FSA photographs of children during the 1930s effectively challenged existing notions of how children should be depicted. Brimming with ambiguity, the pictures appropriated conventional imagery of innocence but modified it to convey helplessness and despair as well as hope. Parents could no longer coddle, and, therefore, their children knew poverty, want, and despair. Consciousness prevailed, and little adults returned. This time, however, tattered clothing replaced regal attire and hunger took the place of power.

Higonnet describes five genres of Romantic childhood images, though she acknowledges some overlap: children dressed in special costumes, children with pets, children as angelic or cupid-like, children with their mother, and children unconsciously prefiguring gendered adult roles (33). FSA photographs involving children often correspond to these categories, though the Depression-era images manipulated the familiar ideals of childhood to deliver rather non-innocent messages. As documentary work, the pictures, though aesthetically pleasing, reflect a very real situation of poverty and want, and, therefore, fantastic figures such as cupids do not appear. Moreover, with barely money enough for food, rags replace costumes out of necessity, not artistic purpose.

'30s Documentary
Innocence in Art
Romantic Portrayals
Family Photos
Knowing Images
Adult Projections
Happy Children
In "Pettway girl, Gees Bend, Alabama," for example, Rothstein recalls the child-with-pet genre of Romantic childhood but to a very different end. The line of the wooden fence draws our attention first to the girl. Clad in rags and without shoes, she stares enigmatically at Rothstein. According to accompanying notes, she belonged to a "primitive" sharecropping community (Prescott 67). She forces the viewer to ask: Does she look at the camera with wonder and curiosity or fear and trepidation? Where are her parents? How does the family survive on this desolate land? The girl, an asexual figure in her shapeless plaid dress, appears simple and naive.
"Pettway girl"
"Pettway girl, Gees Bend, Alabama"
In front of the fence, not far from where the child stands, a dog lies on the ground, but the overall shabbiness of the scene precludes an idealist interpretation. Instead we wonder whether the dog is alive or, in fact, dead, and his liminal condition casts a morbid shadow on the photograph. A dead pet shatters the Romantic child illusion for in this world of want and despair, loyal pets are useless.
Higonnet associates Romantic mother-and-child imagery with Renaissance Christian paintings of the Madonna and Child. She describes how the "theological significance was drained" from these paintings "and replaced by the meanings of a universal, non-denominational, maternity" (39). The religious symbolism not withstanding, as the coupling became more pervasive, the mother and child gained distinction as a standard of a romanticized, even sentimentalized, childhood. For this reason, FSA photographs of mothers and children--most notably Lange's "Migrant mother"--proved enormously effective.
"Madonna della sedia"
"Madonna della Sedia"

In Lange's image, the mother's eyes pierce the viewer's soul without actually looking at us. Rather, she casts her eyes to the side and behind the camera. Yet the enigmatic stare certainly captured Stryker's attention. He recalls:

When Dorothea took that picture, that was the ultimate. She never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture of Farm Security. The others were marvelous but that was special. Notice I never said it was the greatest. People would say to me, that migrant woman looks posed and I'd say she does not look posed. That picture is as uninvolved with the camera as any picture I've ever seen. They'd say, well you're crazy and I'd say I'm not crazy. I'll stand on that picture as long as I live. After all these years, I still get that picture out and look at it. The quietness and the stillness of it…. Was that woman calm or not? I've never known. I cannot account for that woman. So many times I've asked myself what is she thinking? She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance, too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want to in her. She is immortal. Look at that hand. Look at the child. Look at those fingers--those two heads of hair (Stryker 19).

As his reaction evidences, viewers are drawn immediately to the central figure of the woman and not necessarily to her children. This focus, however, underscores, rather than ignores, the presence of the children for we suddenly wonder why we didn't notice them before.

