Motherhood and photography

© Robin Schwartz
© Elinor Carucci

I promised to write about the Women in Photography lecture at Aperture, and with such an extensive talk it's hard to know where to begin. Co-curators Cara Phillips and Amy Elkins did an excellent job of explaining the impetus for starting the project (which I won't get into as they describe it themselves extensively in an interview in Pop Photo which you can read here) and moderator Laurel Ptak also posed intriguing and thought-provoking questions to keep the discussion going. But what I was the most inspired by was hearing from two of the site's artists themselves: Elinor Carucci and Robin Schwartz were there to discuss their photography, and I felt particularly lucky that I was able to hear firsthand how they balance motherhood with their creative drives.

Carucci is known for highly personal work in which she documents various family members in an intimate and vulnerable light, along with her penchant for revealing and intense self-portraits. Starting off with her earlier work she spoke of photography as a form of communication, that her images became a platform for her family to be able to talk back to her, to speak the unspoken, particularly with her husband. Then four years ago Carucci gave birth to twins, and she showed never-before-seen work that I have to say practically made me cry (none of it is available online as of yet, but I hope it will be soon). As the first slide went up she said: "How complicated it is to photograph your children"--these words really reverberated for me. She spoke of wanting to show the beauty and the pain and how needy children are; "need" was a word she repeated often. I think it's a state of being that any parent can relate to, the sometimes relentless demands of your children, coupled with how to integrate their desire for things to be done right now with your own needs as an individual.

There was such a palpable rawness, a certain courage in her ability to show all of the cracks, chinks, and sheer physicality of motherhood. Images of breastfeeding, giving her son antibiotics, her daughter's runny nose, and the like were such recognizable moments from my own life, shot in Carucci's own "here it all is, no holds barred" manner. She did say a big issue for her was "will they be grateful or will they hate me? Probably both." I think this question is raised less often for me perhaps because of the fact that I do have a level of censorship in my own work--there are definitely images that I hold back. I see my photography as a mixture of both personal and allegorical--my work is about authentically representing my version of motherhood, and some of that for me is a certain privacy that feels in keeping with how I approach the world in general, but certainly when one makes work involving their own children the question can't help but come up. For Carrucci I feel that her vision of things is about exposure: there were a few shots of her children that were quite explicit, and for her work this seemed right--she continues the trajectory of laying everything bare.

Ptak asked how the highly personal role of motherhood impacted the work, and Carucci replied that she didn't feel it was a decision: it was just what she saw and wanted to photograph. I often feel this way--that this is my life, it's what surrounds me, my children are the most interesting, complicated, perplexing thing about my day-to-day existence and it has seemed only natural to interact creatively with what is most important to me. As I mentioned above, I do withhold a certain amount, but this, in and of itself, is part of what I'm addressing in my work, and I felt privileged to have Carucci show her own personal vision of motherhood.

Schwartz followed by presenting photographs from her series "Amelia’s World." I had only been familiar with her imagery through WIP, so it was interesting to hear another photographer who is a mother talk about her engagement with her child and the passion behind her work. Her original fascination was with animals, and after her daughter Amelia was born she began involving her in the process. She also spoke of intimacy and mentioned that her photographs were an attempt to "cheat time and death," which is right up my alley--I was sold from that line on.

For Schwartz I think the attempt is not only to freeze her daughter's childhood, but also about how animals have a much shorter lifespan than ours--the photographs are a means of capturing their limited time here on earth. In this sense childhood and animals share a kinship: both phases are fleeting, and it occurred to me that perhaps this is why children are drawn to animals in a way that adults generally are not. I got the sense that for Schwartz she never outgrew this kinship, and her sheer fascination with the creatures was palpable. I also loved hearing how in awe she was of her daughter's level of comfort and her ability to interact with the animals; she seemed to admire Amelia's ability to "speak" to them, and for Amelia to be given such an incredible opportunity through Schwartz's photographic endeavors spoke to me of a wonderful, mutually-fulfilling collaboration.

She also mentioned losing her own mother and how beginning to photograph Amelia opened a door for her. In this way she and Carucci are similar--I got the sense that the creative process for each of them is a means of healing and coping with their own emotional landscapes. In response to the question from Ptak about how being a mother impacted the work, Schwartz responded that she wants to be home and record what's at home, or within her immediate vicinity (which, like yours truly, is in New Jersey). I couldn't have said it better myself.


Suzanne Revy said…
Thank you for that thorough review of the WIPNYC evening at Aperture. Wish I could have been there, but alas.. I'm a mom... and a little too far afield.

Seems both Schwartz and Carrucci have their own voice and vision for the work of, about, and with their children. I hope to see the Carrucci work you've described soon.

I'm encouraged by artists who are moms finding ways to realize their creative impulses, and finding an audience for that work is a bit of icing on the cake.

As a viewer, I find such work deeply satisfying on many levels.

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