Monday, March 9, 2009

The Mom Photographer? The Dad Photographer?

So who is the defining Mom Photographer?

The first one that comes to anyone's mind seems to be Sally Mann. She seemed to carve out the territory on being a Mom, photographing her kids and letting all the complexities of those relationships steer the work. You knew the kids were question about the intimacy she recorded. These kids came from her loins and the connection is evident. These days, to me, the work still carries a punch. A bit romantic for our current times I thought before revisiting it, but she's got the sexuality and the physicality that kids carry and filters it all thru her images. And there is darkness. With all of that the work seems to be speaking to everyone. You rarely meet someone who is not a fan. ( I did...but only once.)

Now Emmet Gowin's early photographs look alot like Mann's. He came first...and for some reason I think he was her teacher. His stuff is GREAT: it's got this haunted intimacy that makes it all seem like a memory you were hanging on to from when you were a child. Was he the defining Dad photographer? I don't think so...he seemed to photograph kids and adults and cousins and old men and his wife and all sorts of never seemed like he was looking at his role of being a Dad in the photographs really. With his series on his wife Edith, it was almost like he was like the Husband Photographer, documenting Edith throughout their life together. Is that what Harry Callahan was? Was he the Dad photographer?
So...who was the defining Dad photographer? Was there ever one? Lewis Carrol? Was it Edward Weston? I dunno...he shot a torso of his son...but it looks like he just needed a still-life, had to watch the kids that day ( as if! ) and his peppers weren't around or something. Currently there is a crop of folks I've been exposed to thru this blogging world, Moms and Dads, shooting their kids and addressing their role in the whole family venture: Fleming, Pantall, Records, Deutsch, Blackmon....more names please? But....for right now, who is the defining Mom photographer? I'd say Tierney Gearon of course....but then....I just saw a series by Elinor Carucci that is great and is looking at all of the important stuff.

Sally Mann's work...if it came out now...I dunno if it would speak to parenting. It's romantic and confident, where the current crop of stuff by Gearon has the emotional chaos, the anxiety and the stress...and the feeling that someone took recreational drugs at some point and is referencing those experiences. Carucci's work has a bit of that stress as well...but prettier, more lucious...even if it is a close up of a runny is beautiful and anxiety ridden all at the same time. And seems to carry the powerfull emotions only a Mother can seem to deliver when photographing their kids.
Obviously I'm looking at all of this because I'm a Dad, trying to do a project about one of my kids, or my relationship with the kid, or something like that...its my current territory. Fleming had a quote in a recent post about self doubt that everyone working in this territory can relate to:

oh my god, I'm not raw enough, I'm not saying anything new, I have to change the whole project ...I just create so-so shots that only deserve a place on Flickr under the surname mamahobbyphotog or some such.
"Mamahobbyphotog"..."Proudadphotog"...that type of haunts the genre. But lots of folks have transcended the genre and made really powerful work. I just can't think of the defining Mom Photog or Dad Photog pre Sally Mann/Gowin/Callahan. So....contribute here if anyone can.

(credits from top: Tierney Gearon, Sally Mann, Emmet Gowin, Elinor Carucci)


Alisha said...

this post is amazing. I have been thinking about this for awhile. I have enjoyed your project with your son, but I must admit, my own form of documenting my son is completely worthy of the name, mommyphotoblog. The genre haunts the medium, as you say, and I personally have not broken out. Maybe because my own work and vision is not linked to my child. saying that out loud makes me feel guilty.

Brad said...


Em said...

I love Jason Lee...

It's not so much documentary but still...the personalities come though and the photos are awesome.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hey...thank you for writing. I don't think Meatyard was shooting his kids...but I don't really know for sure. I think he was using kids as his models, like Arthur Tress does alot as well. I like Meatyard's stuff these days, but I never could relate to it when I was younger. What was that guy trying to do, really?

christine said...

dear t.a.

