Take Me Home, Country Roads
Okie. Hillbilly. Redneck. What do “Migrant Mother” and Shain Gandee have in common? The first is the name of the iconic photograph that practically stands in for the words “Great Depression.” The second is the name of the young man who recently died shortly after becoming known for participating in the MTV reality show Buckwild. Similarities between the two? Not many—except a persistent interest in gazing at the rural poor.
In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange stopped at a pea pickers camp in California. She found the pickers suffering from hunger because the crops had frozen and there wasn’t enough work to go around. Many were from the Ozarks and especially Oklahoma—and so “Okies” became a disrespectful term for the desperate Dust Bowl migrants who flooded into California. Lange was working for one of the New Deal agencies designed to relieve the suffering of the Great Depression. Lange’s job was to document said suffering. She did so most brilliantly with this photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and two of her children. The “Migrant Mother” title came later. The original caption read, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Lange never took down Thompson’s name nor sent her a copy of the photograph.
Thompson, then, became famous anonymously. Shain Gandee only became truly well-known this week, after he and two others died of carbon monoxide poisoning after his truck got stuck in the mud. Gandee was just 21 years old. Producers selected him and a handful of other young people for Buckwild, a show intended by MTV to replicate the popularity of Jersey Shore. Instead of Italian Americans partying hard on the boardwalk down the shore, Buckwild had backwoods West Virginians drinking, fighting, and racing pickup trucks through the mud. “Mudding” was what Gandee was doing when he died. This has since led MTV to suspend production on the second season of a show that had already been criticized for exploiting stereotypes of West Virginians. In case you’re not sure what these might be, they include characterizing West Virginians as “moonshine-swilling, gap-toothed inbred hillbillies in tattered clothes and bare feet.” In fact, most of the West Virginian young adults on Buckwild were college students or graduates. Gandee was an exception. Part of his appeal, according to the show’s producers, was that he didn’t have a cell phone and wasn’t on Facebook. He was described as genuine and down to earth. His local accent was thick enough that the show gave him subtitles so the rest of America could understand him.
Gandee, in other words, was a simple man from the hollers of the backwoods. It was an unlikely story that landed him in the news this week. His death brought out the facts of his life into greater relief especially as news reports revealed that his family was trying to organize charity events to pay for his funeral. (This finally shamed the producers into offering to pay for it.) This is oddly reminiscent of Florence Thompson. She was only recognized as the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph late in life. Thompson hated the picture for defining her by her poverty and hated it even more for having made her image, but not her self, world famous. Yet when she became sick with cancer, her children were able to use the photo’s fame as a way to raise money for their mother’s health care in the last months of her life.
It’s been nearly a century since a majority of Americans were rural people. Yet the influence of the rural past persists. For the 2013 Superbowl, Dodge ran a commercial for its Ram truck that is a heartfelt hymn to the American farmer. It ends with the tagline, “for the farmer in all of us.” This is one side of the rural inheritance. On the other side stand the Beverly Hillbillies. In life, Gandee was the “reckless redneck.” In death, the ugliness of the show’s hillbilly-sploitation is more apparent. The persistent poverty of Appalachia isn’t particularly funny. Appalachia and the Deep South are places where life expectancies are actually declining. In the 1930s, the iconic photos taken by Lange and her fellows at the Farm Security Administration of dirt poor farmers of the backwoods and barren plains shocked Americans by revealing to them the squalor and desperation of their lives. They also showed their dignity. This is why “Migrant Mother” still appeals even as it condescends. Two of Lange’s colleagues, photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, chronicled the lives of some of those tenant farmers in a book. They titled it, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The fame, of course, went mostly to the writer and photographer.
Lovely post. Didn’t know ‘Migrant Mother’s’ name, a fact I didn’t even register till just now… It’s sort of shameful. Thanks. 🙂
Thank you. I think that’s what happens with images that become ‘iconic’ – they seem to speak to us directly.
True! Although it’s little scary how the person in the photo is almost totally eluded, I mean as an individual. I remember feeling the same way about that famous photo from the Vietnam war, of the napalmed girl. She became a symbol of the war — but who she really was/is, most people couldn’t say.
Wow…hard to believe there are places like this in such a developed country.
Yes, that’s why it’s interesting that this is such a profoundly American image.