"Migrant mother"
Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, authors of Reading Images, refer to the middle element of an image as "Centre" and the other aspects as "Margins." Here, the mother equals the Centre and the children act as the Margins. "For something to be presented as Centre," they explain, "means that it is presented as the nucleus of the information on which all the other elements are in some sense subservient. The Margins are these ancillary, dependent elements" (206).
"Migrant mother"
The two older children hide from the camera, turning not just their heads but their whole bodies from Lange's view; we see only a right shoulder and a left arm. We cannot determine even their genders. The baby, moreover, rests gently in its mother's hidden arm, reminiscent of the Madonna and Child poses. Here, however, the baby is concealed rather than revealed. As ungendered children physically protected by their mother, this trio embodies the ideal of Higonnet's Romantic child. However, the children also counter that notion for while the mother may guard her shy children from the camera lens, her raggedy clothing and dirt-smudged arms indicate that she can shelter them from little else. Indeed, her distracted stare suggests a detachment from her young family, as if she is unaware of the three bodies that lean intimately against her. Finally, Lange's shot--significantly titled "Migrant mother" with no mention of the other three persons present--lacks any sign of youthful hope or play. It disavows the generation to come. The children, including the baby whose face is mostly hidden by its sibling's body, turn their heads from the world, from the future they will inherit.
"18-year-old mother"
A year later, Lange shot "A California Migrant, Eighteen-Year-Old Mother From Oklahoma," employing the Madonna and Child metaphor once more. This time she inverts the idea of an all-knowing Christ child, and portrays an unmistakably naive baby. The mother, herself barely an adult, refrains from fussing over her toddler; she does not even touch him. Instead the grubby child sits on the dirt floor, holding an unseen object--a rock? dirt?--to his mouth. The mother, who stares squarely at the camera, seems unaware of the boy's activity.
"18-year-old mother"
We cannot see his face, but this child appears unaffected by his surroundings as he plays contentedly on the ground. He probably knows no dwelling other than the crude tent that provides the backdrop to Lange's picture. However, the viewer, who observes the dirty canvas, the meager home behind the tent flap, and the woman's too big clothes, recognizes the boy as anything but a Romantic child. Lange's framing helps us arrive at this conclusion because she carefully includes a glimpse into the dark tent but divulges very little, underscoring his deprivation as well as his unconsciousness. The child's proximity to the ground also accentuates his lack of knowledge for his consciousness can include only that within his limited line of sight. In this instance, however, naivete does not equal carefree bliss; Romantic innocence involves parental doting. This mother sits on a stool--a compromise between towering above her son and stooping down on the ground with him--simultaneously connected to and detached from her son as if she recognizes both her responsibility to him and her inability to provide for him.
Although these two cases discuss the work of Lange specifically, male photographers also benefited from the visual allusion of the Madonna. Lee's "Mother and children at agricultural workers' union meeting," for example, also reflects this cultural paradigm. In this instance, the mother somewhat ignores her two sons, directing her attention elsewhere. Meanwhile the boys--at least one of whom wears heavily patched clothing and has grubby hands--do not look especially well provided for. His untitled image of mother-and-child refugees also bears a strong resemblance to the Christian iconography.
"Mother and children at union meeting"
"Mother and children at agricultural workers' union meeting"

In much of New Deal photography, children's clothing and actions both resemble that of the grown-ups around them and foreshadow the adults they, themselves, will one day become. Unlike post-eighteenth-century, Romantic images of "little adults," however, these children have not been arranged to look unconsciously charming. In fact, these children are very much aware of the conditions under which they live and work. "With a surplus of experienced workers seeking jobs," claims historian Sally Stein, "thirties youth were the last to be hired. At the same time, Depression layoffs of adult workers pushed teens to leave school with the aim of contributing to their families' reduced incomes, despite the fact that their chances of gainful employment were better if they at least completed their secondary education" (Daniel 94). She cites 1937 Census Bureau figures stating that twenty-five percent of all 16- to 24-year olds held at least part-time jobs. The Depression, however, not only affected adolescents; elementary-age children also pitched in both financially and domestically, as the following pictures attest.

