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By Contributing Writer Suzanne Révy
Leo Tolstoy began his novel Anna Karenina with the sentence, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I would argue that there are no happy families. Every family has its own rivalries, quirks, tensions and passions that are unique to each household. Perhaps because of these very eccentricities, pictures made by those who deeply explore their own family in photography are frequently free from cliché, yet they carry broadly recognizable emotions. As we approach Mother’s Day, it seemed a perfect time to look at three recently published books that probe the familiar. Two are by women who have photographed their mothers, Sage Sohier’s Witness to Beauty and Sarah C. Butler’s Frozen in Time; the third, by Larry Sultan, is a re-issue of his Pictures from Home, which was originally published in 1992.
We learn in the first few pages of Sohier’s Witness to Beauty that in her youth, her mother had been a model. Photographed by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and others, she had even appeared on several magazine covers including Life magazine in the late 1940’s. In a brief introduction, Sohier describes that as a child, she’d lie on the bed to watch her mother try on clothes and study herself in the mirror. As she grew older, Sohier knew there was no competing with an extraordinary beauty, “I assumed my position, quite happily, on the other side of the camera.” Sohier then presents a stunning black and white image of her mother in her Washington, DC bedroom trying on clothes, made in 1980. The bedroom imparts the elegant décor of a privileged life, and her body language reveals a woman gracefully yet casually posing for her daughter’s camera with the comfort of someone who is at ease being seen. She is carefully coifed, one hand holding a robe that is loosely arranged off her shoulders and around her body, the other hand hidden behind her back creating a classic contrapposto gesture as she glances toward a corner or window outside the frame of the picture. We are then treated to a family album showing Sohier’s mother as a child, young adult, model and bride, setting the stage for the meat of the book, a portfolio of Sohier’s color images.
In the early 90’s, Sohier began collaborating with her mother and her sister to create a series of pictures. The images are carefully constructed, and to a certain degree peel back the facade of her mother’s beauty. She opens this part of the book with an image of her mother in front of a mirror at her vanity, and then we are presented with a group of images made over a twenty year period showing Sohier or her sister with their mother in various homes or during vacations. One particularly striking spread shows Sohier’s mother and sister both wearing sexy red nightgowns reclining on a bed on the left page, and on the right, a self-portrait of Sohier with her mother seated on the edge of a bed wearing more modest robes. Sohier’s sister and mother ardently posing for the camera in the one, her mother striking a more demure pose in the other while Sohier unselfconsciously gazes at her mother… and seemingly across the book’s gutter at her sister. Each woman’s relationship to the camera is noticeably individual, while implying a complex web of interrelationships.
Sohier’s mother maintains a certain elegant grace, but a few images hint at her aging and vulnerability. In one an eye-catching image she floats nude with the aid of a foam noodle in a swimming pool, her face caught in a glimpse of sun, while the water distorts one arm: it looks almost skeletal. In another image, she appears quite small in the midst of a large warehouse seated in a wheelchair. It’s the only hint that she might have a disability in one leg. We are also treated to a trio of images showing her mother before, during and after a facelift. Interestingly, Sohier and her sister continue to age through the book, and in some pictures, they appear to be older than their mother, who seems to have hindered the aging of her face. Throughout the book, however, one senses a rich bond between these three women.
In contrast, Sarah C. Butler’s relationship with her mother was estranged, and her book, Frozen in Time is the result of her need to reconnect with a woman who in her later years was unwell. Butler spent five years photographing the neglected and faded interiors of her mother’s home in Maine. One of the first images is a complex and layered view through a window with reflections of trees, a cloudy sky and a row of glass bottles to an exterior wall covered in peeling flecks of paint, visually paralleling the complexity and layers of this mother-daughter relationship. We learn in an introduction that Butler was raised on Mount Desert Island in Maine, but that her parents divorced when she was young. Like Sage Sohier’s mother, Butler describes a woman who “seemed to glide through life with elegance and grace.” Although she maintained the “airs and attitude of that background”, she rejected the formalities of her upbringing in raising Butler and her sister. Butler felt abandoned by her mother, and it was not until she began to photograph her in the latter years that their relationship was redeemed.
The property had been abandoned for twenty-five years when Butler’s mother purchased the home and barn. She had many plans for it, but very little work was ever finished. Butler explored the interiors and closets finding and photographing items from her childhood such as a girl’s dress found in a closet or two matching Christmas jumpsuits, the decaying and fraying wall paper, the unfinished kitchen, and rooms filled with randomly arranged furnishings. As one looks through the early pages, there is a palpable sense of absence, perhaps best described with an image of an empty chair next to an antique kitchen stove. Has anyone relaxed in that chair? Her mother appears infrequently at first, turned away from the camera and out of focus, eventually we see her hands resting on her threadbare dungarees and fleece sweater juxtaposed with an image of yellow gloves drying on a dirty kitchen sink. The hands have the delicacy of her upbringing, but not the grace of a woman used to being photographed.