I found this to be wonderfully well-written. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Thanks for retelling the story behind this evocative image. This kind of meditation is a form of psychological archeology I love reading.
Thank you – I like the archaeology comparison!
Good Sunday morning read. Thanks for the interesting post.
This post was really worth writing.
Terrific connection between high but exploitative art and today’s lows. I will be thinking about this for some time.
Very good post. I also never knew the mother’s name from that picture, and I’m willing to bet most other Americans don’t either. But I feel bad for the young man that died, it is sad that our country’s obsession with “reality” TV had a hand, even if indirectly, in his death.
Yes, I thought it was one of the moments when we have to recognize some complicity.
Very well written! I learned a lot.
This is really brilliant. Stereotypes are everywhere and it is sad when other people exploit these stereotypes for their own benefit.
I have always wondered who that lady was in that photo by Dorothea Lange.
I have hitchhiked through West Virginia a number of times over the years. Beautiful state and met some friendly people.
West Virginia is a beautiful state. I’ll be sure to check out your blog.
[…] A Thumb and a Prayer Author Pens Tales Reminiscing from the Road Take Me Home, Country Roads […]
Yes, “Migrant Mother” can condescend in today’s times.
You do a similar thing/iconic photo(s) about immigrants to Canada or U.S., regardless of their colour. This is why sometimes the stories and photos needs to continue come direct from the people themselves, immigrants or their children who have witnessed their parents’ difficulties of adjustment. An immigrant story /blog would be totally different a …travel blog. 🙂
True – that’s part of the point about thinking that images speak for themselves.
Very well-written, and I love the infamous picture.
Almost any state has it’s hillbilly region. Northern Michigan, the thumb area, the upper peninsula in Michigan. My folks come from northern Michigan. A few times a year we drive through Radioville in Indiana – a collection of assorted trailers spread out at random. And then there is the inner city. Grinding poverty. You state it well. It drives me nuts when people make fun of those with bad teeth.
So true! Rural poverty is a lot like urban poverty but harder to see.
Hey, I just talked to you on another blog right before this got freshly pressed. Fancy that!
Guess we were meant to find each other’s blogs.
Ina sad way, Katherine McIntosh (Thompson’s daughter) carries her mother’s legacy. In this San Francisco chronicle story from 2009, McIntosh is living a similarly hardscrabble life as Thompson did. She was cleaning houses at age 77. She had great ambivalence about the “Migrant Mother’s” place in history.
Thanks for the update and good to note that there are two other people visible in the photograph – her children.
Great post & interesting article. Thanks for posting!
Wonderful, thoughtful, poignant post! Thank you!
Okay, full disclosure. I’m left wing.
But frankly, the way the (now politically victorious) left wing has raced to stereotype the “bubbas and bunkers” of the working classes is really, really, really, really pissing me off. I’m not an okie, but I am an east-coast-bred Italian American. I have never in my life known a single person of my own who acts even slightly like the morons on “Jersey Shore.”
It’s amazing to me that no one seems to see or care that, as the left wing becomes ascendant in politics, the media just coincidentally happens to turn around and demonize and stereotype just as the right wing did, only this time it’s “bubbas and bunkers.” Rural poor whites, and urban epople who are dark enough to function well as recipients of bigotry, and yet white enough that they won’t lose hipster progressive cred for doing so. The two varieties of poor and working-class people that the left wing would like to put into a big hole if they had the chance.
Yes, I think the ascendancy of the left and these stereotyping step-n-fetchit bullsh*t TV shows goes hand in hand.
As a person who has believed for my entire life in the morality of the left, of caring for the environment, for civil rights and feminism, for marriage equality, and for support for the working classes and poor, I have to say that this is unbelievably depressing to me. I truly, truly thought the left was better than this. It’s not at all a vindication of the right — I am nowhere NEAR the right end of the political spectrum. But it seems I’m more alone out here than I thought I was.
Sorry to hijack this, but the vindictive, vicious demonization of poor rural folks and ethnics — and how neatly it’s coincided with the rise of the “moral” “tolerant” “diverse” left sickens me.
Swerving madly back on topic …
I get what you’re saying. I think in the U.S. we talk so much about race that we frequently fail to notice to class bias. And rural people have been left out of the conversation for a long time now.
It seems to be something that both the left and right wings agree on fully, which is disturbing. It means that there is no one at all in American politics who is committed to helping the poor and working-class, not in more than a cosmetic way. (Assuming, as I think we both do, that the rural poor and white ethnics are simply stand-ins for all working classes, which I strongly suspect.)
