Thursday, 17 October 2013

Home Truths, Photography and representations of motherhood. Exhibition Review

Home Truths, Photography and representations of motherhood.

I always look forward to attending study days and this was no different despite me having had a really busy week and Friday evening, completing a round trip to Cheddington via the M25, arriving home and trekking straight into London.

The exhibition was curated by Susan Bright, an independent curator and writer based in New York. She was formerly Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Curator at the Association of Photographers and Acting Director for the MA at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

Spread over 2 galleries we began at the Photographers Gallery with plans to move on to The Foundling Museum. I had had a quick glance at the information pack sent but not had time to really research the photographers on display so most of it was new to me when I walked in. Almost immediately you knew that Home Truths, Photography and representations of motherhood was going to be a challenging exhibition as you encounter the sign advising photography was not allowed, children under 12 were not allowed and those aged under 16 had to be accompanied by an adult.

There is a lot of photography to take in, with work from twelve international photographic artists on display. All said to challenge “the stereotypical or sentimental views of motherhood handed down by traditional depictions” and how “photography can be used to address changing conditions of power, gender, domesticity, the maternal body, and female identity.” All in all a meaty topic and as a mother I wondered how I would react to some of the ideas being put forward and would I identify with those images more as a child or as a mother? I wondered how the males in the group would react, would they feel that fatherhood is equally as misrepresented in the media or what would their take be on something that they could not  experience (although I think the feelings of parenthood can be similar for a man) being brought to the fore. Even after discussing at length with a few, I still don’t know. They either declined to comment, laughing it off or commenting on the amount of psychobabble used to cover up what the images are really about.

The opening gives us a definition of “Home Truths” basically a key or basic truth, especially one that is discomforting to acknowledge. As a rational person I know that the media always portrays anything to the extreme, either sugar coated or vilified so why should I be surprised that they treat motherhood in exactly the same way? As a mother I am even more aware that the happy smiling faces shown in papers/twitter feeds and Instagram are only one side of the story. Anyone who posts reality, on whatever topic, is often accused of washing their dirty laundry in public. Although I feel we need more realistic images out there (Dove with the natural Beauty Campaign for example) as a child and a mother I didn’t need educating in some home truths, I've lived/ am living them. I’m not sure I needed a photographic exhibition to give me the message. Is there anyone out there who truly believes motherhood is perfect? Only the very young and very naïve, with some of the artists it was like instead of whispering gently that Father Christmas does not exist, taking a sledge hammer to every Christmas ornament, or a shotgun to every poster and blasting away every recognisable vestige of that happy smiling face. Like motherhood, Christmas Day isn't always perfect and exists in a small web of lies…, I'm not sure that this exhibition taught us something we didn’t know, just a new way to show it? I am not so sure we needed some of the errrrm explicit depictions seen here.

Like some of the other students I felt not so much discomforted by the images themselves but rather how they were achieved. I felt there was a lot of staging going on, despite the genuine feelings and motivation behind the shots. Some of that staging I thought was manipulative and took advantage of innocent children who may not really have been aware of their participation in wider projects. It reminded me of Sally Mann, how she relentlessly photographed and published images of her own children to further her career, and didn’t really worry about the consequences of her children being constantly in the public eye.  Much of the work featured is highly personal, this makes for very strong images and messages, not all easy to look at or disseminate.

Re-reading all of the above I have written a lot and not spoken about the images/photographers themselves. It is very powerful and in that respect, a successful exhibition. I’m not sure I liked it or enjoyed it, I’m not a prude, I don’t shock easily but with some I felt, really? Do we really need to see that? Did you need to photograph it that way to get your message across? Would I recommend going to see it? I’d say yes even if it is only to question your own reaction to it and why you feel that way.

