Radical Acts

7 / 23

Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California. March 1936 595

Gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 × 7 5/8" (24.4 × 19.4 cm). Purchase

Artist, Dorothea Lange (archival): I many times encountered courage, real courage. I encountered that many times, in unexpected places. And I have learned to recognize it when I see it.

Artist, Kerry Downey: That’s the photographer Dorothea Lange. She took this photograph in 1936 and it stirred up incredible amounts of sympathy but also outrage. Here’s curator Sarah Meister to tell us more.

Curator, Sarah Meister: What we're looking at is a 32 year old mother of seven children on the outskirts of a field where there was no work because the pea crop had frozen.

This photograph has become such a shorthand for the suffering of the Great Depression. Lange really understood the power of photographic images to convey very complex and nuanced circumstances. The children looking away from the camera allows them to represent all children. Her posture with her worried hand up to her face you can see the worn edge of her sleeve, you can feel the lines in her brow.

There are very few works of art that you can say brought relief to people pictured, real immediate relief. Reporters and government aid were sent to that camp immediately.

Many decades after this photograph was made we learned that the sitter, the Migrant Mother, whose name is Florence Owens Thompson, was in fact Cherokee. And that raises all kinds of questions about how instinctive sympathy might be linked to a recognition of similarity. Meaning if a largely white audience would have identified as powerfully with this image if they had known that she was Native American. We can't know the answer to that, but it seems like a very important thing to reflect on.