Mother of Reinvention
Drew Johnson, OMCA’s curator of photography and visual culture, is moved by how Migrant Mother—the best-known photograph by Dorothea Lange—has influenced generations of artists and activists. The searing image of migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson was part of the body of work Lange produced for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. “The photo took off,” he says, “and it has become arguably the most widely reproduced image in the history of photography.”
Migrant Mother has been the subject of countless appropriations and reinterpretations, Johnson notes, from its use in advertising (promoting such brands as Samsonite luggage and the Gap), to its adoption by political and social organizations (the Socialist Party and the Black Panther Party, to name just two).
Thus, when asked to choose a favorite item from OMCA’s collections, Johnson selected a black-and-white drawing by Black Panther Party artist Malik Edwards that is directly modeled after Migrant Mother. The work, which appeared in a 1972 edition of the Black Panther Party’s newspaper, depicts an African-American woman with a child on either side of her and a baby in her lap. Her expression—from furrowed brow to melancholy mouth—is unmistakably that of Lange’s subject, 32-year-old Thompson, who worked in a California pea-picking camp in 1936. While the original photo is associated with the deprivations of the Great Depression, Edwards’s version is tied to the Black Panther Party’s social justice causes. With the heading “Poverty Is a Crime, and Our People Are the Victims,” Edwards’s work draws on the universality of the Lange photo—the indelible expression of hardship, suffering, perseverance—and applies it to the Panthers’ message.
“It speaks to the sheer power and adaptability of Migrant Mother,” says Johnson, who curated Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing, which opens at OMCA on May 13, 2017. “You can interpret it a million ways, and see anything you want in her face.”
Lange herself acknowledged the special trajectory her image would have over the years. Remarking on Migrant Mother in 1960, she said: “It has, in a sense, lived a life of its own through these years: It goes on and on.”
Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, 1936. The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California, City of Oakland. Gift of Paul S. Taylor; The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service, Poverty is a Crime, 1972. 11 in. wide x 17 in. high, poster printed on newsprint. Collection OMCA. Photography: Terry Lorant.