So onto the actual images:

Elinor Carucci produced a body of work called “Mother” after giving birth to twins. Discovering the highs and lows of motherhood she documented intimate moments and the wide range of emotions experienced over a period of 9 years. She followed her babies as they grew into toddlers, then children. In places quite graphic, post op pictures of her naked body, I felt her images showed the joy and frustrations of motherhood and as the blurb about her book states moments that are “at once personal and universal.” I loved her use of light and shadows, in some they made me feel that despite the loving poses the shadow behind told us that not everything was sweetness and light. Despite liking her work I did also think some of the images were voyeuristic, we all grab a camera to capture a moment, even with evil cynicism as a child smears themselves with food or falls asleep in their dinner but there lurked the thought of the photographer pausing and thinking too hard before the snap was taken.

Janine Antoni is a contemporary artist, who creates work in performance art, sculpture, and photography. Symbolism abounds in the Inhabit series. What I found more interesting than the image itself is how the final image grew from a simple idea that to be achieved had to meet certain criteria:

It came to me first as a very simple image. I imagined that a spider had created its web between my legs. As I started to research the process of actualizing this image, things became complicated. Would a spider actually cooperate? How would I remain still in order to facilitate its weaving? After speaking with several entomologists, and learning about the extreme sensitivity of spiders to motion, I looked into getting a harness that would immobilize me. That led me to the world of harnesses, where I found a particular design that enabled me to be attached to a structure from many points on my torso. I realized that my body could be suspended in a way similar to a spider in its web. But I would need to build a cage around my legs in order to keep the spider in that particular area of my body. And it also became apparent that the spider would be too sensitive to build directly on my body due to body heat. It’s worth mentioning that, from the beginning, I equated the spider and its web with my daughter, and myself, the mother, with the support structure. Suddenly I thought of turning the spider’s cage into a doll’s house, as a way of incorporating the spider into the photograph. I now have an image that is a web within a web, a house within a house.

So Antoni hovers, spider-like, from a rope web wearing a doll house skirt, her legs filling rooms and pressing against the walls and miniature furniture, my first thought is “I wonder if she waxed or shaved?” quickly followed by “that must have been damn uncomfortable!” A large piece that dominated the smaller close up views of each room, I was more impressed by the scale furniture than the content/message. Maybe there was too much going on, it was very busy, or maybe the symbolism was too obvious, yeah trapped by the house, caught in a web, the main support in the house……blah, blah, blah….maybe I am being too dismissive.

Leigh Ledare - When you Google this exhibition many of the press pages are devoted to him. Sean O’Hagan of the Guardian titled his article Oedipal exposure: Leigh Ledare's photographs of his mother having sex.  So in some respects I don’t need to go into any more detail. However not every image is of her having sex, in some she just gleefully pulls her labia apart to reveal what she just had for breakfast, and it was probably one of her numerous toyboys! There is supposedly a serious message here with regards to his relationship with his exhibitionist mother, acknowledging her being still sexually active and her fear of  approaching age/infirmity. I think it can be summed up by saying, his mother was an exhibitionist and he didn’t worry about photographing it and publishing it for the world and its uncle to see. Nudity exists, porn exists, some families are less inhibited than others but I think they crossed a few lines to make this body of work. I found it all a bit creepy. Did they get across the message that not all mothers are the same and that motherhood is different for all? Yes. Did I think it needed to be as candid? No. If that says I am uptight, so be it. Labelled as art it becomes acceptable? What I did find interesting is that as with many other contemporary bodies of work he did not stick to just photographs; he included ephemera and video to good effect.

Elina Brotherus shows a series of photographs from her body of work Annunciation. The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary or Annunciation of the Lord, is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus. In this series Brotherus records herself through 5 years of failed IVF treatments. Apparently they are full of art historical references, and am presuming if I knew which ones I would have a better appreciation of this set, but I can see how her images would stand in sharp contrast to the traditional scenes and symbolism of Annunciation paintings. However I felt only one image truly revealed her pain and that is the portrait of her crying. All the others came across too staged managed, whilst I know she was feeling pain and anguish the deliberate placing of pregnancy tests injection needles and test results removed some of the immediacy and intimacy of the rawest moments she must have felt. Once again with some of the shots I thought really? Naked again? Why? Is it relevant? At first I thought it might be something to do with vulnerability but looking at more of her work it seems that to get her message across about how she feels and how her life changes she thinks being naked is the way forward. Glad I don't do self-portraits in this mode! Also, barring a few women, we all have periods, we all know what a toilet bowl of blood looks like, if I walked into a public toilet and was confronted by it I’d be highly irritated that someone hadn't flushed, I wouldn't stand and stare fascinated wondering what the narrative behind it was. I know it is part of this story; it brings the message home but really? Hard to explain, half of me thinks it’s a normal bodily function why am I bothered, also it could be food colouring for all I know, in which case it is merely a representation and isn't as intimate but I still thought not needed. Labelled as art it becomes acceptable?

