What does it feel like to inhabit a human body, to have your own children, to take amusement at the present whilst seeing links to the past, to contemplate the history of women and men and family, to expose the stark morality of symbols versus the lottery of paradoxes in the people you love? The answer of course doesn’t exist in words, not really. It’s all a question of personal experience, but how easily others relate to the evidence of your experience might have something to do with the strength of Tierney Gearon’s photography.
Based in Los Angeles, Gearon did not start out with the traditional background in art school or college. A career first in front of the lens as a model, and then behind it as a fashion photographer for many years prepared Gearon to take on her own journey and create something around her true ambition – not to be famous in the fashion world or an art scene, but to be a mother. That she found critical and popular recognition through depicting her feelings about that desire seems a practical extension of her resume.
Gearon’s ‘I Am A Camera’, ‘Motherhood’ and ‘Explosure’ series are all autobiographical in nature and include family members, friends and self portraits. Whilst not ‘set up’ exactly, there are elements of playing with an outcome in each and Gearon sometimes gives her subjects props to play with or uses double exposure to create new meanings or questions. One photograph in ‘Explosure’ layers a bull with its four legs bound over that of a nude man in the foetal position. The similarity in form and colour might evoke thoughts of a connection between the human and the animal condition, both seen vulnerable in the one image. Alongside these two troubled beings, a baby boy walks free and naked, ignorant of the brutish struggle to come.
In a particularly clever double-shot from the same series, a nude Gearon lies supine, eyes closed and legs splayed out on a gravel road with the sun beating down, a picture of exhaustion. This image of her body is dwarfed by the overlaid and much larger figures of her children and male partners, the former playing with a hose in the street, connecting all the people in this tableau with its resemblance of an umbilical cord. There again is the childhood naïveté, the animal bond of family, the awareness and reticence in ageing and the beauty of ephemeral summer blooms like the woman’s form fading below.
When the technique of double exposure succeeds, the resulting image is stronger than the sum of its parts, though Gearon has credited some sort of happy coincidence, saying “I took a shot of the kids with the hose, with our partners in the background. It seemed like it would make an amazing image when combined with the other. I saw the hose as being like an umbilical cord, dividing the woman from the men and children. When I got the resulting picture back and started looking at it, I thought: “This is really funny. It is like my life.” Ingenue-like and belying the skillful use of perspective and maybe also her long years of experience as a commercial photographer, Gearon acknowledges the moments that piqued her imagination and seemed relevant to the story she was telling in her work.
Innocence is hard to depict without courting controversy. In 2001, the headline-making story of Gearon’s Saatchi Gallery exhibition ‘I Am A Camera’, showed that when one comes close to showing something pure in art, they might also risk attracting those who seek to corrupt that same quality, or at least those who will dilute it with police visits and indelicate news media think-pieces. The resulting public discussion around the show focused on censorship and the responsibility of artists when using their own family in their work, and it was upsetting and hard for Gearon to understand, as she has stated in interviews since. This notoriety has brought no small amount of fame to Gearon’s door, but her approach to her work remains unchanged. The photographs are still highly personal in their use of subjects, addressing universal themes just by being true to their creator.
A great thing about photography is the ability to address your thoughts about a person or a place without damning them with your words. In the series ‘Motherhood’, Gearon avoids the narrow and too-accurate trap of describing how her mentally ill mother made her feel growing up, rather letting the gamut of emotions come through in the diversity within the series. There is a scene of obvious fear – a baby sat in an open field screaming at a perching demonic masked figure. There are the moments of easy joy and confidence, in laughter portraits. The clear lack of boundaries between mother and daughter is shown in a shot from a modest motel room where Gearon’s mother laughs at her daughter from the next bed, who is straddling an obscured male figure. The sexual and the familial parts of life, usually at odds, are seen right up against each other in the comfy setting. A more austere landscape in the snow hosts the more distant version of Gearon’s mother, as she coolly smokes a cigarette while Gearon’s own son hacks at the ground with a blade nearby, possibly vying for her attention with his outrageous behaviour. It’s all suggestive, nothing is reductive in this treatment of a subject. We are all nuanced and possess conflicting parts within our spirits. The would-be overt symbolism in Gearon’s use of things like masks and the play-acting with certain subjects are made more canny than didactic by the overarching sympathy towards them as real people.
— Alex Ward.
For more of Tierney’s work visit her website – www.tierneygearon.com