Visual Culture
From Sally Mann to Carrie Mae Weems, These Photographers Captured What It Means to Be a Mother

Like annual family portraits, photographs depicting motherhood are often staged presentations of love and comfort that gloss over the daily trials experienced by mothers—from the physical demands of pregnancy to the difficulties that arise when raising angsty teenagers. These six photographers have captured what motherhood really looks like through honest portraits that explore the complex roles of mothers. Though each image tells a different story, all emphasize the universal bond between mother and child.


Deana Lawson, Mama Goma, Gemena, DR Congo, 2014

Brooklyn-based artist Lawson is known for her portraits of global black culture, which often draw from art-historical motifs that historically have featured exclusively white characters. Here, she positions her subject as Madonna—unquestionably the most frequently depicted mother in the Western canon. Photographed in Gemena, Congo, and dressed in a blue satin cut-out dress that exposes her pregnant belly, Mama Goma stands upright and lifts her palms in blessing. Returning the gaze of the viewer, she presents a powerful image of motherhood in stark contrast with the conventionally blissful Madonna, who deflects attention from herself.


Tina Barney, Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987

Tina Barney, Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987. © Tina Barney. Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Tina Barney, Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987. © Tina Barney. Image courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Since the mid-1970s, Barney has cast her lens on the upper middle-class lifestyles of her friends and family in New England. This photograph depicts her sister Jill with her daughter, Polly, in a seemingly idyllic setting, donning identical pink robes in a kitschy rose-hued bathroom. However, Jill’s worried glance, Polly’s awkward stance, and the claustrophobic surroundings—exacerbated by the mirror reflection—all hint at a strained relationship. “When people say that there is a distance, a stiffness in my photographs, that the people look like they do not connect, my answer is, that this is the best we can do,” the photographer has said. “This inability to show physical affection is in our heritage.”


Justine Kurland, Sea Stack, 2006

Justine Kurland, Sea Stack, 2006. © Justine Kurland. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

Justine Kurland, Sea Stack, 2006. © Justine Kurland. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

Kurland’s “Of Woman Born” series (2005–06) takes its name from a 1978 text by feminist poet Adrienne Rich, which argues that women should oppose the restrictive maternal roles prescribed by patriarchal society. Influenced by 19th-century Pictorialist and landscape photography, as well as Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the images see communes of nude pregnant women and mothers who are far removed from these restraints, sauntering with their children through ethereal beaches, forests, and meadows. Kurland shot the series while road-tripping across the U.S. with her one-year-old son, Casper. “You want even more with a child because you’re responsible for someone,” she told the New York Times. “I’m picturing the world I want to be.”


Sally Mann, Untitled from the “At Twelve” Series, 1988

In this 1988 photograph by Mann, a lanky adolescent girl embraces her pregnant mother, who is only weeks from giving birth. Reclining against a sink, her undergarments drawn down and her neck arching backwards, the woman appears to savor the momentary consolation provided by her daughter. Mann, best known for black and white photographs of her own children, took this photograph of her friend when she herself was pregnant with her third child. “We shared those universal feelings of ambivalence, despair and determination,” she has recounted.


Alec Soth, Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa, 2002

Alec Soth, Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa (2002). Courtesy of Alec Soth / Magnum Photos.

Alec Soth, Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa (2002). Courtesy of Alec Soth / Magnum Photos.

Minneapolis-based Soth photographed this mother and daughter in a brothel in Davenport, Iowa, for his series “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” which was published in 2004. The two are pictured while posing on a couch in matching satin kimonos, their legs crossed and stares defiant, and could almost pass for sisters. For this now-acclaimed project, Soth drove from town to town along America’s overlooked “third coast” to capture the faces and places of middle America. He also asked his subjects to write down their life dream; in this case, while the mother “said she didn’t have dreams any more,” the daughter, according to the photographer, aspires to be registered nurse.


Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Woman and daughter with makeup) (from Kitchen Table Series), 1990

Weems’s iconic “Kitchen Table Series” (1990) narrates a woman’s life and, in the artist’s words, “the battle around the family...monogamy...and between the sexes.” Staged within a sparse, dimly lit interior, the series counters public stereotypes by showing the complex domestic lives of women and black individuals. Here, a young girl and her mother are each preoccupied while applying lipstick—a private ritual that anticipates public exposure. The photograph explores notions of femininity and the daily customs girls may absorb, consciously or not, from their mothers at a young age.


Demie Kim is an Editorial Associate at Artsy.