What Annie Leibovitz Hath Wrought

May 16, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Back in my reproductive years--which came so long ago I can't use the phrase, "back in the day" because they antedate the day--it seems to me that women tried to be, if not modest, at least circumspect about the late stages of their pregnancies. It's not that the times were all that repressed in matters of sex and dress. They weren't. (Look up mini-skirts and sexual revolution on Wikipedia, kids.)

But my recollection is that expectant mothers tended to wear loose maternity dresses--smocks, basically--in the months before they gave birth.  And they weren't often photographed. I have one picture of my wife in the late stages of her first pregnancy. She is seated in a rocking chair, dressed in a blue plaid maternity dress, looking slightly bemused at my insistence that she might want to be photographed. I don't recall seeing any pictures of my mother in pregnancy, though history tells me she was pregnant for much of the early 1950s and my father owned a camera.

The moment the culture shifted on this issue can be very precisely identified. It was August, 1991, when the great Annie Leibovitz photographed a nude and seven-months-pregnant Demi Moore for the cover of Vanity Fair.  The photograph was a bombshell, even though Ms. Moore's hand bra made it safe for supermarket checkout stands. (I will put a download of the image here, on the theory that Ms. Leibovitz's lawyers have got bigger fish than me to fry.) The baby bump had its coming out party, so to speak, and the party has not stopped.

As a portrait photographer, it seems this spring that I've had a spate of clients in the advanced stage of pregnancy who want to celebrate their condition and make sure it's recorded for posterity. I like these women. I wouldn't say that they glow, contrary to legend. I have to pay attention to the way their faces are lit just as I do with any client.  But they have pride and serenity that come through in their pictures.

One client told me she wanted to look regal in her pregnancy portrait. The nearest thing to a regal setting that I could think of was the Bishop's Garden on the south side of the National Cathedral in Washington. So we went there, and I photographed her amidst blooming flowers, with the gray Gothic walls of the cathedral in the distant background. She wore a tight white singlet, white pants, and a floppy-brimmed sunhat, and when I thought I'd gotten the shot and suggested we move on, she said, "Can't I pull up my shirt?"

My first response was, "I don't think so." After all, what might the bishop think? But she looked so disappointed that I said, "Okay, one or two quick ones." She tugged up the shirt and revealed that she had had an elaborate henna design painted on her tummy, an adornment that was matched on the back of her hands.  She beamed while I took a couple of quick snaps. We got out of there before the bishop could see us, I guess. As I think about it, I suspect the bishop wouldn't have minded. I was the only one concerned about whether it was appropriate. (I am blurring client faces in this post, though, just in case the culture shifts back.)

White has been a recurring motif in my recent maternity shoots. Indeed, I find more than a little in common between maternity shoots and wedding shoots. In both, the woman in white is the center of attention. The father plays an important, but distinctly subordinate role. The mother-to-be (and in my experience it has always been the mother-to-be who is the paying customer in these shoots) wants individual shots of herself. She also wants shots starring herself, the baby bump, and the adoring dad. It's not uncommon for clients to ask me to shoot the father on his knees, kissing the bump. But there's never been a request for an individual shot of the father-to-be. If the guy gets any individual shots, it's usually because I want someone to stand in front of the backdrop and let me check the lighting while the mother-to-be is changing clothes or fixing her makeup.

I shot one expectant mother on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Bishop's Garden, in a place called the Women's Entrance. (It's a portico, so it has nice, soft light.) After a dozen shots, she told me she felt light-headed. Visions of premature labor and lawsuits flashed through my mind. She sat down, took some deep breaths, and collected herself, though. As we walked down the granite steps and headed for the cathedral's parking garage, I took her hand. I didn't want her to fall. We walked hand-in-hand into a cluster of kids, probably students at the National Cathedral School. They looked at this woman in her 30s, very pregnant. They looked at the old man holding her hand. They looked again. I tried not to smirk.  

I like doing these shoots. There is an infectious joy in these women, and I think it's healthy that they want to show off why they feel that way. I'm flattered that they trust me to help them do it.







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