Home Truths: photography and motherhood

an exhibition curated by Susan Bright

another kind of motherhood - poster of Dame Edna near to The Photographer's Gallery

another kind of motherhood – poster of Dame Edna near to The Photographer’s Gallery

This exhibition is brought to my attention by the OCA which means a guided tour and talk with tutor Sharon Boothroyd and a chance to see a large exhibition featuring 12 photographers that stretches across two exhibition spaces, The Photographer’s Gallery and The Foundling Museum. I find some of these larger exhibitions can be tiresome since they take a lot of time to absorb. The general subject is not of particular interest; although my mother is still alive in her 90’s, I do not think this kind of motherhood will be represented. My initial understanding of this exhibition that contests traditional views of the mother, is that there is a lack of tenderness in the portrayal of women as mothers but this is a first impression that I expect to have challenged. As Bright says, “Its’ such an emotive subject … people have an image in their heads about motherhood and when anything contradicts that, they get very bothered by it, very quickly.

The curator is Susan Bright who is a recognized art critic, having produced such books as Art  Photography Now. She became concerned about the image of motherhood projected by celebrity gossip and wanted to see what photographers themselves were saying almost as if she was looking for guidance. I wonder what if anything this exhibition might say about mothers who have lost children at birth or soon after (giving children up for abortion does feature apparently) or the suicide of a child, issues that deeply affect mothers; perhaps this would be too extreme a view for the exhibition to consider yet making motherhood out to be some kind of freak show would perhaps be to stigmatise it.

Although I pre-order the exhibition catalogue, it does not arrive before I see the exhibition which means I can visit without too much prior conceptualization. However, I do read an article in the BJP October 2013 that gives me some idea of what it is about.

Sharon Boothroyd’s interview with Susan Bright is on her blog Photoparley. She introduces Susan Bright as “ … showcasing artists who are pushing the boundaries of the medium” … I wonder whether this will mean she is more interested in the photography of motherhood rather than motherhood itself and, if so, what way this affect her vision of motherhood projected in the exhibition she has curated. However, it seems her initial interest was sincere in that she was about to become a mother herself; as she says … “much of the literature I read seemed to place impossible demands on a mother in pursuit of perfection.” In fact, she “… wanted to investigate why there seemed to be such a thirst for mothering in the media. So, in the spirit of personal exploration and intellectual contribution I decided to investigate the images I saw and the messages they sent out through pursuing a practice based PhD. in Curating (through Goldsmiths College).

Bright says she“…noticed how little pregnancy is imaged in fine art and how it has become increasingly sexualized in the media” and “I also discovered a genuine anxiety about aging and am curious to find out how representations of mothers fits into this.” She goes on to say that she finds no “coherent critical approach or stance to fully understand the implications of this phenomenon” of motherhood and that psychoanalytical interpretations do not suffice. Neither can she rely on a post-feminist viewpoint. As a curator, she needs to take a neutral yet encompassing view; “The central argument of the exhibition will be the investigation of the complex and demanding experience of motherhood through the transitions that occur to a woman’s identity by becoming or being a mother” and “aims to expand what the term ‘Mother’ can mean and its effects on an artist’s identity”.

fellow OCA students

fellow OCA students

Fellow students gather in the café of The Photographers Gallery. Am pleased to see Siegfried whom I had been wanting to contact about meeting up this week-end, as well as Vicki, Teresa from Torquay, Jan, Eileen and others; more soon start arriving and in the end we number 13 (17 were expected but have made their apologies) as well as tutor Sharon Boothroyd.

outside the Photographer's Gallery

outside the Photographer’s Gallery

The exhibition starts with two floors upstairs in The Photographer’s Gallery where there is some general information about the exhibition. We are told that “A home truth can be simply understood as a fact that is somehow discomforting to acknowledge or may cause embarrassment.” This exhibition does not embarrass me yet I do experience discomfort about which I shall enlarge upon later. That the exhibition aims to “aims to challenge long held stereotypes and sentimental views of motherhood” is expected and welcomed, as is its’ attempt to challenge “reductive cultural assumptions of mothering”.

The assertion that “Much of the work also reflects contemporaneous impulses in photography to photograph everything, however seemingly inappropriate” does seem to be a fair comment on this exhibition, some of which I would find objectionable if it was not being done in the name of art and in the nature of conjecture rather than fact.

Before I start looking around the exhibition, I ask Sharon whether she thinks Bright has managed to follow her original intention of being a future mother enquiring about motherhood or whether she has been diverted into presenting a view of motherhood that is a response to those she has featured rather than an attempt to get at the truth. Sharon wonders what my question is! Perhaps Bright has managed both, a formal view that also answers her personal questions about motherhood.

work by Elina Carucci

work by Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci presents a documentary approach that is up-close, graphic and realistic.

