The mom gaze

Con­tact show sub­verts the parental dy­namic


MOM by Char­lie Eng­man as part of Con­tact Pho­tog­ra­phy Fes­ti­val at Scrap Metal Gallery ( 11 Dublin, Unit E). Runs to June 16. scrap­met­al­

A good model has an in­ef­fa­ble abil­ity to feel free in front of a cam­era lens. For a young fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher, find­ing a model to forge a trust­ing cre­ative bond with can be hard. But what if that model turns out to be your mother?

After segue­ing from the world of dance to pho­tog­ra­phy, New York City­based Char­lie Eng­man be­gan tak­ing pic­tures of his mother, Kath­leen McCain Eng­man, nearly 10 years ago. It started as a ca­sual thing, with Eng­man hav­ing his mom try on de­signer clothes after a fash­ion shoot, or just doc­u­ment­ing her day- to- day. It has since snow­balled into an on­go­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive project and, now, the exhibition Mom, which de­buted at Scrap Metal Gallery this month as part of the Con­tact Pho­tog­ra­phy Fes­ti­val.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion re­ally gelled when he pho­tographed his mother for now- de­funct Hun­gar­ian fash­ion mag The Room in 2012. The woman in the pho­tos did not seem like the mother he rec­og­nized, a feel­ing he at­tributes to the sub­ver­sion of the fa­mil­ial dy­namic to one of cre­ative equals.

“There was this un­fa­mil­iar­ity when I’d look at the pic­tures I’d make of her. I didn’t fully un­der­stand this per­son who I was very fa­mil­iar with,” he says over the phone from his stu­dio in New York City. “She and I had fallen into a con­ven­tional parentand- child dy­namic where we had our pre­scribed roles.

“She would have mo­ments of con­trol, ex­as­per­a­tion or moth­er­li­ness, and when I started tak­ing pic­tures of her more point­edly I re­al­ized those things were af­fects,” he adds. “Those things weren’t nec­es­sar­ily the end all, be all of our re­la­tion­ship.”

Since then he’s pho­tographed his mother cov­ered in glit­ter, in de­signer women’s wear, in ca­sual men’s wear, run­ning through fields, in wigs, closeup, far­away, in var­i­ous stages of un­dress and nude. She can look butch, hy­per- fem­i­nine or gen­der fluid. Her bright or­ange hair is curled, buzzed, sym­met­ri­cal and cropped, evok­ing celebs such as Shirley MacLaine, David Bowie and Tilda Swin­ton. Among the huge vol­ume of pho­tos pinned, taped and hang­ing in frames at Scrap Metal – as well as ar­ranged col­lage- like on three large ta­bles – are im­ages of his mother as she would nor­mally present her­self to friends and fam­ily.

Eng­man has worked for mag­a­zines such as Vogue and i- D and di­rected com­mer­cials and mu­sic videos ( some­times star­ring his mom), so the show’s mul­ti­plic­ity of photo for­mats, which in­cludes screen shots and video pro­jec­tions, com­pounds the themed of blurred bound­aries.

“I like that the project can live in a gallery space, on the page of a fash­ion magazine or live In­sta­gram,” says Eng­man. “They’re all lead­ing to each other in a cir­cu­lar way. That’s true to con­tem­po­rary visual cul­ture, as well as to my very huge re­la­tion­ship with this per­son.”

The sheer vol­ume of work on dis­play at Scrap Metal – around 400 pho­tos – and the seem­ing ran­dom­ness of the pre­sen­ta­tion is dis­ori­ent­ing. The nu­dity will no doubt jar some view­ers, but given Eng­man works in fash­ion, where men have tra­di­tion­ally shaped no­tions of beauty, the idea of the male gaze looms large. Or more specif­i­cally, the ques­tion: what does male gaze mean when the muse is mom?

“I think about [ male gaze] con­stantly. Like, all the time,” he says. “Not only the male gaze, but racial­iz­ing and all those strands of iden­tity pol­i­tics.

“A lot of the feed­back I get is from women of all ages and body types who talk about how th­ese pho­tos make them think dif­fer­ently about them­selves or how it re­flects their pres­ence as a woman,” he con­tin­ues. “There are con­ven­tions that are based on a male gaze or a re­ac­tion to a male gaze. Where are the prob­lems and what are the joys or pos­i­tive as­pects?

“I try to oc­cupy this mid­dle space where there’s this in­ten­tion to get her to present some­thing, but also let­ting her re­act,” he says. “It’s a grey zone. It’s not me fully con­trol­ling her and it’s not her fully pas­sively ac­cept­ing – nor is it her pre­sent­ing her­self. It’s this weird join­ing of our in­ten­tions.”

Eng­man seems less de­ci­sive when asked about the im­pact the project has had on his re­la­tion­ship to his mother. It’s a given they are ex­tremely open to be­gin with, but has he learned any­thing new about mom?

“That’s some­thing I’m still try­ing to ar­tic­u­late,” he says. “There are cer­tain ex­pec­ta­tions I’ve grown up with around what my bound­aries are in how she ap­proaches my life – when I should feel em­bar­rassed about her or proud about her. Those things are con­ven­tions that are not based on her as an in­di­vid­ual, but on what I’ve ac­cul­tur­ated. I’ve learned about her as an in­di­vid­ual as op­posed to her specif­i­cally as my mom.”

Our in­ter­view took place two days be­fore Mother’s Day. Per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, the Eng­man fam­ily didn’t have any­thing spe­cial planned. “My mom and I talk ev­ery day,” he says. “My fam­ily has never re­ally been that con­nected to con­ven­tions like Mother’s Day.”

Ev­ery day is Mother’s Day. kev­inr@ nowtoronto. com | @ kev­in­ritchie

Mom With Kage ( 2012)

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