In the Company of Mothers
by Lucy Soutter
Jeff Wall once made a photograph called Picture for Women (1979). An elaborate mirror composition, it features a female model gazing out at the viewer (and thus at her own reflection) while being gazed at by Wall. The camera stands between the two figures and the photographer holds a cable-release in his hand. Numerous publications, including a 2011 book by David Campany, have supported Wall’s contention that this self-conscious reconfiguration of Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-2) transforms the power relationship between male artist and female subject in a way that is empowering for women. Personally, I’ve always found Wall’s picture rather pedantic and patronizing. For why should a picture for women necessarily need a man at all? Why can’t women look at themselves and at other women without men telling them how to do so?
Hannah Starkey has photographed women in the city since the mid-1990s. Working with models, acquaintances and with strangers she encounters on the street, she constructs large, elegant colour tableaux that depict their subjects in moments of reverie or absorption. Highly pleasurable to look at—with striking architectural echoes of modernism and intriguing female figures—they convey an interiority that is rare in contemporary images of women.
Starkey’s early work focused on the inner life and intrapersonal tensions of teenage girls. Later work expanded this repertoire to include women young and old. Over time the work has tended to centre on single figures. Set in transitional spaces like walkways, waiting rooms and foyers, the pictures appear to catch their subjects off-guard in moments when self-presentation yields to introspection. Although some viewers regard these artful constructions as images of alienation, they can equally be read as explorations of discrete states or moods in relation to contemporary urban environments.
The current series, In the Company of Mothers looks at various stages of motherhood against the backdrop of East London. Five of the pictures show women with children, while the other three ask to be read in relation to this theme. The series conveys a vivid physicality through hand gestures, textured surfaces and allusions to the weather. These underline the fact that many of the pleasures of motherhood are rooted in senses other than sight. In Untitled, August 2012, a mother in red precariously cradles a sleeping infant in the crook of her arm as ladders swing from a crane above her head. In Untitled, March 2013 a long-haired mother in the beret and embroidered dress of a latter-day bohemian holds her toddler on her hip to admire a mural of the sea. The clouds on the mural combine with the folds of the woman’s coat to create a windswept feeling. While one hand holds the child, the other one reaches out to touch the bricks of the wall. Not all the pictures focus on closeness or wonder; in Untitled, February 2013, a determined-looking woman crosses a snowy city park with grocery bags hanging from a pole across her shoulders while her little girl wanders back in the opposite direction. This mother is figured as a kind of warrior of women’s work.
It is notable that Starkey envisions motherhood as an interaction between a single mother and a single child (she herself has two daughters). Without the distraction of further figures to generate narrative tension, this structure intensifies the interaction between the mother and child. Two of the pictures depict women with older children. In one, a mother with long dreadlocks walks beside an adolescent son, her arms wrapped protectively around his shoulders. They walk in front of a brightly coloured wall, their shadowed faces deepening the sense of intimacy conveyed in their physical posture. In the other, a young mother and her 6 or 7 year-old daughter gaze up into a huge tropical fish tank. Between the water and the reflected façades of buildings, the image is such a mesh of layers that it is difficult to locate the figures in space. They float like the fish in a kind of shared dream state.
One of the most memorable images in the series, Untitled, January 2013, shows a figure with long shocking-pink hair. She is not obviously a mother, although her chic minimalist coat may cover a swelling belly. This image is dramatic, viewed from a high vantage point, with a frozen pond providing a graphic background that evokes a Japanese print. Like Hokusai images that show the passing of the seasons, Starkey’s pictures suggest that life, time and our own bodies can be grasped fleetingly in tiny shocks of experience triggered by our environment.
The image Self-portrait, February 2013, shows Starkey reflected darkly in the window of a run-down shop or studio. The photograph is typically layered; the glass reflects blue sky and wintry tree branches at the same time as it reveals brown satin curtains bunched and tied on a rail within. The punch line of the picture is a framed print hanging in the centre, Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, the second-most famous French nude of 1863. If Edouard Manet’s Olympia was shockingly modern for that year, with her brazen stare, harsh lighting, and flaunting of her profession, Cabanel’s openly erotic Venus was considered entirely acceptable. Clothed in her mythical source, in painterly references and a saccharine palette that Emile Zola likened to "pink and white marzipan", Cabanel’s writhing beauty was bought from the salon by Napoleon III himself, and earned the painter a place the following year as a professor at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Starkey invites us to reflect; how much has the representation of women changed since Cabanel’s picture was so well received? As the mother of a young daughter myself, I am acutely aware of the fact that despite the supposed triumph of feminism, the range of images of women available in our culture has narrowed in a frightening manner over the last couple of decades with ever-more emphasis on rigid stereotypes of sexual attractiveness. Mothers have little visibility except in adverts for household products. Feminist authors such as Peggy Orenstein (Cinderella Ate my Daughter) and Caitlin Moran (How to be a Woman) have pointed out that the current Western media culture wants women to look endlessly young and desirable without appearing to be desiring subjects themselves, lest they cross the line from "hot" to "slutty". In these terms, the aloof pout of a sexy model does not signal self-possession, but rather an availability to be possessed with no demands, no strings attached. Compared to the chilly pornographic gyrations of a Rihanna video, Cabanel’s Venus at least appears to be enjoying herself.
Starkey’s mothers operate in an entirely different register from either academic nudes or contemporary media images of femininity. The enjoyment to be taken in looking at them has little to do with the sexual attractiveness of their subjects. They are all dressed in the kinds of beautiful, practical clothes likely to please women rather than men. Their reverie is not the coy blankness of a pin-up, but rather the unselfconscious engagement of an individual with her environment and her child. Although it may not seem a heroic task, capturing and enlarging the details of women’s everyday experience remains a rare, valuable contribution. How women are represented matters. It affects the ways we perceive ourselves and the ways we are treated.
Literary fiction has been far more successful than visual art at representing the range of women’s experience. One of the reasons that the novel has been the preeminent literary form for more than a century is the fact that it offers safe ways for readers to imagine themselves in other subjectivities, other worlds. The rise of the novel was associated in particular with women readers, for whom this ability to live vicariously was a revelation. Although literature has a number of devices including a choice of narrators to construct a compelling subjectivity, staged photography can only suggest thoughts and feelings on the basis of appearances (unless it relies heavily on text). No wonder so many fiction photographers draw on cinematic genres and scenarios as shorthand to convey psychological states. Starkey’s mise-en-scènes may be cinematic, but she focuses on subjects that are off the radar of mainstream media. Let’s face it: the vast majority of women in Hollywood movies are kidnapped, raped and/or murdered. How often does a film shot linger lovingly on a female character simply crossing the road, bringing home the shopping, or entertaining a child on a journey? Starkey harnesses the world of appearances to give such experiences a more exalted place in our visual imagination.