Two women embrace in a field of grass. A daughter sits on the lap of her mother, who faces the camera, eyes closed, wisps of gray hair blowing in the wind as she wraps her arms around her daughterâ€™s body. A blond toddler stands to their right, crying helplessly, his feet hidden by the long grass.
This haunting image is typical of photographer Tierney Gearon, who came to Campbell Hall on Wednesday to answer audience questions after a screening of The Mother Project, a film that documents her quest to photograph the complex beauty of her emotionally disturbed mother.
Gearonâ€™s unconventional family portraits gained worldwide acclaim in Spring 2001, stirring up controversy during her debut exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in London, where they were hailed as stunning by some critics and manipulative and even perverse by others. The London police went so far as to demand that the gallery take down photographs of Gearonâ€™s young children, threatening to press child pornography charges because of their state of undress in some of the photos.
â€œAfter the press in London, I started to doubt myself as a mother,â€ Gearon said. â€œSometimes I feel a little guilty because people may see my work as exploiting my mom and my kids. But itâ€™s just a way of healing myself and I donâ€™t think that it will harm them in any way.â€
The photographs, strikingly unconventional family portraits, capture highly personal moments in Gearonâ€™s life, from her children wearing cartoon masks on the beach in the summer, to her mother, wrapped in scarves and bathed in the light of car headlights on a snowy highway.
â€œI just photograph the things that are closest to me, whatâ€™s closest to my heart,â€ Gearon said in regards to her images. â€œItâ€™s like therapy, and at the same time, Iâ€™m sharing what Iâ€™m feeling with other people.â€
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Gearon began her career as a dancer and model, shooting photographs backstage at fashion shows and on European runways. On the side, she began compiling photographs of her free-spirited children. The images were soon brought to the attention of Charles Saatchi, who featured her work in his gallery alongside legendary
documentary photographers, such as Nan Goldin.
After the Saatchi show, Gearon rose to the rank of art celebrity in London, establishing herself as a top commercial photographer.
â€œI wasnâ€™t planning to have any success in the art world.â€ Gearon said after the screening. â€œIf someone told me ten or fifteen years ago that my pictures were going to be in a gallery or that I was going to have a book of photos in a bookstore, I never would have believed them.â€
The documentary, directed by Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland, records Gearonâ€™s return to the work that launched her public fame, the intimate portraits of her family. The film follows Gearon and her children over the course of three years, as she assembles a body of portraits of her mother, who lives alone in upstate New York and suffers from a combination of manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia.
The film effectively documents the difficulties of living with a mental illness, yet in the spirit of Gearonâ€™s photographs, celebrates the liberation and individuality of her motherâ€™s mind, rather than stifling it. The same goes for Gearonâ€™s children, whose vibrant personalities come to life in the film.
â€œMy mom doesnâ€™t ask us to do something and we donâ€™t really realize it,â€ said Emily, age 8. â€œWe just have fun an play and she takes the pictures.â€
The experience of being followed by the filmmakers was a challenging, yet rewarding one for Gearon.
â€œItâ€™s very hard to have someone following you around, filming you 24 hours a day,â€ Gearon said. â€œI canâ€™t even begin to tell you what itâ€™s like. Itâ€™s so invasive.â€
But Gearon also explained the way in which the film, like her own photographs, has helped her to understand where she came from and who she is as a person. They are more than just family snapshots for Gearon. They represent a journey of self-exploration, one that cuts to the core of the human experience. And after watching the artist with her camera, absorbed in the sensory details of the people around her, itâ€™s easy to see why the resulting images of the family succeed in combining a fantasy world with one thatâ€™s shockingly real.
â€œThese filmmakers had such a unique opportunity to get inside my head, to see what I was doing,â€ Gearon said. â€œAnd for me, these images are like a diary of my soul.â€
The Mother Project does much more than a document an artist at work. It digs deeper, exploring both the pains and joys of family life, while exposing the raw emotion and eccentric details that make the stunning images of Gearonâ€™s loved ones so hard to forget.