Denotation and Connotation – Migrant Mother

21st October 2013

Something the Thames Valley OCA Group discussed at one of our previous meanings was denotation and connotation and when the text of the course suggested that it would be wise to consider looking at this, I decided I’d use the idea as an excuse to practice, and this is the result.

Compare the famous image of Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange, with the other images from the series she made of that group and make notes on the differences between them and what each denotes and connotes.

Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange


A sitting woman with two children , one either side of her.  The woman has her chin lightly resting on the fingers of her right hand and is staring into the distance to her half-right.  One child stands at her right shoulder with the head turned away from the camera.  The hair is ‘bowl’ cut and the clothes look worn but cared for and many times washed, as there is a very light colour to them, whilst the skin looks clean.  She has another child standing at her left shoulder, also with the face turned away from the camera, but in this case although the hair is bowl cut it is tangled and unkempt and the skin of the hands and arms, that’s visible, is dirty.  There are holes in the child’s clothing in the sleeve but the cleanliness cannot be determined, they appear much washed.  On the woman’s lap is a very young child, semi-recumbant, and with most of the face hidden, although what can be seen is dirty.  The clothing is again light coloured from many washing’s but grubby at the moment.  The woman has her left arm around the youngest child supporting the head and shoulders, the fingers of her left hand are just visible under the child’s coat collar, the coat is too big for the child. The woman’s face is screwed up in a frown with the corners of her eyes showing ‘crows feet’  from partially squinting.  Her clothes show signs of heavy wear and are frayed at the shortened sleeves, again light coloured from many washings.  Her hair is clean and cut short, her hands and face are clean.  The background shows some sort of cloth that forms a screen behind all the figures and has a stitched seam running at an angle from bottom left to top right of the upper right quadrant.  A wooden pole is vertical at the extreme right edge of the image obscuring part of the face and head of the child on the woman’s lap and the body of the child standing at her left-hand side.


The standing children are shy and their mother, who is supporting them with her sitting body, appears to be unaware of their presence and that of the child on her lap, so engrossed in her thoughts and the apparent worry, fatigue, and resignation that her face depicts.  From the state of their clothing they would appear to be very poor, as they’re making them last as long as possible and there’s probably insufficient money to purchase needle and thread to repair them.  They keep them clean and wash them often to retain what’s left of their pride.  Clearly they’ve fallen on hard times as they seem to live in some sort of tent or lean-to and their old clothes suggest lack of money.  Personal cleanliness is becoming something of a drag as, can be seen from the various levels of cleanliness of the subjects, the mother presumably the cleanest as her conditioned reflex will be to wash often whereas the children will have lesser conditioning according to age.  The long distance stare on the mother’s face, along with the frown and ‘crows feet’, suggest her concern is with the family’s immediate problems rather than those of the past or future.  Considering their appearance and abode, it would suggest that there is also a lack of food on more occasions than there is sufficient.


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