*warning long, overly sentimental posting ahead*

i remember the first time i saw your beautiful photographs..the ones of your son, and they instantly referenced that specialness that only a parent could have for their child...
that same unique connection that emmet gowin's early photographs evoked. you make such stunning statements in your images, and your writing...what a relevant and thoughtful entry. i've been thinking of your words and pictures all day.

there is a photographer, brian arnold, one of my very favorites, who has a collection of photographs of that same unspoken language between father and child entitled,
'in a place where pigs fly'

he has many others not featured on his website, but very much worth requesting...

appropriately enough, he also curated a show with emmet's work and had a very thoughtful dialogue in an interview with mr. gowin able to be read here:

i hope you find these photographs and exchanges as beautiful as i do. and i hope to see so many more of the irreplaceable moments you make with your son. i'm so grateful that you share them with the rest of us.

ThomasBroening said...


Did you look at Brian Arnold's work? It seems to operate in a simliar space as the Eli project but lacks the emotional punch your work has. Clearly the guy knows how to make satisfying photograph but maybe because he is not dealing with the ambivelent feelings of being a parent- his work is not as raw and honest as yours and Tieney's.


christine said...

*beware. sequel to my first long overly sentimental post*

firstly, i'm so sorry for a) replying before t.a. offered another reply and b) typing so much

interesting thoughts all...
though, i don't know that each photographic moment requires rawness in order to reveal honesty.

there is a true beauty in the specific subtlety and rituals that happen within a family, which i feel brian captures so rightly, softly, and brilliantly in the images of his daughter [whose absence in some pictures is just as necessary as her presence in the others].
...they, like t.a.'s, or elizabeth flemming's, are those secret moments that perhaps photographs can come closer to translating than any other language is capable of... even before our own awareness can recognize.

as william burroughs details in all his glory: "nothing exists until or unless it is observed. an artist is making something exist by observing it. and his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it."

photographers are truly fortunate. we can select and observe a vast spectrum of emotion in the moments we capture. we can become far closer to our subjects [friends, loved ones, perfect strangers, time and place] in the exchange, without a single word spoken. each image just one moment; a collection of images becomes a personal timeline [even if the subject, to us, seems not at all personal] that might otherwise be lost to memory, or never known at all. we can narrate our reality as we know or try to know it.

where a proud flickr parent such as proudadphotog might share a slideshow of his child's first birthday or a trip to disneyland in a kind, almost saccharine, snapshot via their 8 megapixel nikon coolpix, another father, like timothy archibald could dedicate all the times and beautiful irreplaceably stunning and quiet moments in a bound book, or a father like brian arnold might choose to document in small silver gelatin prints via a slow hand-developed process where each exposure is specially toned to cherish and honor every quiet fragment left by his daughter before the moments are altered by memory or offered to the past.

either way, the photographs are evidence and marks left by the life that they helped bring into existence.

making photographs of these times, offers the possibility to hold moments that perhaps no one else understands directly, but the visual dialog shared by the artist reinforces love as a common denominator of humanity. they can make a photograph and be able to share these moments, their reality, creation, and love to exist even after their lifetime.

while, injustice of injustices, we can't all be a tierney, an archibald, a broening [such good work you do make, thomas], a flemming, or a mann, our expressions are unique, and if we block them, the world will not have them.

as the saying goes, from that poignant william carlos williams poem, asphodel that greeny flower:
"if no one came to try, then the world would be the loser".

i am so very grateful for all the elizabeth flemmings and brian arnolds and timothy archibalds [each so unique, honest, and lovely] that bravely, sincerely, and gracefully allow us to witness the beauty of their reality.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hey there- All of this discussion is great. Christine, thanks for being so generous there and turning me on to Brian Arnold's work. It was a good parrallel to what I'm trying to do for sure.

TB- I think what you are responding to is just that Arnold seems to be at peace with being a parent. You think?

Kevin said...

I'm a fan of Elizabeth Fleming's photos of her daughters and their environment. She also pens a great blog...

Brad said...

I always assumed Meatyard was shooting his own children. I didn't think about it hard, though. I was kidding a little with my comment. But it seems like it would be a lot of fun to drive your kids out to abandoned houses and take unsentimental and weird photos where they look like they're ghosts or flying. Seems like a lot of fun for the kids too.

A quick google found this article from New York Magazine about Meatyard's ICP show a few years back.

Elizabeth Fleming said...

