Motherhood & Photography

by Heather on April 7, 2008

I uncovered a strange little coffee klatch bit of posting at a photo blog awhile ago about the difficulty of bidding a job by way of a conference call with a client on the line while you are at the park with your kids. You know the story- kids see you’re on the cell and proceed to hurt themselves, scream your name repeatedly, that kind of thing.

I feel ambivalent about this. If I had been the Art Buyer on that call I would have been shocked and appalled that the photographer didn’t consider the bid important enough to …. Well, to not be at the park I guess. My own desire to be home with my (then) three under four influenced my decision to pursue freelance Art Buying work. That being said, I do carry the front door key in my back pocket in case my cell phone rings and I have to lock myself out (really locking them in) to take the call. At first I was completely in the closet about my family.

But in this scenario, would the photographer be better or worse off had she been a woman?

This is not going to be a posting about the history of women in photography. I actually can’t write about that tonight precisely because I am a mother and have been nursing sick kids for the last week- I just don’t have the energy to give you anything of substance on all that. What I’d rather do is look at the subject matter of a few women photographers in particular and how they have turned their whole lives into their work.

This is likely not at all true, but part of me wants to believe that these shooters could have only been successful because they are mothers. Whereas a handful of years ago, women photographers like Lauren Greenfield were exploring Girl Culture, Motherhood seems to be the new black. Here are just three examples:

Edith Maybin is from Canada:

In these photographs Edith Maybin investigates the space between mother and daughter. The subject is one that Maybin feared at first might be clichéd, but her own experience of motherhood made her realize that there was still more to be said. “There’s so much rubbish talked about that just isn’t what mothers go through,” she says. “There are very strong structures still of what’s expected of her, how she is to perform. I think there’s still a strong Victorianism about how we approach family and work.” She deals with the taboos of motherhood, the fears involved for the child and for one’s self; of the daughter growing up, of losing her and the difficulty of carving out an identity in the space between one’s own mother and daughter.


Julie Blackmon:

The Dutch proverb “a Jan Steen household” originated in the 17th century and is used today to refer to a home in disarray, full of rowdy children and boisterous family gatherings. The paintings of Steen, along with those of other Dutch and Flemish genre painters, helped inspire this body of work… the conflation of art and life is an area I have explored in photographing the everyday life of my family… at home.

The expectations of family life have never been more at odds with each other. I believe there are moments that can be found throughout any given day that bring sanctuary. It is in finding these moments amidst the stress of the everyday that my life as a mother parallels my work as an artist, and where the dynamics of family life throughout time seem remarkably unchanged. As an artist and as a mother, I believe life’s most poignant moments come from the ability to fuse fantasy and reality: to see the mythic amidst the chaos.


Tierney Gearon:

After five years of jet-setting as a busy commercial photographer, Gearon settled down for the first time and had a family – Emilee, who is seven years old, and Michael, now four. Following what proved to be an emotionally difficult time after the birth of her two children and the break-up of her marriage, Gearon began the highly personal project that launched her, unsuspecting, into an artistic career. The documenting of her extended family has acted as a personal journey for herself and for her family as well, both in a literal and emotional sense. In her photographs as in her life, Gearon’s children form a powerful presence among the domesticity.


These women have received varying degrees of fame and attention because of their motherhood and not despite it. On the other hand, none of the women commercial shooters I know locally have kids. Sometimes I’m asked how a woman commercial photographer can have kids and a successful career. I don’t know. But I think Nancy Vonk (Co-Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto) does. Check out her response to ad legend Neil French’s sexist answer to the question: Why aren’t there more Female Creative Directors? The title of this post on Neil’s Wikipedia entry is: Nancy Vonk’s Famous Blog Post that forced Neil French to resign.

So hat’s off to these three for mixing their home and their work. And hat’s off too to our small group of women commercial shooters in Canada. I’ve had the pleasure of working (or at least quoting) with these ones:

Janet Bailey
Regina Garcia
Sandy Pereira
Raina Kirn (of Raina & Wilson)
Natasha V
Candace Meyer
Kathleen Finlay
Nadia Molinari

In my effort to expand that list, I’ll encourage all of you to check out this new call for work and add some content to the site: Women in Photography will showcase work, news and ideas from women in the contemporary photo world.

But let’s go back to the park. As I think about my own experience of motherhood and the difficulty of reconciling it with my work, I am increasingly baffled by the decision to take a conference call at the park. Baddadgoodphotographer (yes, that was his screen name): if you are reading this, please explain yourself. And Edith, Julie, and Tierney: keep up the good work. Seeing your kids is almost as good as seeing mine.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas Broening April 7, 2008 at 8:44 pm

I think this was the Motherhood blog post you are referring to. I was indeed ambivelant about making the call at the park but I really wanted to shoot the campaign and would not have been considered if I didn’t get a chance to explain my approach.I have four girls and it is not always pretty and seldom looks like a leave it to beaver episode.

Thomas Broening: Father of the Year
I love reading in blogs and agent/photographer websites about how devoted these shooters are to their children and how it is all about the kids. I have a ton of kids and unlike my colleagues sometimes I miss the mark in terms of the parenting/ work balance.

