“I struggle with enormous discrepancies: between the reality of motherhood and the image of it.” –Sally Mann, photographer
“Photography can be really obsessive,” Gala Narezo says, and I know what she means. I have several photographer friends whose cameras serve as extensions of their bodies. During a three-hour drive with one, I watched incredulously as he continued to snap photos even while behind the wheel.
When I ask her to clarify “obsessive” with regard to her own work Narezo says, “Taking photographs can make it feel like you are giving validity to how you experience life.” She then describes how she photographed her daughter every day for a year, beginning on the day she was born. “I put her in the same place every day, with a big date next to her.” Obsessive? A bit.
Of course, becoming parents turns many of us into shameless shutterbugs. In this age of affordable digital cameras, photography is possibly the most accessible and certainly the most accepted art form. By comparison, you don’t see new parents signing up for easels and oil paints on their shower registry. It’s also familiar. We’ve all grown up with our birthdays and graduations on film. As we increasingly become a culture of self-documenters, what can we learn from the mothers who were holding cameras before they were holding babies?
In talking with three professional photographers—Narezo, Julia Kuskin, and Tracey Clark—it is the trained eye that sets these women apart. There is an attention to the fleeting detail or an unlikely juxtaposition that makes their work special. Clark started the collaborative blog Shutter Sisters to provide a community for women who share a passion for photography, professionally trained or not. “Moms with cameras” fall into this broad and inclusive category, a catchphrase that is often used derisively, though Clark doesn’t necessarily see it that way. She believes that a “great picture is a great picture, no matter who took it. Period.”
Still, being able to repeat great shots again and again, takes a well-honed eye. Such an eye is often created by life circumstances and training. Kuskin, the daughter of famed children’s book author-illustrator Karla Kuskin, and Narezo, the daughter an art gallery owner, both worked in other art fields before becoming photographers. Kuskin spent nearly a decade as a graphic designer and Narezo, who trained as a painter, became a costume and prop stylist. Both women are highly attuned to light, color and pattern. It’s worth noting that while I’ve never met Narezo or Clark, I used to work with Kuskin at Microsoft, and one of my favorite things about her was her daily reaction to the sky whenever we emerged from our windowless offices. “Wow, what incredible light!” she’d declare with visceral pleasure. Pretty much no matter if it was sunny or cloudy, morning or afternoon, the sky never failed to interest her.
Of course, noticing little details is also what parents do. And at first it’s all so little. The toes, the impossibly sweet lashes, the hardly-there fingernails. Wanting to savor what we know is all too fleeting, many of us try to capture our children’s earliest days with film and pixels. As celebratory and tender as baby photographs are, there’s also something heartbreaking about them. Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s ) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”
If we’re behind the camera all the time, how does that effect our role as parent? Can you play and shoot? Discipline and snap? Most importantly, can you savor and capture?
Kuskin, who can take rolls and rolls of photographs of her four-year old son on a given day, says she sometimes has to fight her desire to be behind the camera. “I worry that I’m missing an important moment with him because I’m figuring out the F-stop,” she laughs. The camera has long been her antidote to dealing with shyness and insecurity. Pick up a camera and you have certain permission to watch and not be expected to interact. That’s served her well, especially as a photographer who likes to capture spontaneity and has no interest in setting up shots. Now, as a mom, she sees the limitations in not being wholly present.
Clark, on the other hand, was saved by the remove of her photographer’s eye at a difficult juncture in her life. The 41-year old became a photographer’s assistant right out of college, helping with weddings and family portraiture. By her mid-20s, she’d started her own business doing similar projects but bringing a more uninhabited approach to what, at that time, was still a pretty stuffy art form. “I liked getting the backs of people’s heads,” she recalls, noting that some of her customers didn’t always get it.
After the birth of her second child, she was knocked low by a serious episode of post-partum depression. But she kept taking pictures. “The only time I could remove myself from the hellish place I was in was when I had a camera in my hand. I could barely stand to be in the rut of my life, but if I looked at it through the lens, I saw that it was beautiful and things were actually okay.” Although that’s been years, Clark says the lesson of the time has stayed with her and her photographs are still about “celebrating the absurdity of the average home.” Dirty dishes, piles of laundry and spilled milk are all fodder for her photographs.
Whether the photos are of baby’s feet or a six-year old brushing her teeth, what does one do with all of those images? One avenue are the stock photo companies that sell images to, well, just about anyone who wants them for advertising, annual reports, web sites, book covers or other media. Clark is considering approaching stock companies with her “mountain” of family life photos, and Kuskin, long a provider for Getty Images and Punch Stock, has sold photos of her son since he was an infant.
“I don’t feel I’m selling his soul,” says Kuskin, adding that she is conscientious of what kinds of images of him are used for stock; most would be filed under “daily life.” She also makes clear that these images are her work, and she is proud to be paid for them. This delineates a major difference between the snapshots of my kids and Kuskin’s photographs: When I look at mine, I see Bella and Tobey. When Kuskin looks at hers, sure she sees Swanee, but she also sees light and angles, composition and tone. Just as my writing is never simply its content, her photos are about the technique she brings to bear on a subject.
Narezo, on the other hand, sees a distinct line between commercial and fine arts, which she’s thus far she’s been unwilling to cross. “I could show photos of my daughter at a gallery, but I couldn’t sell them,” she says. This is in part because Narezo is intimately aware of The Gaze, the phenomenon described by feminist critic Laura Mulvey, who (to shamelessly quote Wikipedia) argued “that the cinematic apparatus of classical Hollywood cinema inevitably put the spectator in a masculine subject position, with the figure of the woman on screen as the object of desire.” In other words, being behind the camera equals power; being in front of it equals submission.
“Being the subject is a weirdly passive role,” says Narezo, who recalls being photographed as a child and the powerlessness of the experience. I think most of us understand this at some level. We’ve all stood with our cameras poised, asking our kid to stand a certain way or not make a goofy face because we want her to look “natural.” And we’ve probably had a thought, even a shadow of one: “Am I controlling this situation? Is this wrong?” Sometimes, we even ask our kids to recreate a moment that we weren’t quick enough to get with our cameras: OK, jump over the dog while waving your magic wand again! At those times, are we really so different from Sally Mann, the much loved and equally disliked mistress of domestic scenes who once asked one of her children—so the story goes—to bite the other again in order to get an image of teeth marks that had too quickly faded following a sibling argument.
Even at two years old, Narezo’s daughter is happier to be the one taking photos than being photographed. Similarly, Clark’s ten-year old daughter bought her own camera and is carrying it regularly, becoming the documentarian of her own life. As we continue to capture our kids through the stages of their lives, we need to remember to teach them how to see, too. Cameras are tools for learning how to look and, if we’re careful, how to reflect on what’s important in our lives. Bite marks and all.