conventional small town.

The photographic record of the Resettlement Administration, notably in the work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, lasted far longer than it did. But if this New Deal program didn't make it, the American spirit did. It's there in that picture of one woman and her girls.

Katherine, the little girl to her mother's left in the photograph, is now 77 and proud of how the family turned out. "We all worked hard and we all had good jobs," she told CNN. "When we got a home, we stayed with it." She remembers well what it was like not to have one. Her mother was her home.

"She was the backbone of our family," she says of the woman in the photograph, "a very strong lady." Yes, you can tell as much from that face. A face that is with us yet.

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