In Home Truths: Photography & Motherhood, the curator Susan Bright sets out to tackle some long-held myths about one of the most emotive and tightly typecast figures in our society. Lucy Davies reports
Motherhood, especially the pregnant form, has occupied a confusing place in the history of photography – in painting, too. Primitive, insistently corporeal, terrifying, mysterious, even today in our permissive Western climes, viewers tend to respond with anxiety and scorn, sometimes with revulsion. Conversely, the currency of the perfect mother has never been higher. Katie and Suri, Victoria and Harper, Catherine and George: the frenzy for celebrity mothering plays out as a series of characters that are medieval-ish in their reliance on archetype. The Lady, the Crone, the Whore and the Saint appear with reliable regularity in the celebrity press, and take their lead visually from established postures handed down from the earliest mosaics and tempera.
Yet even as the mother figure moves from the margins to the mainstream, old-fashioned ideas about what should be hidden away remain in play. “It’s such an emotive subject,” says curator and author Susan Bright. “People have an image in their heads about motherhood and when anything contradicts that, they get very bothered by it, very quickly.” Bright’s upcoming exhibition – on show across The Photographers’ Gallery and The Foundling Museum, as well as being a book – Home Truths looks diligently and with feeling at this most quotidian and yet most precious of events, examining its visual treatment by photographers male as well as female. Her antennae turned towards the subject after the birth of her first child in 2008, when she found her previous indifference to celebrity culture abruptly overturned. “I thought, oh my god, this celebrity mum phenomenon, it’s everywhere. I wanted to see what people were doing in critical terms, in fine art.”
Research for her book on photographic self-portraiture (Autofocus, 2010) had thrown up a handful of women photographing themselves with their children or pregnant. “So I knew there was good work out there,” she says. “It just needed the space to be shown and talked about… It was still quite a taboo subject, and that’s ridiculous.”
Together the 12 photographers selected for the show cover admirable, eye-opening ground. This isn’t a collection of mums cradling babies and bumps; it’s about the raw, sometimes ill- fated urge for motherhood, and about identity. It covers adoption, stillbirth, issues of privacy and intimacy, the irreversible shift in identity that attends the birth of a child, and the anxiety that can overwhelm some new mothers. There are sad endings as well as happy, and as much loss as gain.
In her catalogue essay, Bright selects two examples of early photography that shed light on the obstacles this subject matter has had to overcome. First, a 1908 stereoscopic image from an obstetrics atlas, and second, a mid-19th century studio portrait of a mother and child. Interestingly, both women are hooded, the latter almost completely covered so she can later be erased from the portrait – “both literally and figuratively, a piece of the furniture”, says Bright – and the former presumably to safeguard the dignity of both observer and observed. This woman is seen in profile, her belly pendulous, her lower limbs covered in thick, wrinkled stockings and workaday boots. The result, says Bright, “is one of extreme weirdness”.
There are other, less fetishistic images of motherhood in early photography – images that we know extremely well. Julia Margaret Cameron favoured a Madonna and Child motif (she photographed her circle in its recognisable setup no less than 63 times between 1864 and 1872), and no discussion of motherhood could be complete without Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, whose bold emotional content and ability to transcend specificity made it one of the most reproduced images in history. Tina Modotti, Harry Callahan, Imogen Cunningham and Barbara Morgan all tried their hand at the pregnant form, but though their images were often aesthetically breathtaking, the experience of motherhood and the identity of the mother remained wholly secondary to lines, curves, textures and tone. From here on, the subject drops off the radar. Public photographs of pregnant women appeared only in medical textbooks or maternity clothing catalogues; the pregnancy “dealt with in an extremely limited, idealised and de-historicised way”, says Bright.
