The United Kingdom recently celebrated what it calls Mothering Day, which is apt because London-born Neil Selkirk (now based in New York) just last week opened an exhibition of his Certain Women series. Its focus is mothers — initially, some 20 years ago, those he met while dropping his children off at school, and eventually quite a few he found randomly (referred by friends and such) within a drivable radius beyond the city. The series has taken Selkirk far afield from that for which he’s best known: frank portraits of celebrated authors, filmmakers, statesmen, athletes, and their recognizable ilk, which he has shot since the 1970s for Esquire (where he got his start under Jean-Paul Goude), Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and many other publications. He also has produced a strong body of documentary and street photography that reflects his having studied with Diane Arbus and worked in the studio of Richard Avedon.
The premise of Certain Women begins, really, with the decision to have children. (It’s worth mentioning Meghan Daum’s forthcoming book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.) As people all over the Western world — and Europeans more so — decide to forego procreating as a result of the secularization, glorification of personal freedoms, and compulsive careerism of contemporary life, that question, to have or not to have, has inspired thickets of self-examination. Birth rates may fluctuate atop magazine-cover trends, but there is a clear divide, psychologically and otherwise, between those who choose to have children and those who don’t. Selkirk finds the women who took the maternal path to be more interesting than he feels they are given credit for. He is himself the father of two thirty-something children who have thus far chosen not to disrupt their lives with the demands of parenthood, so the project is clearly a labor of deep personal resonance.
Not wanting to drown in this enormous and freighted subject, Selkirk imposed a couple of parameters: Only mothers of children aged 10–20. “Once they’ve been a mother for 10 years, they’ve had all the rough edges knocked off of them; they know what’s involved.” And he insists on retaining their anonymity, to deflect viewers’ preconceptions. “If there are answers in there, they’re everybody’s choice of answer.” Apart from that, he sought out women on whom “motherhood has left its mark.” Implied is his belief that it is the mark of a well-earned strength of character, as admirable as any of his more widely revered subjects.
It is a sacrifice, and dealing with sacrifice probably strengthens people. I think it’s possible that that becomes visible. I think the perspective you get is significantly different if you’ve raised children. People who find themselves absolutely obligated to the welfare of another first wind up understanding the needs of others more readily than people who have gone through life taking care of themselves alone.
Although Selkirk’s project engaged the spectrum of economic class, he makes no claim to accessing sociological absolutes. “In the end, there were people who were extremely poor when I photographed them and people who were pretty darn wealthy. It’s about these people and the consequences of their experience. There’s no pretense of being a survey with any scientific basis whatsoever.” In awe of his target mothers’ stoic ability to track and nurture children, he sought to capture the pathos of their lives in a moment of reflection, the emotional sum of their responsibility for another. As they sit or stand still before his giant camera, they confront their fate, then move on. “I wondered if you could see their competence, is really where it all started out.” It’s apparent just by their age that these were women of a particular historical cohort, reared on the expectations and imperatives of feminism, and party to all the gender-role psychodrama that has played out in recent decades. Motherhood was something to be reinvented, and even defended, as parenting was juggled with professional lives.
What’s extraordinary about Selkirk’s career-long focus on the human visage, famous and not, is that he suffers from the same rare disorder as Oliver Sacks — prosopagnosia, or face blindness. He finds it next to impossible to visually recognize people, with the exception of those he has photographed. “I sometimes think that’s why I take pictures of people. The only movie stars I recognize are the ones I’ve photographed.”
The project’s technical aspects are unique and worth noting. Selkirk found a wood-and-leather circa-1900 view camera and modified its use of glass-plate negatives to that of 11-by-14-inch film. He attached a vintage uncoated lens that, he feels, traded “the indiscriminate craving for definition” of digital systems for the humanity-embracing aspects of the hand-crafted device. The camera’s bulk allowed him to be removed from the women’s attention, for an enhanced sense of solitude as he shot his subjects. He drum-scanned the negatives, which Hurricane Sandy ended up destroying — a force majeure that locked in what was already intended to be a digital project that fused the archaic with the cutting-edge. He made archival prints from the digital files using monochrome piezographic inks that he mixed for color himself, which confer an unprecedented tonal range. “I think we’re just in the early days of learning how to use the infinite potential of digital to restore the mark of the artist’s hand.” The works are embedded in ¾-inch slabs of glass, like insects in amber, which creates an off-the-wall floating effect he has pursued for 30 years — photographs as exquisite tangible objects.
Neil Selkirk: Certain Women is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York through May 1.
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