Rule Breakers: Elizabeth M. Claffey

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.

Rule Setter: April M. Watson, Curator of Photography, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Rule Breaker: Elizabeth M. Claffey

I never want to see another photograph of motherhood—but, please, let qualify my statement. As a mother, I have the utmost respect for women (and a few men) who, throughout photography’s artistic history, have made invaluable contributions to our understanding of this complicated subject. “Motherhood,” however, is an elusive and malleable concept, loaded with cultural expectations and presumptions that change with each generation. Western visual culture thrives on gendered clichés of motherhood, which stubbornly persist despite the more accurate messiness of lived realities. Photographers who try their hand at picturing the subject struggle to find a pictorial language that adequately addresses the complexities of motherhood beyond personal idiosyncrasies or comic relief.

In her series Matrilinear, Elizabeth M. Claffey employs a visual and conceptual strategy that circumvents these pitfalls. Taking a cue from Mary Kelly’s important Post-Partum Document of 1973-79, Claffey avoids conventional representation altogether. We don’t actually see pictures of mothers and children, but rather the ghostly traces of their absent presence in the form of black-and white artifacts, passed down through generations of women in her family. Lingerie, baby bonnets, and newborn attire from decades past are rendered with varying degrees of opacity and translucency, isolated against a black backdrop as if floating in a timeless void. Enmeshed in the tumble and textures of fabric are threaded needles, or family snapshots. These interventions underscore the deep influence personal and familial history wields in shaping our expectations of motherhood. Biology also factors into Claffey’s exploration. One striking image records the aqueous residue of a placenta, its skein of tissue, blood, and umbilical cord a trace of the maternal body itself.

Significantly, Claffey’s project, as asserted by her title, emphasizes embodied memory, and the vital heritage that women pass along to their children-and specifically, to their daughters-in a society that too often grants (and defends) dominance to men when shaping our historical narratives and collective memories. What I like best about Claffey’s images is their ability to tackle this bias with an astute mix of aesthetic simplicity and conceptual depth. They are bold, robust pictures of delicate objects; images that encourage us to linger on a topic that all too often seems impossible to photograph.
—April M. Watson