I wanted to let you know that I just wrote a post following up on some of the ideas in your comment. (I would have linked to this comment, but couldn’t find a way to do that.) The post is:
Don’t equate poverty with futility; there are homeless people who are worth far more to the world than some of those who live in mansions. I know. I was one of them.
Thank you for your comment. One of the intentions of the post was to point out that real people are far more than their images in the media.
This is a great read. There is great dignity in a rural life–its simplicity and honesty–that is absolutely overlooked by Buckwild, Honey-boo-boo, or the show about Amish teenagers going “wild.” Instead, exploitation and derision are the real reward for fifteen minutes of fame.
Thanks for bringing up those other examples. Certainly relevant here.
I appreciate your post and am also bothered by it. Dorothea Lange was not getting rich off of the photographs she took for the FSA. She made a salary. It wasn’t a fantastic one, but government sponsored art sponsorship during the 30s kept artists like her from starving to death. It was “make work.” MTV, on the other hand, is getting rich off of its portrayal of Gandee. They aren’t the same, and as much as Lange should have named the woman in the image, I’m not sure she understood that it would ever be an important photograph. She took thousands for the FSA. Not all of them captured the American imagination like this one did..
Certainly Buckwild and the FSA have very little in common! To the extent that I implied any comparison between Lange and MTV it was more along the lines of pointing out that the power differential between the person taking the picture / filming and the person being filmed / photographed matters.
This was a beautifully written piece.
Thank you for this post. I am familiar with the “Migrant Mother” photograph. My late father lived the depression and this lady reminded him of the poverty his mother suffered. They were city folks, but they were just as poor. I did not know this lady’s name. I am actually ashamed that I did not. Thank you for enlightening me.
You’re welcome. I’m glad you found it valuable.
I suspect that it is mostly white, middle class, people who find the “exploitation” enhances stereotypes about rural, white, and poor clusters of America. We all feel a tinge of guilt when an image of poverty is shoved in front of our faces. But, what if there were no images and no representation of the poor? Would the poor be better served if they were kept secret? And if the behavior, dress, language of the rural poor fits a pre-conceived stereotype can we still deem it as “unnatural”. I don’t think the man who died thought of himself as a stereotype but, just as a person. However, there was a severely limited universe of ideas and influences that created him and made it easier to stereotype him. We all like to think we are more than a stereotype but, every individual in this country fits somebody else’s idea of a stereotype. I’m sure MTV edited for the most outrageous, buffoon-headed, material they could film. And I suspect that the success of this show was due in part to the young man’s willingness to give them what they came looking for. I hope that all makes sense. I just think his death raises as many questions as answers about how we relate, or don’t, to the poor.
I think you’re right that images can’t be nailed down to have a single meaning or purpose. ‘Migrant Mother’ might lean toward the more socially useful side, and Buckwild away from it, but both communicate meaning about people and situations we might otherwise have no knowledge of.
Enjoyed this a lot. I’ve studied the work of Lange and other photographers of period which drew my attention. Reality shows are making a tidy profit showing folks from the rural south in their programs the past couple of years. Authentic? Hardly. America loves this new pitch of getting in touch with their rural roots. The ‘rednecks’ are eating it up also and emulating the new stereotype. Hogwash! It is television folks – who supports this genre?
What I thought was really interesting was how the stereotype had to be qualified once he died and suddenly took on the associations of a rather differnt image of rural people (the more admirable side).
Reblogged this on nealstotts.
Thanks for rebloggin!
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. That poverty is still rife in one of the wealthiest countries on earth is a sad indictment indeed..
In some ways, I wish there were more photography like this today. Documentary style, displaying the conditions of the poor in Western nations as well as developing nations. In many developed nations, we pretend that poverty at home doesn’t exist.
While I understand Florence’s revulsion at being used as the face of poverty, I don’t see this image as belittling her. If anything, I see a very, very strong woman who is used to do whatever it takes to take care of her family. I see a lioness.
That sure beats the image of poverty that is displayed in shows like Buckwild (I am assuming from the way you describe the show), where the goal seems to be laughing at the poor and their lifestyle.
Certainly ‘Migrant Mother’ and Buckwild stand at opposite ends of a spectrum and whatever problems of image making might be implicit in them, the WPA photographs, like those of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine that came before them, are tremendously valuable.
