Friday, July 13, 2007

Daddy, Where Are You? by Tierney Gearon

Tierney Gearon has always raised red flags with her photographs. In 2001 while her show was on exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in London, the police threatened to charge her as a child pornographer. Many of her images were of her naked children at play. The threat of those charges was dropped after much of the British press came to her defense.

In her new book Daddy Where Are You? Published by Steidldangin, she again faces some controversy. This time, the question of exploitation has been raised. A documentary called The Mother Project by Peter Sutherland and Jack Youngelson takes a look at Gearon and these controversies.

In this work, Gearon has been photographing her mother who suffers from mental illness. The book on which this work is realized raises many questions about the relationship between mother and daughter and in these images; those stereotypical roles seem to have been reversed due to the illness. Tierney is now the authority figure and the mother is now the child so to speak. The mother is now the one that has to be reminded that good girls do not lift up their skirts and that boundaries should exist.

When I first looked at the book, I saw a photographer taking advantage of a fruitful opportunity; an eccentric woman, Tierney’s ill mother, living in a somewhat squalid home. Along with this opportunity was the added advantage of a ‘cover’ if questioned. For Gearon, she isn’t taking advantage of her mother’s situation and illness to make a set of pictures she will benefit from, she is “exploring a relationship,” albeit a complicated one. After her London show, Gearon reflected that that experience with the police “made me question whether I was a good mother.” Well, this new project gave her the opportunity to explore “motherhood” (or daughterhood) with an obviously visually arresting subject.

Normally I wouldn’t be questioning this. Please dear readers do not get the impression that I have much of a problem with being an opportunist. No matter how much I write about exploitation, I photograph in the streets and “use” people as my photographic fodder on a daily basis. As I have explained before, photographs are fictions, they may represent facts as seen within a brief slice of time, but the reading of those facts is mostly fiction. Photographs are quite separate from absolute truth.

That being said, I raise these issues here because Gearon asks us to. Throughout her work she is pushing buttons. Before it was, for example, a photo like below.

A prepubescent boy with his pants pulled down pissing towards the camera while in the background, another child sucks their thumb. This is definitely ‘clear cutting’ a path to a disturbing thought process for the viewer. It gets rather “dodgy” as the English say. In another photo, a naked child (innocence) wears a mask of an evil looking pig (anything but innocent). That photograph is about knowledge and experience placed in contrast to a naked child’s body. Sorry Tierney, although I agree that the response of potential criminal charges was unnecessary, you were begging for it to be heeded and thus challenged. The same “act of exploration” in Daddy, Where Are You? is challenging a response. Take a look, ‘exploitation’ and ‘exploration’ follow one another in the dictionary.

What we do have in Daddy, Where Are You?, is a set of relatively well made photographs of an older woman who seems like a joyous free spirit (if we didn’t have the knowledge of her illness). Kind of like a dash of Larry Sultan and a jigger of Grey Gardens. I like the work best when Tierney isn’t leading her mother into situations that are extreme.
She is able to pull off many remarkable images. Her sense of timing is great.

Tierney’s mother is unpredictable. Although there is no example of violence, when Tierney introduces her new born baby into the mix, the frailty of the child is stressed. In one image, the mother dons a Halloween skeleton mask and grimaces towards the camera while a child screams crying with fear. (Note to photographers: Leave the masks at home unless you plan on knocking off your local bank. Its too easy.) A different image in the book similarly refers to the darker side of her mother’s personality like the mask image but doesn’t resort to such attention getting tactics. A young boy looks wearily at the grandmother while holding a smiling infant. The young boy seems to be protecting the infant from the smiling grandmother figure. This is a much more frightening image to me than the one with the silly Halloween mask.

One other path the book walks is looking at the photographs as if it may be a premonition of what the future has in store. Often Tierney directly compares her body with her mothers and at times their behavior is interchangeable. Will Tierney suffer like her mother later in life? Who knows? What we are privy to, brings a certain amount of discomfort. Tierney’s internal question of whether she is “a good mother” is expressed perfectly as she photographs her new born crawling along alone in the street in front of the mother’s house.

Another button pushing moment that appears both in the book and documentary is one in which Tierney wants to make a shot of her mother nude and looking like she is breast feeding a new born baby. In the documentary, Tierney questions whether the shot is going to “look dodgy” as she photographs the scene inside of a barn. A version of the photo done outside of the barn appears in the book. Well, yes Tierney, it is dodgy. You know it was dodgy (that’s why you said what you said) and knew it would be perceived as such. This type of photograph brings the book down a notch. There are many images that seem to lead in this direction that we could do without. Her points are being made with more eloquent and poetic images.

When charges of exploitation are raised, we often look for the damage done. Was Gearon’s first project that featured her naked children damaging to them? In the film The Mother Project, those same children seem confident, well adjusted and at times, able to express themselves in ways that are not only intelligent but remarkably poetic. They are free spirits but do not seem reckless. Tierney’s picture making to them was mostly fun (although the son remarks that the process of being photographed is boring.)

Her mother’s comments on the work range from complaining that her daughter is making her “look crazy” to saying that every photo Tierney makes is beautiful. Many of them are. What I wonder about is where Gearon will go next. I hope she matures past being controversial. In my opinion, it is only weighing her down.

The book is on the Dangin imprint from Steidl. It’s 11X14 trim size allows the photographs to reproduce at a nice large size. It is well printed. The sequence is arranged according to the seasons. We start in the summer and make our way through winter and into the warmth of the following spring. Gearon loves to photograph in the golden hour so many of the images are seductive with their warm yellow hues.

The documentary, The Mother Project is also very well done. I was skeptical that the subject could sustain a full length film but it does and never seems hollow or dull. Made over a period of four years it probes into Gearon’s process of picture making, unconventional family relationships and the controversy that has surrounded her work. It is distributed by Zeitgeist Films and will be available on DVD in September.

Buy online at Steidlville