Gertrude Kasebier's photographs about motherhood

By Shannon Thomas Perich
A photograph that is awash in tones of gray. A woman sits in a moor-like environment with a white dress and black shawl or robe. Her face is lifted up and her eyes are closed. Her hands are clasped together as if in prayer

Confession: This month, we celebrate Mother's Day and I'm jealous of you if you still have your mom. I lost mine to breast cancer when I was 30 and a mother myself for all of six months. And sometimes the anniversary of her death, May 7, falls just before Mother's Day.

Admission: It's Mother's Day and if you've lost your child, my heart breaks for you.

A day that celebrates the importance of mothers, which is rightfully joyful, can also heighten underlying pain and sorrow for many. A pair of images in the Photographic History Collection by Gertrude Käsebier embody the emotional and psychological power that we often attribute to motherhood. Their beauty and drama are an ode to the significant relationship that helps shape us as individuals and as a culture.

Käsebier, a mother of three, became a photographer in her early forties, around 1895, in part to escape an unhappy marriage. Pictorialism, the soft focused and often sentimental style of photography, was an artistic style and a mode in which photography emulated and referenced other forms of art. Drawing on her strong views of life, her interest in the lives of women, and her artistic skills, she would become and remain one of the most influential photographers in the history of photography. Motherhood is a common theme in Käsebier's work, often tinged with sentimentality and religious connotations, but these two photographs in particular are less heavy-handed than some of her other works. Today, over a century later, her photographs still resonate with us.

Blessed Art Thou Among Women

An old photograph. A young girl in a black dress stands in a doorway. A woman next to her turns her head back as she leans over, as if to whisper instructions or a secret. She wears a flowy white gown. The woman and girl appear to be down the hall from the photographer, but the shot is cropped.

In Blessed Art Thou Among Women, a young girl stands in the space between two rooms with a woman wearing a lightweight shift leaning in toward her. Images such as this, of a girl on the threshold of womanhood, represent a theme long represented in literary and artistic traditions. Note the image behind the woman's head that suggests the photographer is hinting at a classical reference. In fact it's an annunciation image, but most of us won't know that. It's enough to for us to think it's a classical image of some sort because then we are thinking that perhaps there is some long-standing human truth for which this image is about. The title of the photograph does come from a Bible verse, Luke 1:42. This work has many layers to be interpreted. For today, I read this as mostly a secular image because Käsebier has placed her version of this trope in a specific time period with the girl's contemporary dress. She stands in the doorway of an inner domestic space ready to take a metaphorical step into a new, bigger world.

Is the woman her mother or some other significant woman in the girl's life, a muse, or perhaps even an angel? What could she be saying or whispering? Or is she looking behind at the girl's childhood? What guidance and advice will the girl take forward? The experience of receiving advice as a youth is universal, and Käsebier's balance of cues and specifics creates space for the viewer to bring her own memories, ideas, and emotions to the photograph to make it meaningful to the viewer. The aesthetics of the images, the lightness, soft-focus, and delicacy, lend a feeling of optimism and hope

The photograph takes on additional power when we know that the girl, Peggy, died not long after the image was made. Hope and anticipation for her future are changed to grief. It is a grief that no one wishes upon a parent, but it remains all too common.

The Heritage of Motherhood

A photograph that is awash in tones of grey. A woman sits in a moor-like environment with a white dress and black shawl or robe. Her face is lifted up and her eyes are closed. Her hands are clasped together as if in prayer

The woman in both photographs is Peggy's mother, a poet and friend of the photographer named Agnes Lee. In The Heritage of Motherhood, she is placed in a vaguely desolate, gloomy space. It is a physical space but also represents emotional and psychological states of grief. Lee's closed eyes, upturned face, vulnerable neck, and tightly clasped hands combine to suggest a sorrowful prayer. There are several versions of this photograph. This version brings Lee closer to the center and foreground of the photograph so that she fills much of the frame. The minimal information in the background and her prominence make it difficult to avoid her. Käsebier compels us to intrude upon the moment in which she is focused on an internal contemplation to acknowledge that while we may wish to move on, the mother's grief looms large.

Blessed Art Thou Among Women has always been one of my favorite photographs. One of the things that makes it so powerful is its subsequent pairing with The Heritage of Motherhood. I am grateful that these two women did not render these precious expressions as saccharine sentimental images. They partnered to give us a moment of their truth depicted in an artistic manner, leaving the viewers space to find their own truth, too. When the first photograph was made, none of its participants knew what was going to happen. But that's how it is, right? We do our best each day to prepare ourselves, and those we guide, for the best future we can imagine for them. But life, made only more precious by its opposite—death—is fragile and can be unpredictable. Käsebier's and Lee's willingness to acknowledge and visualize a most personal and yet shared pain of loss, gives viewers a chance to examine and value the gift, and its loss, that is the real and idealized relationship between mothers and their children. We all have a timeline that is unknown to us, so whether the women who guide you through life are near or far, within your clasp or in your heart, I wish you peace and gratitude on Mother's Day.

Shannon Perich is curator for the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History.