Dorothy Lange’s infamous Migrant Mother

I’ve always appreciated this image but was recently struck by the number of ‘likeable’ elements; as if any privileged white person might see themselves in the face of the mother or her children and decide it’s polite enough, even desirable, to empathize with. This is the image of hard times I can face and maybe even hang in my office. I wonder if Net-a-Porter does Depression-era button-downs?

Her well-formed fingers lightly grazing an educated face; we assume the differences and judge accordingly. Toned forearm holding itself parallel to the collar-bone and exposed ribs; modern day mainstream upper-crusty, accessory kit. Her symmetrical face and smartly layered, subtly tattered ‘poverty chic’ ootd. The highlights and haircuts her children wear are what we request, nay demand from single-surnamed salons.

This is just one of many providential ingredients; people see it when they’re destined to See and even then we always have a choice. Look or look the other way.

Either way, Dorothy, a privileged white woman, took a beautiful photograph of poor people which is exactly what the government had asked her to do. So sad. So chic. Does it come on a recycled canvas tote bag?

Anyway, today I finished the unfinished woman and for whatever reason she reminded me of the dressed up shadow self of the Migrant Mother whose real name happened to have been Florence Owens. Here’s the story behind the photograph.

As for the story behind this painting, I’d finally gotten sick of seeing her incomplete. Filling in the blank space required committing to decisions about color and texture; fleshing her out from one to multi-dimensional, parallel to my book which now has two additional chapters. I want to be done but it needs to be done right.

While I have little desire to revisit certain places in the past, the stories refuse to go unwritten. Surrender has given way to wreckage and all the rest. And Ms. Owens, my strange and dazzling bird, is ready to fly.

Wish you could believe in me.”-Sally Owens


5 thoughts on “Flight of Ideas

  1. i’ve often been struck by how the media is able to romanticise such appalling poverty. one photograph, besides the one here, has stayed with me: a woman and baby, busy dying due to famine dressed up in bright colours put in a pose of a Madonna.

    And resonate with the last sentence of your post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Romanticizing appalling poverty; exactly. I’d be curious to understand more about the photo you describe. Was the artist honoring the Day of the Dead or simply exploiting the poor for a vision? The ethics of photojournalism makes you wonder huh?


      • Exploiting the poor for a vision definitely. It was printed in a newspaper a long time ago. around 2000. If I remember correctly they were reporting on the famine in Somalia. The photographer makes a fair buck out of it, often. And the one photographed is left to her own devices. There’s another photo of famine, where a child was bent over from weakness and hunger, also in the desert in Africa with a vulture standing guard a few metres away. The photographer took so much flack from society that he committed suicide in the end. Such photos can often be mere voyeurism and sometimes the photographer tries to bring across the extremes of the situation he or she is reporting on.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Really enjoyed this post, your art and the link – I knew the photo like everyone else, but not the back story. …so glad to live in an age of contraception. In past eras, women from dysfunctional and unhappy backgrounds would most likely have children from their subsequent textbook dysfunctional romantic relationships, before they finally got to a relationship that went right…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Contraception, education and policies against domestic violence-amen for all that! Countless women have told me throughout my career how they were coerced by family, partners, society or the church into breeding. And in many parts of the world it’s still happening.


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