Janine Antoni uses symbolism to convey her message. A large photograph of her suspended in mid-air in a child’s bedroom with a dolls house around her body is not a photo-shopped image but an actual installation that has been photographed.

work by Leigh Ladare

work by Leigh Ladare

Leigh Ladare is a male photographer whose images one may find shocking if not disturbing as the Press have pointed out. What have these got to do with motherhood? The woman he is photographing is his mother, having sex (oral included) with mostly younger men. There is something I find quite nauseous about this and I do not think it is last night’s Indian meal complaining! However, the idea of the mother as Virgin is a myth that does need exploding!

Elina Brotherus is a photographer whose work I have seen before. “Annunciation” (this has Christian meanings I do not understand) is a well-made series of photographs, displayed lined up against a wall of the gallery, being an account of her attempts to conceive a child via IVF treatment. The pictures are quite harrowing as is the story – after 5 years she gives up trying.

Eileen and Sharon looking at work by Ana Casas Broda

Eileen and Sharon looking at work by Ana Casas Broda

Anna Casas Broda shows a tableau of 28 different images depicting different mother-child relationships. These are technically well-executed photographs with a studio-like quality about them. They contain meanings worth considering (the child with milk covering it’s face for instance) and some are light-hearted.

Although touching, they raise questions as they have been made for the camera; this is true of much work in the exhibition that shocks in varying degrees, riding on something of an emotional roller coaster. There is a refreshing honesty to all this yet some may be bothered by it such as the nudity. A sign says that 12 year olds and younger are not allowed to enter and 16’s need parental guidance. It is only later that I realise that photography, usually allowed here, is not permitted probably because of the lurid nature of some images.

warning sign at the entrance to the exhibition

warning sign at the entrance to the exhibition

Hanna Putz presents some rather clinical hence chilling images of motherhood. For some reason, these are used to advertise the exhibition and one features on the front of the BJP. Symbolism of the human forms of mother and child feature here and they are being made not by a mother but by a photographer.

Katie Murray has made a video which one may find humorous but is in fact disturbing when read rather than just looked at. A mother, the photographer, is working on an exercise machine while a demo video plays … flash to a Gazelle running through grassland … (later I learn in the artist’s talk that Gazelle is also the brand name of the exercise machine)  … then a child appears and calls for her mother so mother gets off her running machine and picks up the child and gets back on the machine … flash to the gazelle which is suckling a baby … mother keeps on running with child on her shoulder … now footage of a leopard chasing the gazelle … now another child appears and also wants to be taken care of … more footage of the gazelle being chased now by a couple of leopards who are trying hard to bring it down … the second child is picked up and the woman returns to running on the machine with her two children … more of the gazelle being chased and assaulted by 2 leopards … a man enters the room and can be seen behind the woman and her children on the running machine … now the gazelle is being attacked by three leopards and yet is still fighting … the man in the background, the father figure, leaves the house without a word … the gazelle is fighting off the leopards who must be juveniles … now the children want to get down and so their mother releases them … the gazelle is attacking one of the leopards … the mother continues to run on her machine as before, no longer carrying any children … the gazelle is seen leaping away having thrown off the leopards … !

Although this video is quite amusing to watch, the obvious insinuation that the children and husband are like leopards trying to bring down a gazelle in their relationship with their mother/wife is a rather dark and disturbing humour that does perhaps strike at assumptions about basic family dynamics that children love their mother and that mothers love their children.

Fred Huning, the other male photographer, presents photographs from a trilogy of his books. These are documentary in approach yet there are subjective images such as one of a butterfly flying.

After about an hour or so of viewing, we meet up in the café. I would like to have spent more time at the exhibition but I will get the catalogue later and be able to reflect further on the images we have seen in the gallery space. For now, I grab the chance to discuss the exhibition with fellow students and the first topic under discussion is about the compulsive desire of so many women to be mothers, what is referred to in German as kinderwunsch. Might not the scope of this exhibition be rather narrow as it relentlessly pursues the subject of motherhood albeit from varying viewpoints? Personally, I do not find it easy to relate to these images since they do not seem to be about my experience of motherhood that is these days about caring for a woman in her nineties.

There are a lot of images of women with no clothes on yet one rather expects this in an exhibition concerned with motherhood. Yet the number of naked women portrayed often intimately, could lead to other readings entirely. The fact that you have to be over the age of 16 to enter unaccompanied is a reminder of this.

Does the exhibition genuinely present the idea of motherhood or is it projecting an idea of it? We all have different experiences of motherhood.

 Sharon Boothroyd points out that this exhibition is about seeing beyond stereo-typical notions of motherhood as promoted by magazines and advertising, in fact, media in general.