The sequence is punctuated with several lush green landscapes that offer a visual break to the more neutral palette of the interiors. Wine glasses appear in several of the images, hinting at a struggle with addiction. One senses that her mother began to enjoy the process of collaboration when we learn in a caption of a simply marvelous photograph of a pair of jeans hung on a kitchen towel rack, her mom had said, “I thought this looked like something you would like to photograph.” Despite that, her mother’s reluctance in front of the camera is apparent: she’s never seen closely. We get to know her through the items and spaces of her home.
Deep in the sequence, we see the mother’s aging hands tenderly sharing drawings from Butler’s childhood or, in another image, she carefully cradles small chicks, and in one her feet are shown near the dog’s paws. Eventually, her mother appears in a photograph by an open door looking to the outside. Butler revisits the yellow kitchen gloves later in the book, but the sink is wiped clean, and the image of her mother’s hands on the opposite side of the spread are more carefully arranged, bathed in the dramatic light of Maine. There is a sense that their relationship has warmed with the process of making pictures. At long last, we see her mother’s face through a window near the end called Mom Got Her Dream, and Butler writes, “I thought I had stepped into a nightmare” upon first seeing the house, “but ultimately, and to my great surprise fell in love with the old house and with her.”
Butler ends the book by suggesting her photographs are evidence, not of her mother’s failures, but of the artist her mother helped Butler become. Similarly, Larry Sultan opens his book, Pictures from Home with a question he asked himself during visits to his parents’ house. He writes in the intro, “Is this why I’ve come here? To find myself by photographing my parents?” Originally published in 1992, this recent re-issue increases the page count of the original book, has newly digitized and magnified Super 8 film stills, many of them running across double page spreads, and the photographs of his parents are supplemented with previously unpublished images. Having been a fan of this important body of work for some time, and having never seen the original book, this re-issue facilitates an introduction to those who may not be familiar with this late photographer’s work.
The opening pages show grainy film stills from color home movies. There are several frames of fun between a man, boy and a hula-hoop reproduced onto a thin matte surface paper. When we reach the title page a heavier, glossier paper is employed to reproduce Sultan’s color images made in the 1980’s. Throughout the book, there are family snapshots, more home movie stills, and Sultan’s pictures presented on two stocks of paper. In addition to the varying images, there is text by Sultan, his father Irving and his mother Jean, which offer a rich family history from three perspectives giving the book a sense of being a collage of voices and visual sources. Near the end of the book, Sultan reproduces an argument with his father regarding the photographs that is both humorous and poignant.
This book is a layered, complex journey that explores the differing relationships between family members. The relationship between Sultan and his father is explored more deeply and reveals greater tensions in the book, but Sultan’s insight about and photographs of his mother are compelling. He describes the coquettish pose she would strike for her husband in their family snapshots, and how it contrasted to how she would pose for Sultan and how his view of her differed from his father’s. One brief anecdote describes Sultan sneaking into her bedroom as she napped, and began to photograph the underside of her foot, when he realized that she was not fully asleep. He writes, “I was secretly photographing, she was secretly awake. She felt me looking.” It seems they shared a deep trust in one another.
The color images of his parents’ homes reveal brightly colored walls and decor, illuminated by large windows filling rooms with southern California light. Growing up in such a home, it is no surprise he became known as the “King of Color” photography. And the reproduction of many of these classic images is gorgeous, particularly when the palette leans to green. Wall to wall green carpeting, lime green painted walls and his mother dressed in a long flowing green nightgown is not only a sensitive portrait of an aging woman, but a fascinating visual study of this verdant color. A study of his father’s legs and feet on the same carpeting and wall is affectionate in its simplicity. Probably Sultan’s best known portrait, My Mother Posing For Me is both a psychologically captivating study of a long married couple and a loving tribute by a son to his parents.
Though, I’m not generally a fan of the Hallmark holidays of Mother’s and Father’s Day, I am a fan of the love and trust each of these photographers put into the work of photographing their closest kin. Each work is singular in its vision, yet each resonates with a passion familiar to many with aging parents. If you can, be sure to hug your mom or dad this weekend.
Suzanne Révy is a fine art photographer who creates visual diaries of her family’s life and is a Contributing Writer to What Will You Remember? Earning her BFA from the Pratt Institute and MFA from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, Révy has worked as Photography Editor at U.S. News & World Report and Yankee Magazine and has exhibited her work at museums and galleries throughout New England and in New York. Révy is currently on the faculty at the New England School of Photography and a Board Member of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston.
Witness to Beauty
by Sage Sohier
with an essay by Marvin Heiferman
Published by Kehrer Verlag, 2016
For Elin Spring’s review of the debut exhibition of “Witness to Beauty” at Carroll and Sons in Boston this spring, go to:
Frozen in Time
by Sarah C. Butler
with a forward by Vicki Goldberg
and an afterword by Alison Morley
Published by Glitterati Incorporated, 2016
Pictures from Home
by Larry Sultan
Published by Mack, 2017
An exhibition of Larry Sultan’s work is currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 23rd, 2017.
Feature Image: “Mum and Laine in front of family portrait, Washington, DC, 2011″ (Detail) from the book Witness to Beauty by Sage Sohier (courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston).