The woman is Florence Thompson, a refugee from the Oklahoma Dust Down, 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.
As Lange biographer Linda Gordon writes:
"The chance nature of this photograph . . . resulted from the kind of luck that comes only with years of practice. The atypical was conditioned by the habitual. Lange's fleeting glance caught something important because her eye was so trained. Then a second part of her photographic discipline took over: a sense of responsibility -- to document conditions and seize visual opportunity. She turned around and drove back -- like a 'homing pigeon,' she recalled."She found Florence 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.
"When I ask my university students if they knew who Dorothea Lange was, almost lal said no. But when I asked them to tell me their visual images of the Depression, many described this photograph. Within that association, its meaning varies: it can connote victimization, the irrepressible resilience of Americans, or the selflessness of mothers."