You might want to note that Lange’s employment with the FSA was actually rather brief, that she argued with Roy Stryker over the right to print her own images, and that quite a bit of her Depression-era work was done independent of the FSA. The fact that you cropped the image to suit your story is interesting, because there was a major controversy over the FSA’s similar editing of that very image. History may well repeat itself!
This blog post definitely doesn’t do justice to the full story on ‘Migrant Mother.’ You might read the piece that is linked to the word ‘photograph’ in the third sentence. It’s to a chapter from a great book titled ‘No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy.’ The picture as I used it is the Library of Congress version. I didn’t re-edit it although the way it displays on freshly pressed reflects how the wordpress site formats the posts there.
American Photographers of the Depression, Pantheon 1985, my source. Walker Evans’ work influenced William Christenberry’s photography, and later Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio in Hale County.
Great approach to this topic. You managed to meld historical and contemporary American life into a thought provoking post. Keep up the thoughtful writing.
I was scrolling through freshly pressed and a familiar face referred me to your brilliant post! My mother actually created a charcoal version of this image, I never knew the history behind this predominant image that hangs proudly in my mothers home. It’s fascinating to finally know the story. And it’s beautifully written! Well done! X
That’s an interesting story about your mother’s version of it. It’s inspired a lot of people.
I was amazed to see the famous photograph of Florence Owens Thompson in your article having blogged about her last week, so I read on with interest… I made a video using my music and the photographs of Dorothea Lange because I felt that the images captured the essence of the music. Now that I’ve read your thoughts on the realities of some of this imagery, I’m not sure whether or not to feel a little ashamed, or at least naive about succumbing to the stereotype. And this is potentially made worse because I am a Brit, interpreting my travel through the American landscape through music. Oh dear, I don’t know if I’ve done the right thing or not. Perhaps you could take a quick look at the video and tell me (gently) what you think?
I liked the video – great music! I think the important thing is to think through what images mean. That Thompson resented the photograph or that it appeals to certain mythologized notions about that time period or that group of people doesn’t have to negate all the other meanings of the photograph as art, as social testament, as personal inspiration, etc.
Thanks for replying and I am relieved! All I wanted to do was present something simple and honest, about people and land and how they shape each other, and I’m relieved I haven’t messed it up by using the wrong images. Thanks very much, and congratulations on your writing, it’s very good and I enjoy reading it very much.
I remembered that photograph from an Art History course I took in high school. It’s one of my favorites — so haunting. I find your blog really interesting, since there is such a strong link between the past and the present. Technology changes, but some things really never do change.
i enjoyed to read your blog 🙂
very inspiring indeed….
Wonderful blog! Thanks for sharing!
A well written post and the comparison of the two is interesting. I find Lang’s image to have an empathy and respect for its subject. Whereas Gandee was ‘invited to the party ‘ as a source of entertainment, a jester to laugh at. Either way a sad ending for both.
Yes, it seemed to me that his death led people to have some of the empathy for him that ‘Migrant Mother’ brings out when we think of that image.
Reblogged this on gottopickapocketortwo and commented:
Beautiful and thought- provoking post.
Thanks for reblogging.
Like the post very much !
This photo is so iconic and representative of the Great Depression. Dodge’s superbowl commercial “God Made a Farmer” is also iconic in many ways of much of rural american in 2013 that is overlooked. I like your post and love the theme of your blog.
Yes, it’s a very powerful commercial. Thanks for your comment.
Hi, I ended up here following the picture. It was used in my high school textbook for Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. It’s still very evocative these days. Thanks for reminding me of it!
It is amazing that practically everyone is familiar with the picture despite its age.
I just learned about this in S.S.
I was just studying “Migrant Mother” in my humanities class, and came across your post. It was so cool to see it discussed outside of a classroom setting and I love learning more about it. Thank you!
You’re welcome – glad you liked it.
A brilliant piece. I felt really engaged in the topic, both emotionally and intellectually. Intelligently and warmly written – thanks so much for sharing this.
You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment.
Excellent work on the history behind the photo. A tough story that reads like butter.
good post! inspiring…
It is a great article! Enjoyed reading it.
Reblogged this on WEB REVEALED and commented:
Great post on Great depression and the resultant Poverty, Modern reality show and iconic photos!