Monday, 1 September 2014

Mothers and Babies

Julie and Leanne Patten, 21st January, 1981

Earlier this summer I was invited to participate in Dresden Public Art View and took the opportunity of showing this 'found' portrait, a faded snapshot I borrowed from the Patten family of Sunderland. It portrays Julie Patten, aged just 16, holding her newly born daughter Leanne, on 21st January, 1981. Originally, I included this picture in a slide show of family pictures of Leanne I put together for a video work called Mother's Grief - commissioned for a BBC event around the Easter Passion story by the North East Photography Network. The link to grief, is that Leanne died in 2009, aged 28, from cancer. The video work featured a film portrait of Julie responding to my chronological selection of pictures of Leanne that were being simultaneously displayed on an adjacent monitor. None of the pictures feature the illness at all, but Leanne's death is obviously a haunting presence and it makes for a particularly emotive piece, although ultimately, the work is about the way personal photographs have the capacity to connect us all with real past experiences and evoke powerful memories.

But for me, this one particular photograph has developed a life of its own, apart from the video project and from everything that happened after the shutter was released. It's an image that has become etched in my mind like no other I have come across all year.
Composition and pictorial elements seem irrelevant. I believe its strength lies in the lack of any artistic purpose or ambition. It is just so direct and simple, an utterly unpretentious statement about existence, the most honest record of the most fundamental human experience - giving birth - which I, a father, can only begin to comprehend.

The acclaimed Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra has produced a series of portraits of mothers with newborns including, coincidentally, one of another woman named Julie entitled, Julie, Den Haag, Netherlands, February 29, 1994, which is held in the Tate’s collection. They are hugely impressive, highly detailed and physical works and extremely revealing, yet any sense of intimacy is curtailed, probably because they have been methodically planned and are very skillfully and rather systemically produced. Dijkstra’s presence and her intent as an artist is palpable. 

Julie of Den Haag is facing Rineke and her large format camera while it seems to me that Julie Patten’s youthful gaze reaches way beyond the lens. She is looking at me just as much as I am looking at her and I find myself transfixed. I feel I can read everything and nothing in her expression and I am floundering in the complexity and meaning of it all. Such a beautiful thing, the way that sometimes, a humble snapshot photograph somehow manages to express feelings that can’t be put into words.

Needless to say, I have now started actively collecting amateur photographs of mothers and newborn babies so please do contact me about any pictures you feel may be of interest!
© Dresden Public Art View, July 27th - August 7th, 2014


Nancy Forde said...

What a quiet power it has. I became a mother for the first time in my 40s but her young age, her gaze appears so very full of the wonder of it all and the enormity of responsibility for shoulders so young. It is wonder-full/wonder-filled, both for those who gaze and Ms Patton herself. Heartbreaking to imagine her loss so young. And her young child without a mum at the tender age of 12... I will look into photos I can dig up, Julian.

Julian Germain said...

Thank you Nancy. It was the baby, Leanne, who died at the age of 28, when Julie was 44. Julie and her husband Phil (still together, since the age of 16!) are now looking after Leanne's 2 children, their grandchildren.

Nancy Forde said...

Julian. I must offer a heartfelt apology for confusing what happened/mixing up the names in my mind. My heart. Goes out to them and to Leanne's children. What a huge loss. Forgive me, I know I read it in wee hours. And my mind should have been in better focus. I see this now as I re-read it. When my son was 2, he was admitted to hospital and I only had a very brief, albeit agonizing, 48 hours to endure before he was cleared of two life-threatening illnesses. But the thought of losing him was the worst moment of my life. The worst two days of my life. My experience had a happy ending, however. I know that others experience such a profound loss. How to navigate the grief of that (I personally cannot imagine.) It's a very moving project: how do the photographs we keep/see help people navigate through those waters, if they do; what they evoke, why, whether they help to heal or at least smooth the journey through grief. A very moving project, indeed. Forgive me for my confusion, Julian. Thank you for this blog post.