Ana Casas Broda produced an expansive project called Kinderwunsch, which charts her desire to have children and “the connection between photography, memory and the construction of identity.” The tableau of 25 images “touch on the sensuality and intensity of physical contact” so uhuh, more naked bodies. I find it quite surprising that working independently all came up with the idea of no clothes….There is more of an innocence about some of the shots, especially where the children are young, others where they are fast asleep in their pyjamas where Broda is sitting naked between them made me feel more uncomfortable. I don’t know why, nakedness has never been taboo in my house, my children bathed and showered with me until they were fairly old, doors aren’t locked and while I don’t prance about naked I don’t scream and hide if they walk in on me (they might lolol) It was refreshing to see a woman showing what the majority of women do look like after having 2 children, excess skin, cellulite and saggy breasts, normally we see images of “can you believe Colleen only gave birth a few months ago?” Big whoop for Colleen who probably has nannies, a personal trainer and the odd nip and tuck! Suffering from post-partum depression Broda used photography as a form of therapy, and I think the lighting within this series suggests these darker periods or the way the darkness tinged her life. She says of one of the images where her children are drawing on her “This image captures the physical bond between myself and my sons. I am their canvas: they play with me and change me.” Broda tells us that many of the ideas and games are suggested by her boys. I wonder? How many young children would say, get naked I want to draw all over you, get naked I want to smear you with play-doh. I know lets bathe in milk……”

Hanna Putz is not a mother; rather she captures friends who have just had babies. I rather liked her simplistic shots with white backgrounds or the uncluttered approach in people’s homes. As a mother you get so used to having bits of your body on display, first poked about during pregnancy, then giving birth and afterwards, and with children they know nothing of privacy or respecting personal boundaries so I guess it isn't surprising that there are so many images of naked women about. Yes, Putz has them too. Despite capturing private and personal moments there is an air of non-interaction and detachment from the subject.  “Colours and composition are of importance to me – I like working with people as if I were working on a sculpture, moulding them together,” she says. “This is one reason I wanted to work with mothers and their babies, but it’s still about getting a feeling or an idea across, too. It’s never solely formal. I prefer to show ‘moments’ or compositions of two people together that might provoke a certain feeling within the viewer, rather than showing someone’s facial expression as a means of trying to say something. I’m trying not to expose anyone’s personal, private moments. For me, that should just stay with them.” I find this statement hard to equate when I've just looked at a naked woman revealing all on her sofa?

“I started photographing friends who [had] just had their first babies, and noticed how different it was photographing people who don’t have their full attention on the act of being photographed as their attention is mainly on their child, and who are also in some kind of a transitional phase, as they are adjusting to the new role that has just been given to them.”

Katie Murray provides a video performance piece for this exhibition called Gazelle. Quite a clever video as the exercise machine Murray is seen huffing and puffing on is named the Gazelle– Total Body Workout Exercise Machine. Trying to lose weight after the birth of her second child she becomes frustrated by her family’s constant interruptions so straps her two children to herself and continues to run, one on the back one on the front. Whilst the video of Murray carrying her 2 children plays it is intercut by scenes of a gazelle in the wild fighting off an attack by cheetah cubs. The metaphor cannot be missed, the children hanging off her, the cheetahs hanging onto the gazelle, the gazelle struggling to be free, the mother trying to be free. I could empathise, I remember come evening time not wanting to be touched any more as I had been clung to all day, I remember trying to use my step/video workout and trying to avoid accidentally kicking a demanding toddler. However I gave up, and vowed to continue when I did have the time. I found it a little disconcerting to see Murray pounding away with her kids bouncing about all over the place, more concerned about making a performance piece, ignoring their pleas to “get off now.” I know how wearing it is to face constant demands with no time for yourself but if you choose to have children, until they are of a certain age, there are times when I am afraid your wishes have to come second no matter how much it rankles. Some found it funny. I didn’t. The truth of trying to balance things was too close to home to be amusing and I found it disturbing that in this instance she put her needs as an artist before her children’s. I know people may say lighten up it wasn't for long but the health and safety aspect kept shouting in my head what if she had fallen over?

