In her new book, photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank reimagines an age-old genre
“I wanted to document humanity, what moves us, what connects us on a soulful human level,” says photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank of her latest book, Mother and Child (Assouline, $85). After shooting two portrait-filled volumes depicting American women and actors on the rise, the former Vogue staffer found herself drawn to women dedicated to contributing to the world—be it in art, fashion, philanthropy or business—who are also mothers. So she set about developing a new visual language to portray modern familial interconnections.
Instagram was in its early years when the San Francisco native—who currently lives in New York—began developing the idea to photograph 70 families, from the broods of Patti Hansen to Carolina Herrera de Baez to Anne Vyalitsyna, and record each woman’s thoughts on motherhood. Swanson Frank felt there “wasn’t an iconic mother-and-child book for our generation.” The photographer kept coming across classic shots of Grace Kelly, Jane Birkin, the Kennedys. “We’re all looking back at these mothers and the same images, and we’re also desperate for new stories and new images,” she says.
Sabrina Buell, of art advisory firm Zlot Buell + Associates, who is also pictured in the book, points out that Swanson Frank is drawing on one of art’s most enduring genres. “The subject of mothers and children is one you learn about from day one in art history,” she says. For Buell, the category brings to mind a trove of works by “everyone from Raphael and the Renaissance artists painting Madonna and child, to Renoir, to Picasso, to [19th-century] photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.”
Swanson Frank, herself a mother of two, adds to that legacy by capturing the moments of motherhood as they occur. Her work remains styled and composed, but the new book contains a multiplicity of images rather than one intergenerational shot. There’s quiet reflection here, a playful gesture there. “In documenting the lives and loves of mothers and children, there are multiple moments,” says Swanson Frank. “It opened up my world to relearning how to be a photographer—what it means to capture a moment.”
Written by ELIZABETH VARNELL.
Photography courtesy of CLAIBORNE SWANSON FRANK.