Tierney Gearon’s photographs scare me. They are as brave and truthful and unflinching as any I’ve ever seen.

In the late 1990s, Gearon started photographing her mother and children on periodic visits to her mother’s home in upstate New York. I have yet to meet a woman whose relationship with her mother is simple, but Gearon’s relationship with hers is complicated even further by her mother’s mental illness. The illness isn’t the story, though—you don’t have to have a mentally ill mother to see yourself, and your mother, in these images. And that’s where the fear comes in.

Many of Gearon’s images are difficult to look at. They’re equal parts madness and euphoria: The photo of her mother standing on a hotel bed, raising her dress up, while Emilee reads a book and Michael, holding Walker, looks on. The one of her mother standing beside a car at a gas station, arm raised to the sky, leg lifted up in the air. Another of her mother with her arms in the air, head tilted back, as though she’s wanting to take off, fly away, be gone.

In a series of four images taken in quick succession, her mother’s face changes dramatically, seeming anguished one minute, at peace the next. And then later, we see her mother standing in a snow-covered field, smiling at the camera, no sign of illness or pain, and my god, she’s beautiful. And what gets me about these images is this: Gearon sees it all, the good and the bad, the pain and the joy. She drinks it all in, every bit of it.

Joan Didion said it best: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And the stories I tell myself about my mother help me to cope with all the ways we’ve failed each other. I oversimplify her, turn her into a cardboard cutout, because that’s easier to face than the multidimensional reality of who she is. Gearon not only sees her mother’s complexities but embraces them.

And most remarkable of all, she doesn’t shy away from observing her own similarities to her mother (for example, juxtaposing, on facing pages, her mother’s body to her own, each lying on her back in a half-filled bathtub), or from making clear how much she still needs and wants her mother’s love (as when, pregnant, she sits in her mother’s lap).

In my earliest memory of my mother, I’m 3 or 4 years old, following her around the yard as she cuts flowers, and I’m saying, “Mommy?” and when she says, “Yes?”, I say, “I love you.” This repeats several times, as though I couldn’t be sure, moments after having told her I loved her, that she really knew. There’s a part of me that wishes that’s all there was.

 

Liz Kuball

 

 

 

©Tierney Gearon

 
 

©Tierney Gearon

 
 

© Tierney Gearon

 
 

©Tierney Gearon

 
 

©Tierney Gearon

 
 

©Tierney Gearon

 
 

 

A Thank you to Tierney Gearon for all the images