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Tierney Gearon is a photographer whose recent work has focused on her mother, who she says is manic depressive and schizophrenic. We see her mother living alone in disarray, getting very emotional, and often making bizarre statements. At one point, her mother says that she is the daughter of the abdicated King Edward and Bessie Wallace, and there is a price on her head for her murder. In one remarkable section, her mother calls Gearon a god damn bitch, and says her daughter is deliberately stressing her out. A little later her mother apologizes to the filmmakers for being so emotional, explaining that's how women are. We start to see that one of Gearon's main concerns is whether she is like her mother, and she sees her photography as a mode of therapy to work through the emotional neglect she suffered through her own childhood.
The documentary makers Jack Youngelson and Peter Sutherland worked on their film with Gearon for three years, and we see her with her children and her mother in some very personal situations. They started in 2001, soon after Gearon came into notoriety after nearly being charged with making child pornography when the police investigate the naked pictures of her children in London's Saatchi gallery. Although the accusation of making indecent pictures was ridiculous, this event made her question whether she was in fact a good mother. Furthermore, the filmmakers also raise the question whether Gearon places her photography over her children. They show her taking pictures of her son while he is crying rather than comforting him. Some parents will be shocked to see Gearon having her own pictures taken for a book about contemporary photographers, because she is sitting naked in a bedroom surrounded by her son and other boys of the same age jumping around on the bed. Later, when she sees the pictures published in the book, she worries that it will look bad. Gearon also says she was raised without boundaries and her children are being raised without boundaries, and but goes on to say there's a difference. The question is what the difference is. Gearon emphasizes that she is not exploiting her family with her pictures, and she is just sharing her feelings with other people. Yet obviously she is using her family for her photographs, and it is precisely the personal nature of the pictures that makes her so successful. Near the end of the documentary, now older, her children say they don't feel entirely comfortable with the nude pictures of them. So while the documentary is extremely sympathetic towards Gearon, it also leaves it an open question whether she has crossed the line in prioritizing her own work over her family.
The film shows Gearon taking her pictures, and then the pictures themselves. We also see old photographs and old home movies from Gearon's childhood, and this lends great depth to the documentary. It helps us to see her experience as she talks about her memories of growing up with her mother, and the complexities of their current relationship. The film ends on a beautiful note, with her mother praising Teirney's energy and saying how her daughter's photographs of her capture her life experience. The sparse, plaintive music by Justin Marachacos really adds to the reflective dimension of the film.
Gearon's early photographs of her family are dramatic and arresting, but all the indications are that this new work done during the period of this documentary will be even better. Not many photographers have made subjects of mentally ill family members. Richard Billingham's Ray's a Laugh showing his alcoholic parents is one of the few examples that come to mind, and Billingham seems alienated from them. Gearon's photography is remarkably powerful, and this documentary makes it much easier to understand it. While Youngelson and Sutherland show arguments between Gearon and her mother, they also show moments of real communication and tenderness. We see her mother's craziness, and some elements of craziness in Gearon's own life. She starts out living in London and then half way through becomes pregnant and decides to move to Los Angeles because she thinks it will be better for the children. We see nothing about her relationship with her children's fathers, although she does say that her first marriage was not a success and she was keen to get out of it when she was starting her photography. We do see her talk about her hopes that her new baby will bring her and her children together and will teach them to love, and maybe she is right about this, since we do see the older children bonding with the baby. Often we see a loving and trusting relationship between Gearon and her own children. Yet we also see Gearon struggle with creating boundaries for her children and it seems that there are times that she becomes so wrapped up in her photography that she becomes more of an observer than a caregiver for them. The documentary collects all these strands and lays them out for the viewer to see, making the 70 minutes compulsive viewing that is often very moving.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.