These Photographs Capture the Joy and Pain of Pregnancy
Disclaimer: Several of the images featured in this article are explicit in nature.
Those who haven’t gone through the epic experience of pregnancy tend to have an incomplete understanding of it. We hear about wild snack cravings, small bladders, swollen limbs—and the extreme, indescribable joy of a mother holding her new baby for the first time. Less often, we’re told of the blinding pain of childbirth itself, or the numbing shock of a miscarriage.
Artists have long made the physical and emotional vicissitudes of pregnancy and birth the subject of their work. Below, we highlight images that harness the discomfort, uncertainty, self-discovery, and pride that come with the process of becoming a mother.
Sally Mann, Untitled, from the “At Twelve” series (1988)
While controversial portrayal of children and adolescents, her practice could also be described as a persistent exploration of motherhood. She has photographed her children extensively, most famously in the series “Immediate Family” (1984–91), which highlights the vulnerability of their young bodies.
Here, Mann turns her lens towards another mother, shown in profile with her pregnant stomach protruding far beyond the white underwear that bunches around her hips. Meanwhile, she is embraced by her 12-year-old daughter, who stares directly at the camera. As the mother prepares to bring a new life into the world, her older child is captured on the cusp of puberty. The image hints at the physical bond between mother and child, as well as the relationship between fertility and the female body.
Carmen Winant, My Birth (2018)
Museum of Modern Art’s “New Photography” exhibition.) One found photograph shows an expectant mother screaming in pain as she pushes; in another, a woman cries as she admires the tiny, writhing body that’s just emerged from between her legs.
Winant sourced the photos from books, pamphlets, and magazines from the 1970s that were “designed to give women information about their bodies, with the understanding that said information is power,” she’s explained. Together, the astounding array of images points to the collective process of birth, and to how physically and emotionally unique it is for each mother. “This could be a shared narrative that both collapses time and also…points to the difference between kinds of experience,” Winant has said.
Heji Shin, “Baby” (2016)
For those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, the birthing process can seem surreal: both magical and frightening. For those women who have, however, it is visceral, painful, and firmly rooted in personal experience.
Nan Goldin, Ectopic Pregnancy Scar (1980)
Nan Goldin, Ectopic pregnancy scar, NYC, 1980. © Nan Goldin. Courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery.
During the 1980s, written. “It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”
This image is one of several from a subset of The Ballad called “Sweet Blood Call,” which catalogs the scarred or battered bodies of Goldin and her female friends. Here, Goldin’s bright flash spotlights the subject’s exposed genitals and a jagged scar across her abdomen. The mark was the result of a surgery related to an ectopic pregnancy, an unviable pregnancy that can cause life-threatening infections for the mother. Like many of Goldin’s photographs, the image conveys both extreme vulnerability and resilience.
Mary Ellen Mark, Tiny, pregnant, Seattle (1985)
adjusting to a quieter, more stable life, where her focus is raising her 10 children.
Manjari Sharma and Irina Rozovsky, from “Talking Pictures” (2016–17)
Over five months between 2016 and 2017, Metropolitan Museum of Art for the exhibition “Talking Pictures,” in which a curator commissioned camera-phone conversations between duos of artists.) During this visual exchange, they discovered they were both pregnant—with due dates just three weeks apart. The resulting images show glimpses of their daily lives (a trip to the Women’s March; food strewn across a kitchen table) as well as the realities of pregnancy (growing bodies; doctor visits).
In response to an image from Rozovsky, in which her forehead peeks out from behind a swollen belly, Sharma sent a snapshot of her own taut stomach, next to a watermelon for scale. Later, we see Rozovsky’s blurry ultrasound; Sharma’s bloody placenta; dark images of hospital rooms; and, finally, each photographer holding brand-new babies tightly to their bodies.
Awol Erizku, Beyoncé, 2017. Photo via Beyoncé's Instagram.
When pop queen Beyonce announced her pregnancy (with twins), she did so with an image that nearly broke the internet; it remains Instagram’s most-liked post of 2017. The portrait was taken by Los Angeles-based photographer
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.
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