Motherhood really emerged from the skirts of the Madonna into a space of critical and conceptual practice around 1970, when second- wave feminism nudged, or perhaps shoved, a more rigorous consideration of female issues into the arena. Aspects of a woman’s life that were once hidden away or unacknowledged came out into the open, giving the mother unprecedented visibility in cultural and political spheres. In 1972, single people in every state in the US were given access to birth control, and unmarried mothers could return to school if they chose to keep their baby. Roe v Wade, the landmark case that legalised abortion in the first trimester, came in 1973, and suddenly, says artist Ann Fessler, “Decisions about motherhood could be made by the woman.”
Fessler’s contribution to the show is a short film that stitches together remnants of educational films from the 1950s with footage she shot herself when she travelled to the rural Midwest of America in search of her natural mother. Adopted as a baby by a woman who was herself an adoptee, Fessler only came to seek out her natural mother aged 40, when a woman approached her at a gallery opening thinking Fessler was the daughter she herself had surrendered for adoption. “Hearing her story, how traumatised she still was, made me re-examine my experience… I felt like I was getting a really strong message from somewhere that this was something I needed to deal with.”
Fessler applied for her birth certificate and discovered she was not the woman’s long-lost daughter, but that her real mother had grown up in a town an hour away from where Fessler was soon to give a lecture. What happens next unfolds in her film, Along the Pale Blue River – she goes in search of a yearbook photo of her mother, discovers she is still alive, and meets her uncle who tells the story of her mother’s life.
The film opens with the sound of birdsong, the camera panning wide over the banks of a slow- flowing river. Fessler narrates the film, telling how a young woman of 19 discovers she is pregnant and flees her rural home for the anonymity of a city, where she gives birth in a maternity home, surrendering her baby for adoption.
The sequence is dreamy and memory-like. A lone car crosses a thin spar of land, light shafts across a linoleum corridor, and a girl with her back to us slowly adds smudge-shaped windows to her painting of skyscrapers. When the daughter returns to seek her mother out, she realises that the river which flowed by her childhood home had its source in the farmland in which her mother grew up.
As a tangent to the principal exhibition, her longer film, A Girl Like Her, will be screened at The Foundling Museum. It covers the same ground as her 2006 book, The Girls Who Went Away, which charted the tragedy of the million and a half women who surrendered children for adoption in secret due to intense social pressures in the decades before Roe v Wade. These women never spoke of what they had done, and many believed they were alone in their experience. “At the end of the interviews they would ask me, ‘Have you ever known anyone else who feels the way I do?’ and I just wanted to crawl in a ball on the floor and weep.” Seven years after the book was published, Fessler still receives emails from women discovering what they went through was a phenomenon, “and suddenly, it’s no longer their personal failure”.
Mothers and daughters, intergenerational lines, and their associated losses and gains, are also prominent in the work of Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. For her series Re-Generation, she digitises photographs belonging to families with three generations of mothers, and collapses them into tiny animations. The mothers morph into one another, dissolving past into present in a slow loop that insinuates ideas about past, future, ageing, familial similarities and inherited traditions.
“I have always been intrigued by the silent stories old photographs imply,” says Palakunnathu Matthew. For her project, she sought out family albums in India, Israel and Vietnam. “It was interesting to see the similarities and differences in the family photos across cultures.”
Her work takes the photograph’s presumed veracity as its ground zero, exploring the effect this has on memories and myths over time. Growing up first in England, then India, before moving to America to study photography, Palakunnathu Matthew says the concept of identity looms large in her life. “I think everyone thinks about their identity in some sort of tangential way,” she says, “but always being from outside the majority allows me to address its perceptions and assumptions.”
Several of the artists in the show pay homage to the kinds of composition and iconography we are familiar with from art history. Elinor Carucci’s series, Mother, features a beautiful Madonna lactans; Ana Casas Broda a reclining Venus; Elina Brotherus works with the tradition of the Annunciation; and Fred Hüning’s Einer, Zwei and Drei, make handsome use of the fashions, configurations and palette of 17th century Dutch portraiture. With Hüning, though, things are more complex than they outwardly seem. Even as these images are so exquisite as to invite touch, they document a tragic event – the stillbirth of the couple’s first child and the intervening struggle before his wife discovers she is pregnant again. The final chapter completes the cycle, where the second child is now four years old. It’s about “happiness, bonding, togetherness and love”, says Hüning.