Fred Hüning presents his work as a touching trilogy of books. Originally he intended to make only one but the idea developed into three; Einer, meaning “Someone” or “the one” rather than just a straight translation of counting “one,” is about the artist’s still born son.  Zwei is more about Fred and his partner coming together again after experiencing such profound loss. They had to learn to grieve and trust and love again while the third completes their journey with their new son. There were a few people around this display and I must admit to not spending as much time as I could have investigating the imagery. That is the problem with some exhibitions :o/

Over coffee the people I had chance to chat with seemed as unsettled or as unsure as me when it came to what to think, what to say and what we felt. Definitely work to be considered before reaching any conclusions. There was an air that there was some exploitation going on, not so much that children were being shown but how and why. Did we really want to see Tina’s bits n bobs…..

The second part at the Foundling Museum focuses more on Motherhood and Loss. Thankfully no more nudes! There are only so many drooping bits I can face, besides I can see that when I come home and look in the mirror! The venue seemed appropriate to depict loss as the Foundling Museum was founded in 1739 for abandoned babies.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, originally from India but now working in the US, has a long history of creating photographs and videos based on identity, place, family, and memory. Through digital technology, old and new images “flow into one another, revealing the blurring spectrum of the generations” through the matriarchal line. She said “The final ephemeral animation is built from archival images and recent photographs of three or more generations of women. The digital technology and animation makes it appear that the old and new images magically flow one into another. This malleable flowing object leaves the viewer to wonder where the past and present overlap and warp. Here, history is distorted, evoking a new dimension of memories, which is uniquely digital.”

I loved this body of work. I found it really interesting that she incorporated old, new and mixed media. In Open Wound, created during her 7 month Fulbright fellowship in India, she effectively tells the story of the Partition of India and Pakistan. During her time in India, she met families who were affected by this in 1947. It has been 65 years since the Partition, where 12 million people were displaced within three months and over a million died. But unlike tragedies such as the Holocaust, there is no memorial to those impacted by the Partition. The work was displayed/framed in a copy of a 1947 year book open on a map of India. The images faded in and out with hand written notes telling a sad family history.

A link to it is here

I find I am increasingly drawn to work which includes mixed media, in fact my essay (which I have sent off but waiting to get marked) was on the topic of mixed media and is the single photograph becoming less important. Also I have been tracing my family tree for several years and love coming across old sepia photographs and trying to spot the family resemblance. I have managed to trace some of my tree back to the Huguenots and the Revocation of the Treaty of Nantes. Although this happened a long time ago there was much I could relate to within this body of work.

Tierney Gearon “is an acclaimed Los Angeles based contemporary photographer, who has gained both critical and commercial recognition for her powerful and intense colourful photographs.” And has been said to be "pushing the envelope of contemporary photography”

On display are images taken from The Mother Project in which Gearon explores the relationship between herself, her children and her schizophrenic mother. Again some of these are not easy to look at, not because of the masks or the subject matter but due to the inclusion of her children.  You find yourself wondering where the artist stops and the mother begins. Her exploration of this loss is characterized as a “private world depicted in detailed scenes of playful costume changes.” The costumes may appear playful but this is in contrast to the scenes we witness in some shots where her infant son has been left to cry.  I found a review which described a different incident: “one of the most arresting images produced from the project is of blonde-curled Michael, wailing in pain, with Emilee's red-clogged foot anchoring the frame just behind him. But we don't see that image until after an amazing scene in which we watch Emilee deliver an unprovoked kick to her brother's shins, at which point their crazy grandmother starts babbling about how she's almost certainly "kicked a hole in the bone," likely doing "permanent damage." As Michael continues to scream, the grandmother asks her daughter -- who has been off camera and strangely quiet throughout the incident -- to calm her son down. "Go rub [his leg], Tierney,” she says. The camera pans over to Tierney ... who is frantically snapping pictures.”

Whilst creating this work, exploring how difficult it was to be with her mother I wonder if she realises her children are feeling the same? A review of the film of the same title states “But Tierney’s mother is not the only one in the picture: Tierney herself is put under the spotlight, especially when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant with her third child. We see how her kids struggle with their mother: a theme sustained down the generations. Younger son Michael admits that sometimes he’s glad when Tierney goes away.”

I know when creating my own projects how infuriated my son is when I want him to pose and how I occasionally blackmail him with chocolate and pocket money if he will stay still for another 5 minutes but at least I don’t document his every move 24/7 and click away while he is in pain or need.

Miyako Ishiuchi’s photographs are, in contrast, delicate quiet images which capture objects once belonging to her mother. Once again I could relate to this work as my mother recently passed away. I am surrounded by keepsakes, personal items and objects which I keep meaning to record in some way.  These items are said to act “as a poignant reminder of the mother that once was” and they do.

Finally to Ann Fessler and an extension of her book The Girls Who Went Away which deals with the women who were forced to give their children up for adoption in 1950’s and 1960’s America. Playing on a loop is her video, Along the Pale Blue River so named due to the fact Fessler, herself an adoptee, discovered that the river which ran through her childhood home also ran through the town where her mother came from, inextricably linking them. The nine-minute film features contemporary video shot by the artist and black-and-white archival footage from the period in question. The film traces her steps to discover her birth mother, which she narrates. I found her voice to be quite unemotional and at odds to what we were seeing. The film ends and although we know she discovered her uncle, without revealing her true identity, we don’t find out if she ever traced her mother. I had to know so Googled it. The interview I found says they are in contact but at the time of writing her mother had not told her other children of her existence. An interesting film to watch knowing the background of the piece. I think the mysterious ending was apt as many people never do get to discover the truth surrounding the adoption process.

So there you have it, if you are still with me after that very wordy review. In conclusion I think a lot of the work resonated, I may not have enjoyed the total visual experience but could empathise with the emotions and frustrations being portrayed. A few of the scenarios were to the extreme and whilst I don’t object to controversial or explicit photography I think there were a few where the shutter didn’t need to have been pressed. Susan Bright set out to curate an exhibition where Motherhood was portrayed in a different light. In this she succeeded. Home Truths were told. Motherhood is hard, frustrating, unrewarding, your life is never the same, your body is never the same, you feel tired, dragged down and you support your children more than they realise or appreciate. Aspirations you have get put on the backburner, trying to juggle more than one thing at a time is difficult, aging parents need care, roles are reversed and eventually you lose them. If you talk to your friends and family you know this is a shared experience and laugh at the latest offering from Hello magazine, this pap is a form of escapism. Anyone who shares Leigh Ledare’s upbringing must be relieved that finally someone else out there enjoys investigating certain taboos and Pretend You're Actually Alive, will no doubt be on their wish list.


  1. A really in-depth analysis Jan and I enjoyed reading it. I went before I saw the Exhibitions the other day and have had another read.I share your views! However, will make every effort to 'forget' what you've written when I write my own thoughts! Wouldn't want to be accused of plagiarism!

  2. Hi Catherine, I did worry if it was too long but thought I couldn't not say what I had seen or felt. I find it difficult to write about exhibitions when having read other reviews that share my opinions as I find myself wanting to summarise using similar phrases. Sometimes you have no choice because there is only one way to describe an image or reaction. A thesaurus often comes in handy lol. Good luck with your write up I look forward to reading it and honestly won't complain if sounds similar!

  3. I'm the same. Sometimes it almost seems superfluous to add anything but I'm going to have to try for the sake of learning! Thanks for the reassurance.