Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity

By Riches, Harriet | Afterimage, January-February 2014 | Go to article overview

Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity


Riches, Harriet, Afterimage


Sifting through racks of vintage postcards and orphaned family photographs in an old ice works in the faded English seaside town of Margate, I came across a portrait of a baby, sweetly smiling at the camera, sprawling across a velvet throw. So far, so normal. But just behind her was a blur of fabric, or flesh--something that led my eye to a series of cross-hatched marks that seemed to scrub Out another figure on the plate, leaving only the shadow Of silhouette. Excited by my find. I quietly paid the fifty pence price tag, and left.

It was a similar photograph, a tintype from the late ninteenth century, that Susan Bright, curator of Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity, described as the exhibition's point of origin. Common in the nineteenth century that have since become known as "hidden mother" photographs were portraits cropped in order to remove the image of the mother from the final print; as unwanted, uncropped versions have now come to reveal, that mother remained present, pictured iii tile shadows, veiled with heavy Victorian drapery or scratched it of the surface of the plate itself, as in the example I found.

These photographs hold a macabre fascination today--but Bright describes what was an everyday practice as constituting an alternative visual tradition to the aesthetic conventions of Western art history) Through her erasure, the absent mother represents a figure that refuses to be pinned down by the objectifying male gaze, and so offers up a different model through which new perspectives on contemporary motherhood might he thought today.

That a new take on motherhood was the show's central theme was clear from the start, opening with Elinor Garucci's confrontational photographs charting her experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and early motherhood. A natural progression from earlier work focused on her own mother, Carucci's photographs record a body undergoing transformation and a new identity in formation, a process punctuated by moments of both beatific joy and sheer exhastion. In her accompanying statement, Can teci, like many or the other artists, described a desire to expose the complexities of maternal identity as she negotiated the competing demands of tinnily and a creative, professional life. Nearby. Janine Antoni's Inhabit (2009) worked through a similar ambivalence. Dominating the exhibition space, the large-scale photograph pictured Antoni suspended in domestic. space, her body encased in a dollhouse built around her limbs. Taken as part of a performance in which a living spider weaved a web inside the miniature rooms over five hours, the resulting image constructs motherhood as a similarly endless task. A house within a house, Inhabit positions the mother as a supporting structure within the home--a symbol of stability, but tinged with the sometimes suffocating demands of the domestic feminine role upon which motherhood often depends.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The particular difficulties encountered in becoming a mother in .both mind and body were at the heart of works by young Austrian artist Hanna Putz and American photographer Katie Murray. Putz's photographs focus not on herself, but her friends, young mothers adapting to their new role and struggling with the loss of identity that the transition sometimes entails. Rather than revealing their own faces or bodies, in works like Untitled Pave 1) from 2012, Putz's camera focused on their babies. Framing relationships in which the mothers presence is intimated rather than exposed. the hauntings recall I lie poignant absences of the hidden mot her tradition. In contrast, Murray's video Gazelle (2012) provided some light relief while communicating its message about the pressures put on women to be the "perfect mother." Over the film's six minutes, we watch Murray on a "Gazelle" treadmill, trying and failing to keep up with the motivational encouragement and high-energy beats blaring from the television in the corner; this footage is periodically cut with wildlife footage of a female gazelle attempting to evade attack by a pair of juvenile cheetahs. …

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