Open any art history book, and you’re bound to encounter depictions of motherhood. Indeed, the very first rendition of Madonna and Child dates back to the 13th century. It has since been repeated countless times by the likes of Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, and Caravaggio – just to name a few. 

 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and you’d think that artists have exhausted all representations of motherhood. Well, not quite.  

 

The names associated with these famous depictions of motherhood are those of men – ironically, their artworks are a distinctly male perspective of a uniquely female experience. Conveniently, these highly idealised visualisations of motherhood gloss over the physical and mental toll it takes on women. And so, the usual stereotypes persisted: a mother should be passive and tend only to her children, her partner, and domestic affairs.

 

It is no surprise then that women artists, especially in the second half of the 20th century, felt compelled to take ownership of their own experiences of motherhood and carve out their own space into art history books. 

 

Their tool of choice? The camera. 

The camera was a reliable witness to motherhood – the good and the bad. So, many women took to the medium of photography to record the reality of their private lives and capture the temporality of motherhood. Working during the force of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, French photographer Claude Batho (1935 – 1981) used photography to diarise the melancholic moments of motherhood. In her first portfolio, Portraits d’enfants (1975), Batho transforms seemingly trivial subject matter – a saucepan on a table, a sponge by the bathtub – into a non-figurative visualisation of the relationship between herself and her two daughters. 

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Claude Batho

While I’ve pointed to the mid-late 1900s as a poignant time for women photographers representing motherhood, it is important to acknowledge their forerunners. Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934) was an American photographer well-established in the early 20th century Pictorialist movement, which elevated photography as a legitimate art form. As a fiercely independent woman exploring her potential beyond what Victorian society had prescribed her, Käsebier had to find a way to make her artwork ‘palatable’ in order to make a living. The subject of motherhood thus became a constant theme throughout Käsebier’s career as her tender images of mothers with their young children appeased conservatives. Despite this seeming compliance to her society’s taste, Käsebier’s provocative spirit never wavered. She subtly challenged traditional illustrations by reversing the mother’s role as the conventional carer. When the Sands are Running Low (c.1901) affectionately conveys the late stages of motherhood in which a child will often tend to their mother. 

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Gertrude Käsebier

For the thousands of stories omitted from the art history books, there are still thousands of stories to be told. No two stories of motherhood are the same, and contemporary women photographers continue to expand our understanding of a mother’s role. Last year’s Head On Portrait Awards finalists are just a few examples of this expansive subject. 

Seeking to make the invisible aspects of motherhood visible, Australian photographer Amy Woodward embraces the camera as a medium to give reverence to the experience in all its stages. Her candid portrait of a mother, Lily, breastfeeding her youngest daughter speaks to French novelist Marguerite Duras’ claim that “Motherhood means a woman gives her body over to her child.” By focusing the frame on Lily and not her latched daughter, Woodward avoids making a spectacle out of the act of breastfeeding and affords Lily a presence in a moment of self-sacrifice. The photograph unveils one of the many contradictions of motherhood; a mother should be self-sacrificing yet fulfilled. 

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Amy Woodward
‘Lily, her daughter’s hand’ | Head On Portrait Awards finalist 2022

Mikaela Martin is an Australian photographer who uses the camera, much like a mirror, to confront her fragility as a mother. When motherhood left Martin feeling estranged from her own self, she turned to photography to reconnect with herself and better understand her experience of motherhood. Martin’s self-portrait Mother, ten years exposes the tired and absurd aspects of being a mother. Posed naked, Martin is at once defiant and vulnerable, her expression suffused with the trials and tribulations of motherhood. By sharing the internal struggles accompanying motherhood, Martin hopes that other mothers see themselves in her photographs and, in doing so, feel seen in an experience that is so often isolating. 

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Mikaela Martin
‘Mother, ten years’ | Head On Portrait Awards finalist 2022

Photography’s unique ability to capture a subject’s humanity made it a fitting medium for Dutch photographer Ingeborg Everaerd when she sought to document the bond between herself and her son. Unconditional love and trust is an intimate insight into Everaerd’s relationship with her son, who left the family home at age 21 to live in an assisted home. Despite the literal and figurative distance between the two, Everaerd’s tender portrait honours their unshakeable bond. 

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Ingeborg Everaerd
‘Unconditional love and trust’ | Head On Portrait Awards finalist 2022

Taking themselves, their children, and their homelife as their inspiring muses, these women photographers have triumphantly reimagined representations of motherhood. Using the camera to reclaim their experiences, their images reject the highly romanticised visions of motherhood and instead celebrate their maternal power. Finally, though long overdue, the names commonly associated with depictions of motherhood are those of women.

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 are open now. $80,000 prize pool including finalists exhibition.

Image detail: Gary Ramage