There are images of her everywhere, especially as Mother’s Day draws near.
As two photographers who happen to be mothers, we think critically about the way photography overly determines the image of “The Mother”.
One iconic example is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, taken in depression-era America. The central figure is framed by her two children who lean against her, while her arms perform the quintessentially nurturing pose – the maternal embrace of an infant.
Lange’s photograph reenacts the ultimate symbol of femininity: Madonna and child. But not all photographs of mothers are the same. From early snapshots to images on screen, how mothers appear in photographs speaks to our changing view of their role in the family and in society.
The woman behind the child
The mother appears throughout the history of photography. Perhaps the first illustrated demonstration of a mother’s involvement in the form is a drawing by Theodore Maurisset. Detailed in this illustration is a mother who comically wrestles with her reluctant child to have his photographic portrait taken.J. Paul Getty Museum
The next time she appears, in the Victorian era, she is the “Hidden Mother” smothered under thick velvet fabric to hold her child still enough to be photographed clearly. She is furniture.Wikimedia
In the most significant photographic treatise on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes continues the hidden theme.
Central to this intimate book is a picture of his mother as a six-year-old girl, which Barthes calls the Winter Garden photograph. While pivotal to the book, he never shows us the image, declaring her picture could only have meaning for him.
The Winter Garden photograph takes Barthes to a time before his mother was a mother. It allows him to recognise her autonomy and passage into the role of mother: “I studied the little girl and at last rediscovered my mother”.
He finds her not as a teenager, but as an innocent child.
This notion of purity links us to the ideal image of moral good associated with Christianity’s immaculate mother.
We come into the world from the mother. First pictured in utero and then pushed, surgically removed or pulled out into the world and her arms – breast-fed, bottle-fed, skin-on-skin.
In a technological society, birth is a photographic event. From pregnancy through to delivery, a mother’s identity is mediated through conception – her status changes from woman to mother.Genealogical Society of Victoria/Flickr
As advertisers remind us, this archetype hinges on her visual representation performing everyday activities. The most ubiquitous images visualise her in the home: performing housework; displaying her culinary and baking flair.
Bonus noteworthy qualities include her glowing skin, soft femininity and healthy hair.
Authors: Cherine Fahd, Director Photography, School of Design, University of Technology Sydney