Thanks to TVO, I’ve now seen Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project and What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann.
In my explorations of motherhood and photography, I’ve mentioned Tierney Gearon here and there, but not in much detail. I was troubled by her work, but also felt that I hadn’t seen enough of it to comment on it. Today I discovered that you can actually see her pictures on her website. I don’t find it intuitive, but if you go to Exhibitions, you can select which exhibition you want to look at, then scroll through the pictures through arrow buttons on the images.
I watched The Mother Project halfway through, then stopped because I wanted to discuss it with my husband. So I got him to watch it all the way through with me. (Although, funnily enough we haven’t actually discussed it yet. Whatever. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.) Going into it, my vague feeling was that it’s kind of wrong to use your kids for your own expression, especially if you’re using them as a metaphor or archetype (as I touched on here). I’ve also always bristled at language around one’s children being one’s great work of art or one’s great project. Children are individuals too, not just products of their parents. Not only that, but I suspect that publishing pictures of your children naked makes them vulnerable, although to what I don’t really know.
Before watching the two documentaries, I probably would have put both Tierney Gearon’s and Sally Mann’s work into the category of using their kids as metaphors. Indeed, just before I stopped The Mother Project halfway through, Gearon was speaking to the camera about how her photography is her way or processing things and that sometimes she feels bad about it but that she doesn’t think it’s really hurting her children. The first time around, I thought “Yeah, right.” But once I finished watching the whole documentary, I’ve changed my mind.
I mean, mothers are people too.
I guess what I realized is that Gearon wasn’t really using her kids as metaphors. She was using photography as a way to express and process her own experiences, and given that her own mother is mentally ill, chances are her experiences and expressions are going to be strange. And there’s no doubt that her pictures are weird and disturbing. But they’re also fascinating and original, and I don’t really think she is damaging her kids by making them. (And from a practical standpoint, clothing can really interfere with universality, since it situates them in a specific time and place. And I suspect that great photographs need an element of universality to be great.)
Well, maybe she is, but that’s kind of what parents do, isn’t it? Parents wound and embarrass their kids, and often in ways they have no awareness of. And kids are pretty resilient.
I think the reason that Gearon’s and Mann’s work has been controversial is not because the children are naked or semi-naked. I think it’s because the work challenges our idealizations of childhood and family.
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Around the same time, I checked out some videos on youtube of Jeff Mermelstein, a New York City street photographer that Donald Weber mentioned. (The video is in three parts.) In the first part, he says:
“I’m a voyeur. I’m not asking people if I can take their picture. Even if they’re on a public stage, I’m in a sense stealing something from them without asking them. [...] You couldn’t do the kind of photography I do if you spoke to the people before taking their picture. I myself feel no guilt about that. [...] I’m totally comfortable and cosy because I know I’m not trying to hurt anyone with the camera. It’s what I do, it’s how I respond to… people.”
Which got me to thinking.
All this time I’ve felt guilty for making pictures of other people, pictures that people might not like of themselves. Pictures that they might not want published. It’s kind of been my standard: would the subject be ok with this picture being published? My response to that guilt has been to be totally transparent with my subjects and turn it into a collaboration. But maybe that guilt is just a product of our culture’s obsession with image. Why should people have control over their image? What harm can really come out of having a less than flattering image of you published? I’ve already said that I’m not interested in making pretty pictures of people. And many, many photographers have talked about the tension between the photographer’s agenda and the subject’s, the challenge of getting behind the subject’s facade to capture something real.
So what do you think of all this?
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PS TVO is showing The True Meaning of Pictures, which I blogged about last October I think, tonight at 10 p.m. Be sure to check it out if you can.
Also, So You Think You Can Dance (US) starts tonight. And finally, Fox renewed Dollhouse AND Castle, two of my new favourite shows. Yay!