It is quite a long walk to the other part of the exhibition at The Foundling Museum. On the way, I chat with Paul Stephenson, a photography student who is coming to the end of his time with the OCA, having almost completed Level 3. He reminds me that post-modernism is over and that there seems to be no other term to describe present developments other than “contemporary”. I have heard the term post-post-modernism!

The next part of the exhibition costs us £5 as students. The first work we see on entry is by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, the name sounds South Indian but she lives and works in the USA as a professor of photography at Rhode Isalnd. This for me is some of the most interesting work on show not just because it relates to my current course assignment, to construct an online slide show, but also because of the way old family photographs have been used to construct genealogies. As images blend into each other, one sees different family members morphing into each other, all based around the matriarchal line. These re-generations form intricate and fascinating family histories.

The slide shows themselves are embedded within large mounts that have golden gilded frames; we do not see the device that makes the constantly moving images interact with each other.

Tierney Gordon’s images are amongst the most disturbing. In one her child is bawling while she wears a skeleton-like mask with an orange face. Putting the camera between oneself and one’s child? This seems to be a form of cruelty in which the end, art, justifies the means, frightening children. Perhaps there is some deeper meaning to these images yet it seems they are there to shock. The work also involves the photographer’s mother, (hence three generations), who suffers from mental illness, the daughter perhaps from callousness.

Miyako Ishiuchi is a Japanese photographer whose interest in motherhood seems centred around objects; for instance, there is a close up of a lip stick holder. There is one slightly vague image of someone who looks like she could be a mother.

Ann Fessler photographs what she refers to as the “gap between recorded history and lived history”. Her work is represented by a black and white video about her rediscovering her mother though we do not see the final outcome. Much of the footage is in slower than real-time and some clips are repeated. Called “Pale Blue River” with an almost continuous voice over from the photographer who relates the narrative, there is an air of mystery.

The exhibition grows on me, its’ meaning starts to penetrate as I contemplate motherhood, usually seen as a happy, loving experience but which can in fact be tinged by hatred as exemplified in the video of Katie Murray whose parallel universe celebrates herself as a gazelle and her two boys and husband as leopards who try unsuccessfully to bring her down.

After seeing the exhibition, some of us attend an artist’s talk where three of the photographers exhibited talk about their work and how they approached the subject of motherhood. The talks that go well beyond the 20 minutes allotted to each photographer, are actually about their careers and intentions so that the exhibition is not really discussed. One fact does come across, the way the photographers seem happy to appropriate their children for the sake of a good photograph. Some people object to photographers imaging their children yet that is not really the topic of discussion here. It is more concerned with the way some children have been left to cry, possibly encouraged to cry, while their mother takes photographs. The camera has come between mother and child and allowed to interfere in an intimate and vital bonding.

When asked about how she would feel if her child grew up to resent her in later life on the grounds that the mother had exploited her, one mother replied that she could live with that and almost expected it. Yet one felt she was ignoring the real issue, the feelings of her child and their manipulation, so that the mother could pursue photographic art practice. Interestingly, Katie Murray who suggests her hatred of children in the video, seems to have quite a loving attitude towards them, as if the awareness that her children are trying to bring her down, allows her to move on and accept them more easily as human beings.

There is something upsetting albeit truthful about this exhibition in the apparent revelation that mothers don’t necessarily love their children. The most striking image is perhaps by Leigh Ladare in which he shows his mother in black negligee underwear, semi-naked with large drooping breasts; the only motherly thing about this image is the fact that it is a son photographing otherwise it is difficult to make any connection with motherhood.

Susan Bright curated this exhibition for her PhD. One presumes she passed with flying colours as it is a varied selection of contemporary approaches towards motherhood. Some of the “Home Truths” though are not easy to take on board and need considering. After all, Katie Murray’s metaphor of leopards trying to bring down a gazelle is in many ways a humorous aside rather than a statement of fact.

The catalogue includes many of the photographs seen in the exhibition along with text by the curator Susan Bright. There are also a number of in-depth essays to help one see this exhibition in context.


Motherhood and Representation by Ann Kaplan

Home Truths: Photography and Motherhood

9 thoughts on “Home Truths: photography and motherhood

  1. Hi Amano, was good to see you again, you managed to get a photo of me despite trying to hide behind my paper ;o) A good write up, I have been struggling to put into words what I saw and felt and how some of the images resonated with my own experiences as a mother and as a child. Thought provoking in both respects. I shall endevour to put words to blog later on today.

  2. I went to see both Exhibitions the other day and am still pondering my reaction. You give a good outline here Amano and I can understand some of your doubts regarding motivations etc.

  3. Pingback: Susan Bright at the OCA (June 2020) – Amano Level Three

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