Picks and Pans Review: Mother: a Collective Portrait

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mary Motley Kalergis

Last year Aperture, the photographic publishing foundation, invited more than 600 photographers to submit work for a traveling exhibition entitled Mothers & Daughters. From some 3,000 images, in black-and-white and in color, 128 were selected for the show, and 83 of those made the accompanying book (Aperture, $24.50). The volume belongs as much to editors Diane Lyon and Nan Richardson as to the 79 photographers whose pictures are displayed. The editors did a superb job of selecting work—in a variety of styles, much of it by lesser-known artists—that deftly traces the complex, sensuous, not always benign fields of force binding mothers and daughters. Author Tillie Olsen, in an otherwise gelatinous essay identifies a key trait in the pictures: the commonness of "holding, touch, embrace.... But only between mothers and daughters (not sons) is it legitimized: that lifelong at-homeness with each other's bodies, the sensuality, the easy tactile expression of connection." When the connections are not easy and tactile, they are possibly even more interesting. In a photograph by Margaret Randall, a mother and teenage daughter, both T-shirted and beefy, straddle small motorcycles. The mother, in sunglasses, is grinning, gung ho. The daughter, stiffly gripping the handlebars, looks tolerant and slightly embarrassed, as if the irrepressible child in her mother affronts the fragile dignity of the adult struggling to emerge in herself. Two photographs by Mary Motley Kalergis in Mothers & Daughters also appear in her own book, Mother: A Collective Portrait (Dutton, $19.95). There they are accompanied by full-page, first-person reflections about marriage, motherhood, childbirth (and death) by the women photographed. Each of the texts contains some emotional nugget, some hard-earned truth, that amplifies and releases something in the photograph. If these texts had the economy and unity of Kalergis' portraits (there are 71 in all), the book would be significantly better than it is. Kalergis, 36, who teaches at the International Center of Photography in New York, approaches each of her subjects freshly, without formula. She is particularly good with groups. But in at least two cases when the mother is photographed alone—a battered wife in an arranged Muslim marriage and a rudderless young woman who feels trapped by her maternal duties—the text is so layered and disturbing that it overwhelms the portraits, perceptive though they are. The women have 'been given more dimension than perhaps any single image can bear.

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