Images such as Lange's "Oklahoma child with cotton sack ready to go into the field with parents at 7 A.M." perversely resemble seventeenth-century images of children. In twentieth-century America, these "little adults" do not merely act and look like the adults around them. Nor do their pictures connote elitist positions. On the contrary, they don the same bedraggled clothing as their parents because no other attire exists for them. Children such as this barelegged girl who sleepily rubs her eyes sacrifice childhood lightheartedness to help their families survive. Psychologically forced to adopt grown-up responsibility while still physically a child, she drags a sack twice as tall as she is--a representation of the enormous task paced on her tiny shoulders.
"Child with cotton sack"
"Oklahoma child with cotton sack ready to go into the field with parents at 7 A.M."
Two other Lange photographs well represent the physical reality and emotional turmoil of young girls trapped in grown-up, specifically motherly, roles too early. "Supper time on 'Highway No. 1 of the OK state'" shows a gender-neutral little girl--sporting cropped hair, wearing a shapeless and worn dress, and exposing filthy feet--laboring over a stove and anticipating the woman she one day will grow to become. However, Lange's little cook defies labels of "innocence" and "Romantic." She does not play; she works. If she does not make the meal, no one else will, a condition she well understands. Lange, moreover, includes the sunlit window in the shot, reminding the audience that this child should be running blithely out of doors. The bare and drafty planked walls and floor only add to our pity for the deprived child.
"Supper time on Highway No. 1 "
"Supper time on 'Highway No. 1 of the OK state'
In "Child and her mother," Lange looks down on her central subject, a young girl who leans against a wire fence with downcast eyes. The dry land on which she stands fades into the background, as does the girl's mother who stands at a distance behind her daughter, her hand blocking the sun from her eyes as she gazes at the girl. Although we can discern few characteristics of the mother, we notice a resemblance between her and the child: dark brown hair, for example, and similarly styled dresses. The mother represents the life the girl will inherit. Unlike the Romantic children who unconsciously played these older roles, this sad looking girl, who fiercely grasps the wire in her hands, seems quite aware of her plight, and her ambiguous stare could indicate a resolute determination to overcome poverty as strongly as it suggests resignation to it.
"Child and her mother"
"Child and her mother"

In "Home and family of oil field roustabout," Lee depicts a small, bare house, occupied by a neatly dressed woman and three girls of varying ages, and captures a sense of powerlessness to change one's condition. As the crooked sign indicates, the woman, probably with help from her daughters, would gladly take on extra work to provide for the family, but their idleness indicates that, despite their best efforts, no customers take up the offer. Russell also manages to accentuate notions of femininity in this picture by framing the oldest girl in the window and the woman and her youngest child in the doorway. Domestic tasks-- such as washing, ironing, and child-rearing--fall squarely within the female domain, and this tradition will pass on to the next generation. One girl, however, sits outside the dwelling, away from the rest, as if resisting the mold. Usually, "[t]he absence of framing stresses group identity, its presence signifies individuality and differentiation" (Kress 215). Lee overturns the convention and uses framing to highlight commonality while the lack of framing underscores the one child's uniqueness. The technique mirrors his revisionist approach to typical mother-and-child imagery. Still, just as the woman futility attempts to draw in business, the child's ability to actually step outside of conventional female roles may be beyond her control--as is evidenced by her rounded shoulders and downcast head. Even while the grown woman perseveres to support the family, this girl's body language conveys resignation.


"Home and family of oil field roustabout"
"Home and family of oil field roustabout,"
Evans also captures the essence of children growing up too quickly in "Sons of the American Legion." A group of boys stand on the sidewalk in uniforms of button-down shirts and ties. With a shirt coming untucked, a tie secured in a waistband, and caps askew, the children appear somewhat disheveled and mischievous. One child looks longingly toward the street--jealous perhaps that he can't run off and play in such nice clothes--and another clowns a funny face for the camera. Still, they assume both the attire and sense of civic responsibility of their elders. Presented with this contradiction of childhood and adulthood, viewers wonder what these children feel and think and whether they have forfeited their innocence too soon.
"Sons of the American Legion"
"Sons of the American Legion"