Hannah and Molly Levin called Marthanna Yater their “other mother.” The identical twins were used to being photographed by their actual mother in their home in Celo, an artist community in North Carolina’s mountainous Yancey County. But as motherhood’s pressures increased, Yater became the girls’ chronicler, a presence both artistic and affectionate in their lives.
When Yater fractured her ankle, the twins painted her toenails. Polka dots. They played together, told stories, talked often, and had lunch. “Individually,” Yater notes, “So they would know I saw and honored them as individuals.”
Yater has photographed the two for her series Growing Together since October, 1984. The photographs are a thorough meditation on girlhood, selfhood, and twinhood. Adhering these concerns are competing needs of commonality and difference. Yater’s “Between the Two” is composed eye-level with Hannah and Molly. They’re children here, clinging to a mother whose head floats off frame. Hannah swings from her mother’s hip, her face just out of view. Molly stares at the camera, poses her head on her bent arm.
In 1984, Yater was a fledgling photography student at the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains, which she dubs her “creative birthplace.” Like any creation narrative it soon included children. Yater’s photo instructor introduced her to Wanda Levin, Hannah and Molly’s mother. “[Wanda] was so loving and accepting and told me…there was something about me that filled a need in the girls’ lives,” Yater says. “The family opened their home and lives to me and provided what was missing in my life.” As Yater’s photo sessions became more regular, the girls regarded her less a stranger and more “like a special auntie or such.” The series’ title, Growing Together, seems to reference not only the sisters, but Yater’s relationship with them. As she navigates her own life alongside the girls, one notices an ode to the rural and familial.
These bucolic images were initially made with a 35mm Pentax. In the darkroom, she experimented with split toning and hand tinting. Her earlier images, many shot with Kodak's T-MAX films, are balanced in both visual and emotional tonality—amiably lit, friendly photographs in dependable and classic monochrome. The twins are competent, engaging models, intuitive with their faces and poses.
“As younger children, the photos were more spontaneous,” Yater explains. “Some were coached and the girls fell into character with ease…Sometimes we played dress up…As they grew a bit older, we moved into some more structured portraiture.”
Yater often records moments as candid as they are cool. In the aptly-titled “Cocoon,” Hannah and Molly curl up and pose alongside their sleeping mother, facing the viewer. The teenage swagger here feels distinctly pre-selfie, more reliant on mystery than revelation.
This magic of girlhood—its secret language, customs and moments—is a theme in the early photographs. Sometimes its manifests as a gesture or facial expression; elsewhere its drama is heightened and stylized. “Sisters Devoted” sees the siblings don white gowns, sharing a chair on the edge of a forest. “Mirror, Mirror” is another hypnotic arrangement that’s part Pre-Raphaelite painting, part dreamy pop album sleeve. “They dressed in a timeless fashion during their childhood and teen years which I find enriches the images,” Yater says. “This was who they were.”
Evident throughout Growing Together is the sisters’ bond, and the arcs of this narrative, from childhood to child-rearing, undoubtedly provide part of the series’ appeal. Yater’s long-term approach to storytelling is more personal and subjective than traditional documentary photography. The photographer is invested in her subjects and a palpable presence behind the camera.
Yater’s sense of wonder persists in the more recent images, which tend to be subtler, more matter-of-fact. In “Twins,” she clothes the two women in silhouette, their foreheads touching. We see Molly’s expectant belly, furthering the composition’s tranquil, embryonic feeling. Similarly, “Sisters Embrace” brims with the light of Molly’s wedding day.
In 2015, Yater and the Levin sisters collaborated again, making pictures in their old haunts near Penland—a continuation of a series that never truly ended. “We are all still on board to continue this journey together in chronicling their lives,” Yater says. “Someday, this will be a legacy for them.” Yet in revisiting the past, Yater was also confronted by her own legacy. “It was bittersweet to me,” the artist says. “It brought back good memories of their childhood, my early days of photography, the life changing experience at Penland…[It] forced me to face the loss of my youth.”
Yater embraces a photographic ethos of patience. Her vision is occasionally sentimental, but always earnest. Portraiture can provide just enough traces of a person that we can empathize with someone through their depiction—an act more imaginative than analytical. Yater’s history is likewise as evocative as it is factual.
This article first appeared in Issue 10.
Alexander Castro is a writer based in Massachusetts. His arts journalism and criticism regularly appear in Big Red & Shiny, Mercury and GLASS Quarterly.