There’s a great exhibition on at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Foundling Museum in London at the moment – it runs til 5 January. It’s called Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity, and it “aims to challenge long held stereotypes and sentimental views about motherhood”.
I visited The Photographers’ Gallery at the weekend to see the photographs there. I’ve blogged before about the way that this gallery erases any discussion of the production of photography by hanging photographic prints with minimal commentary on its white walls; on this occasion though, for me at least, the photographs seemed to hold their own against that abstracted context and were for the most part very powerful. Most spoke to me about the complexities of mothering, and how being a mother is also in part an erasure of the person you were before you gave birth.
I also went to a talk with three of the photographers in the show: Elinor Carucci, Ana Casas Broda and Katie Murray. They were all very articulate about the difficulties of being a photographer and a mother – not least the practical difficulties of taking the kind of photographs they wanted to make of themselves with their children. Both Elinor and Ana said that of course they used digital cameras for this work, analogue cameras just took too much time to set up and with kids you had to take the shot as fast as you could. The talk, then, focussed very much on what the exhibition studiously ignored: the labour of making images.
One thing that did strike me about the exhibition was that all the work was very far from the kind of traditional ‘family photography’ that I’ve written about elsewhere. The work was in very large format, or in rigorous series, or shown in vitrines, or way too explicit for the family album. One of the arguments of my book, though, is that even the much less aesthetically impressive family snaps that so many women take of their kids might also be seen as expressing certain forms of ambivalence: in mothers’ insistence on taking them; in the way they are gathered together and narrated by the mother; the way they are looked at and then put away by the mother. Perhaps not in what they show, but rather in what is done with them, family photos also are less sentimental than is often imagined.