This summer I was with my kids at Totland Park in Berkeley. I was trying to land a pretty big job via conference call and for some reason thought it would be a good idea to have the call while at the playground. In my defense I think that was the only time the AD was available but …

Everything was going great and the client was on the phone as well and the concept was actually cool and something I wanted to do when in the corner of my eye I see my youngest child fall off the swing and land on her stomach. She is 3 1/2 and starts balling. I run over and pick her and see that she is fine. She has had the wind knocked out of her and is just a little freaked out. So I am trying to hold her in one arm and cover the mouth piece with the other. It is not working well and everyone on the call wants to know what is going on and I reassure everyone she is fine and will stop screaming any minute.

I look at her and tell her she needs to stop crying. This of course does nothing but make her cry louder. So here I am in this jam. I want to stay on the phone to land the big tuna but I also have this distressed child. So I do what father’s have done since we all lived in caves. I put her down and walked away. And then…. the looks started. The Berkeley moms at the park were so appalled by what I had done that all they could do is look at me with their squinty eyes and hemp baby slings.

Looking back would I do it again? Probably not. I should have just called them all back later or not had the call at the park in the first place. But when you are out in the wild hunting wearing nothing but a bear skin thong your judgment sometimes gets a little clouded.

David Bornfriend April 7, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Hello Heather, I am truly enjoying your blog. Please keep up the great posts. Although she is not a commercial shooter to my knowledge, I just learned and blogged about an artist who deals with motherhood and photography whom I thought you may be interested in. Justine Kurland’s series, “Of Woman Born” is captivating and I am truly inspired by the way she embraces her lifestyle, upbringing and photographic work and made them one. Here is her link:

Kim Taylor April 8, 2008 at 8:04 pm

Alright, does anyone else see Maybin in court for the same reason Sally Mann ends up there?

I love her work, I totally get it, but once it becomes known I think she may be in for a world of trouble from the blue-stocking brigade.

baddadgoodphotographer April 9, 2008 at 4:33 pm

Hi Heather-
I’m the person who wrote the post “baddadgoodphotographer” in response to
Thomas Broening’s “Father Of The Year” post. Just to clarify things,the agency had asked me to have a conference call on a Friday afternoon.My wife had gone away for a four day vacation to visit a friend. I was in charge of the kids during that period, of course, and wanted to spend time with them at a park. My reps called, telling me about the need for the conference call during that afternoon. I had to decide to risk not having any conference call or trying to finesse the call while at the park. I opted to try to pull of the call. Curiously, I did get awarded the job.

Heather April 9, 2008 at 6:46 pm

baddad and Thomas- thanks for filling in the blanks.

What I neglected to mention in my original post is that, as a parent, I’m so pleased that you both chose to go to the park instead of catering to the whims of the ad world at the expense of time with your kids. And for you to still get the job- good for you! I can’t imagine that our industry is getting more accepting of family life but your example seems to bring a glimmer of hope to this tricky situation.

baddadgoodphotographer April 9, 2008 at 10:37 pm

Thanks for understanding. The idea of taking a conference call while caring for the kids is, I think, just a fact of contemporary marriage arrangements for those with kids. The idea of the dad being locked into the office from 8-6 is from another era…another era of work and of relationships…I think its your parents life, maybe, but not really do-able these days.
Thomas’s Father of The Year post rang true to my life, thus I wanted to share my similar tale. I did come across a fellow photographer who thought the post made the TB and BDGP look horrific, but she was 30 and childless. This is what life is like, unless you are living some type of fairy tale existence…or lying about it.

women of nymphoto April 12, 2008 at 6:06 am

Thanks for this post! We are a group of women photographers ranging different ages, some are mothers, some art not and the purpose of our collective is to support one another in our photographic lives whatever our situations are.

Pamela Hamilton April 15, 2008 at 1:39 pm

lovely Heather !

Edith Maybin April 16, 2008 at 6:09 am

Hi Heather, thank-you for looking at my work. I absolutely love Julie and Tierney’s work. Tierney has a DVD out on her Motherhood project, (have you seen it?) it is exquisite to watch, I think you would like it.
And please send my regards to the Blue-Stockings.
Edith xx

Heather April 16, 2008 at 8:19 am

Edith- Yes I’ve seen the movie The Motherhood Project and really enjoyed it. I was a little dissappointed that there wasn’t more about her own termoil with shooting this contentious work but on the other hand, the movie really focussed on the beauty of her photographs- a message which probably gets lost sometimes in the all of the other issues surrounding her work.

kristin sjaarda April 25, 2008 at 7:45 pm

this is just a great read, so inspiring. I am not a multi-tasker (motherhood now, photography then and maybe later) but I’m constantly amazed at your ability to juggle everything.

Kathleen Finlay April 26, 2008 at 7:24 am

Thank you Heather for featuring me in your blog about women photographers. Interestingly, I have become a mother myself so I can totally relate to your essay about photography and motherhood. My son, Loïc is now 19 months old and I have to say, it has been a real challenge to have to juggle motherhood while competing to stay active as a commercial photographer and also work on personal projects.
( I now feel as though I have twice as much to do in half the time….. I try to separate the different parts of my life so that I can really focus on my photography when I am working but when I come home, it’s all about my son (except for cleaning, cooking, washing clothes etc. )


Elizabeth Fleming May 3, 2008 at 9:35 pm

I stayed up too late tonight writing a post about mothers and photography and decided to do a final search before bed to satisfy my desire for more information on the topic. Lo and behold, I came across your wonderful piece. Thank you for bringing attention to the balance between being a parent and an artist that we mothers/photographers struggle with and use as an impetus for making work. When it’s not past midnight I’ll be sure to link to your site. For now if you’re interested you can check out what I wrote on the subject at



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