Why Great Photographers Make Their Luck


DETAIL OF “MIGRANT MOTHER”

Years of lugging around cameras and lenses has convinced me that luck has a central role in outstanding photojournalism. This is because lucks results from years of practice.

That is the story behind pioneering photojournalist Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” perhaps the best known rural photograph from the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The woman was Florence Thompson, a refugee from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, mother of 11 children and, along with her husband, a pea picker near the small town of Nipomo in the coastal foothills near Santa Barbara, California.

Lange, who was photographing migrant workers for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal Agency, passed by the fields and the Thompsons’ lean-to in February 1936, but as befits a photographer of her talent, stopped 20 miles on and turned around because she couldn’t get the fleeting image of the woman out of her mind.

The photographer found Thompson alone with her daughters; her husband and sons were off getting the family car repaired. The pea crop had been ruined by a freeze and the look of hunger already was in the camp.

Lange was a masterful photographer of children, but atypically but instinctively asked the girls clinging to their mother to turn their faces away from the camera, forcing the viewer to focus exclusively on Florence Thompson’s beauty and anxiety.

When Lange developed the negatives, she knew that she had something special and sold the photographs to the San Francisco News, which published two of them on March 10, 1936.

The photographs became a sensation. Some $200,000 poured in for the destitute Nipomo farmworkers, but a number of them already had died.

* * * * *


My friend Jim MacMillan is a more contemporary example of a photographer who makes his luck.

When I worked with Mac at the Philadelphia Daily News, he was not content to sit around the newsroom waiting something to happen. So on most days he would drive around the city in a radio car monitoring police and fire department transmissions. This resulted in some terrific photographs, including a gripping series of images of an armed robber holding a woman hostage in a glassed-in ATM foyer at a bank. The robber eventually released the woman unharmed.

Philadelphia became too small and in 2004 Mac joined The Associated Press on the condition that he be assigned to Iraq, where there were the first stirrings of an Al Qaeda insurgency that would play a major roll in that country’s civil war.

Jim’s knack for being in the right place at the right time nearly got him thrown out of the country. Government officials were convinced that he was in cahoots with insurgents because of his knack for showing up in the wake of a bombing or other attack, but it was just his innate sense of where to be.

Mac won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography.

4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the Dorothea Lange photograph and explanation. One forgets sometimes there actually are Americans who have empathy for the downtrodden.

  2. wesleypresley:

    Not only that, but Lange was photographing on the government dime. She and her bosses in Washington nearly lost their jobs several times because certain members of Congress, mostly but not all Republicans, objected to using taxpayer money for these powerful doses for reality.

  3. So, how much did Florence Thompson get?

  4. RE: my comment before this one:

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    What????????????????????

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