For Bright, the work “is a rare glimpse into a family’s life and their relationship with photography in order to capture things that are not usually made public”. Including negative as well as positive stories wasn’t something she set out to do, but “I wanted the work… to be in an in-between space, with uncertainty and doubt, because all these things happen and yet those feelings are not really given space…. When I first saw Elina Brotherus’s work [Annunciation records the artist’s efforts over a five-year period to conceive a child via IVF], I thought, that’s amazing. Photography can take you somewhere you’ve never seen and you’ve never experienced.”
For Leigh Ledare, historical precedents exist only to be detonated. Pretend You’re Actually Alive is a cross between a misguided, adolescent- seeming hymn to his mother and an annihilation of everything we thought we knew and accepted about mothering and maternity. It’s deliberately, self-consciously, contentious, but at the same time, designed to feel phoney, suspicious.
The work is posited as a collaboration between mother and son, the former presenting herself to camera in a series of increasingly pornographic poses. It takes its cue from work like Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, where an ordinarily innocuous, familiar-sounding subject (in Billingham’s case, family snapshots) is turned into intimate, frank, uncomfortable content.
Ledare includes photographs of other members of his family, as well as letters between mother and son, personal ads from newspapers, and some of his own autobiographical musings, which exist, says Bright, to help pull the series from simple documentary work to more of a polyhedrous comment on the place of, use of and responsibilities of photography itself. “We do not know how much is performed and how much is real,” she explains in her catalogue essay. “If it is documentary, then there is no story or conclusion and nothing is resolved. The viewer is always projecting their own sense of morality or expectations, whether socially dictated or self- generated, against what Ledare presents.”
The work of Hanna Putz takes power from both its subject matter, which concerns issues of privacy and mass exposure, and its form – a series of tightly woven bodily configurations that make mother and child seem one rather than two. “I knew how I wanted the image to look,” she says. “I wanted to work like a sculptor, moulding the two bodies together – two bodies which have once been one.”
Almost all the subjects were close friends of Putz: “I needed them to trust me,” she says, “otherwise such an intimate project wouldn’t work. I stayed with the women with their babies for a few days, sometimes a week, and photographed them in their homes.”
Putz is young – in her mid-20s – and part of a generation for whom the internet is innate; social networking the norm. “Living in this moment, where everything is permanently recorded and shared, I wondered how much a moment is actually worth when it’s not presented to the world… I wanted to know if I could photograph something extremely intimate, but without exposing anyone. It was about being left in peace rather than denuding or invading. The protagonists stay anonymous. The series was not about the individual and his/her personal story, nor about wanting to reveal a reality.”
Nevertheless, her images remain vastly eloquent on the subject of mother and child. She found it fascinating that the mothers behaved differently in front of a camera after having their first baby: “I have always been very interested in notions of posing, especially in these ‘on air’ times… These young mothers were new to their role as a mother. They weren’t just themselves, there was another layer to it and they hadn’t completely settled into that new role yet.”
For Putz, the experience was educative. “It interested me that a lot of the mothers asked me how the other mums I photographed handled certain things. They wanted to know if they were doing things the ‘right’ way. That was one thing nearly all of them asked me. I saw how all of them were handling their role as a mother so differently, but that all of them were such wonderful dedicated mothers. There seem to be so many books, so much advice, on how to take care of a baby…. What I learned was that at the end of the day, even though it can be really tough at times there’s just no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of bringing up a child. As long as you are caring and loving, it’s all good.”
Home Truths: Photography & Motherhood is on show at The Photographers’ Gallery (www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk) as well as The Foundling Museum (www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk) in London from 11 October 2013 to 05 January 2014. The associated book is published by Art/Books (www.artbookspublishing.co.uk) priced £24.99.