Have been meaning to chime in for a while now. First off, TA thanks again for the mention in your post. This is a really thought-provoking piece of writing. I've been wracking my brain for a pre-Mann pre-Gowin mom/dad photographer and I can't think of anyone. In a way it's surprising that there isn't more, that this hasn't been a natural subject for every photographer with children. I suppose teasing out why would require a whole other post unto itself. Maybe I'll tackle that on Tethered at some point...

Although it does seem to me that it's a subject that's starting to gain more "traction" as it were, with Gearon, and the other photographers you mention (I was happy to be introduced to Brain Arnold's imagery, wasn't aware of him). I also see it in the work of Doug Dubois (though his is about family in general, parents, wife, with the kids mixed in), Robert Knight's Harry Project, Christy Karpinski, Suzanne Revy, a little with Yann Orhan, and Robin Schwartz. And I was interested to see with the Center Singular Image winners that quite a few of the photos were by people who are shooting children, though I haven't had time yet to research whether they are the photographer's own kids or not.

I also have to say thank you to Christine for your beautiful insights, and your compliments. You put so eloquently those small rituals that we photographers focusing on our children seek to capture. I was really taken in by your writing, the line "either way, the photographs are evidence and marks left by the life that they helped bring into existence" is fantastic. I couldn't access your profile, do you have a blog yourself by any chance? I would love to have the link if you do. I agree that an image doesn't necessarily require rawness in order to reveal honesty, but I suppose in my own work I've had to really step back from my fear that my images will be viewed as sentimental and just trust that I don't have to "force" them to be raw as a way to find that authenticity. As long as I stay true to what I see then that's what matters, but as I wrote about in my post on powerHouse that TA takes the quote from above, sometimes those doubts come in and you have to shut out the insecure voices. It helps to know that I'm not the only one struggling with this.

This is a great dialogue that I hope continues, thanks again (to you too Kevin!).

Suzanne Revy said...

Thanks, Elizabeth for linking to this post from your blog. Interesting, but it's hard to pin down the one, the only quintessential mom (or dad) photographer. I'm always interested in how different photographers approach making pictures of family.

I'm pretty sure Meatyard made a lot of those pictures with his kids, other family, and wome friends. They'd spend Sunday afternoons exploring these decaying mansions, making pictures. (What could be more fun with your kids?)

Other dad photographers not mentioned yet, Todd Deutsch and Larry Towell. Very different work, but both excellent.

Looking back into the history of photography, she was their grandmother by the time she started to photograph children, but Gertrude Kaesebier was an early "mom... well, grandmom with a camera" at the start of the 20th c.

Oh... and that struggle to keep pictures honest... that only happens when I take off my "mommy goggles"!

sean ross said...

Thanks for this post. I also struggle with the meaning of my copius picture taking within my family; and how I cringe when a viewer says "sooo cute" when they are viewing my photos. I want them to have an edge; to draw you into my world, and I fear at times that they lack spark that will draw the viewer in. Luckily, this doesn't stop me, and I continue to document the weird domestic environment that continuously per mutates around me.

FOr me too, Sally Mann is a touchstone. Although I have no desire to emulate her style or approach; they strike me as both honest and mythological, which I strive for in my own narrative.

Timothy Archibald said...

Lots of good commentary here. The only thing I would add is that I never really took pictures of my kids before starting this Echolilia thing when my eldest son was 5. And with that...there was friction, there was something I was trying to follow and figure out, there was this thing that fuels the project. Just appreciating kids and using that as a springboard to picture making never really gave me enough to work with, but obviously works for all of the other people we are discussing.

$2dollar_bling said...

hi tim!

great post...
my only problem with Sally Mann is, although it look really nice, it's not real. It's not a glimpse into an intimate family moment. It's manufactured to sell in a gallery.

check out this blog - an illustrator who uses her 3 year old daughter as both client and art director...
it's hilarious.


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Jonathan said...

I really love your blog and photography. Went all the way through it last days. There's a great sense of serenity through your photos. The ultimate family photographer to me is Cheyenne Glasgow. She has that same natural and gloomy atmosphere to me as Sally Mann, but it's so much more natural and less staged.

another great one is Allison Mills, but she lost here pro account and there are only a few images left:

But yours are also very thought provoking and unusual. I think the autism of your son really brings a unique atmosphere to your photos. Like it's an even more special event that you can look into his soul through these images.