The mum – a symbolic object unique to young Texans – becomes a symbol of idolatry in Nancy Newberry’s portrait series
It was while recovering from an accident back at her childhood home in Texas that Nancy Newberry first had the idea of photographing a local tradition that is little-known outside the southern state. “I found a long-lost box of relics and was reminded of a portrait I had taken about a year before,” she recalls. “The photo was of a girl standing in her bedroom, shot during an assignment for Time magazine. For a few frames, I asked her to wear the homecoming ‘mum’ that was proudly pinned to her wall.”
Not to be confused with mother, the word ‘mum’ is short for chrysanthemum – the flower on which the corsage is based. “Mums are exchanged between school friends in the fall,” says Newberry. “They are ritually worn and subsequently saved and tacked to bedroom walls, like trophies. What began as a simple flower – given to a girl by a boy – now consists of a giant silk chrysanthemum, adorned with long, glittery ribbons and trinkets, which indicate the wearer’s interests, social standing and allegiances to friends.”
Finding subjects for her project was a challenge, but enlisting the help of old friends, Newberry began taking photographs of young Texans wearing their mums, captured in or around their homes. Taking the process into their territory was crucial for building tension or “controlled chaos” within each image. “I like to play with the idea of creating distance,” she says. “I am a stranger in their space. I confront and challenge them, resulting in a certain action or desire.” Newberry worked with the sitters to create a successful pose “based on the interpretation of a memory”.
Newberry, who has shot for magazines such as Rolling Stone, Stern and Forbes, is drawn to the mum because of what it says about an individual’s relationship with their culture. “I am interested in how ritual objects unite a community, help to shape personal identity and become a part of the unique landscape and the language of a place,” she says. This interest recurs throughout her work, most recently in Halfway to Midland, for which she received the Descubrimientos PhotoEspaña 2013 prize.