Photographer Tierney Gearon is not an easy woman to get hold of. Two different mobile numbers, a Santa Monica landline and four phone calls later… Well, none of that matters, because once she starts talking, she never really stops. At the heart of her monologue is family – they are the axis on which her work spins.
The thing with me is… ” Gearon says, amid a clatter of background noise – doors slamming, teenagers talking, a missed call from her doctor. “Well, let me tell you a little bit and then you can decide after – let me just talk and then you can decide if you have any more questions for me. Is that OK?”
Gearon is gleefully frank, spending the next half-hour conducting what is essentially a one-woman interview – she poses herself questions and then answers them, like her life is an eternal conundrum that she’s still trying to solve.
Occasionally, she gets lost in those thoughts – picking up threads of the conversation and then dropping them, before circling back and beginning it all again.
It’s a symptom, she says, of the condition ADHD, which she suffers from. At least, she’s pretty sure she does, having self-diagnosed many years ago after taking the tests her son had for the condition over his shoulder. She finally had a way to describe how she felt. “It means I’m extremely distracted. I’m very hyper also, so I’ve got the full package,” she explains. “You’ll probably notice it because I go kind of off-track because I can’t remember what I was just talking about, so, well, I need to get back on track.”
The track we began on was family. It seems relevant to begin there – her own family has long been lodged at the centre of her work. In the accompanying images, part of Gearon’s latest ongoing series, she photographs the generations of women in her family, from her 11-year-old daughter to her 77-year-old mother. It’s motherhood that particularly defines her work – something all the more fascinating to her, now that she is caring for her own mother, who moved into Gearon’s home in LA just over a year ago.
“My mum is mentally ill, so I grew up with a mentally ill mum,” she says. “I’ve always been a little bit of a caretaker because of that, because it’s been a challenging situation, because my mum has always acted a little bit differently.”
Gearon was born in the South – Atlanta, Georgia – the oldest of three siblings. Growing up, her family was tight-knit, holding each other close in an attempt to close out the world around them. “We would go on these incredible trips, the five of us – my mum, my dad, my two brothers and myself,” she says. “I had such a strong, solid, grounded family foundation of closeness – we spent a lot of intimate time together and I wasn’t doing the normal things that most kids do. In the summertime, where other kids hang out with their friends, we just had each other.”
Gearon always wanted to be a mother herself. And after a short period as a ballet dancer and a longer one as a model, during which she travelled the world, that’s exactly what she became, marrying an investment banker and having her first two children. Her artwork begins and ends with those children, and the two that came afterwards – the first photographs she took were of them, revealing an innate talent that saw her go on to work on commercial fashion campaigns for Keds, Gap and Kate Spade, as well as shoot stars for national newspapers.
But Gearon’s ambition was roused when she discovered the images taken by women such as Tina Barney, who photographed the social gatherings of her own well-to-do family in their enclave on Rhode Island. “I began photographing what I knew,” Barney said of her photographs. Intimate but tinged with the surreal, they showed Gearon that domesticity could be just as powerful as the visceral photographs of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark that had defined the era before. And somewhere along the line – just as the 1990s turned into a new millennium and into a time when “modern art” was debated over dinner tables across Britain, Charles Saatchi, the man behind the swell of the much-debated Young British Artists (YBAs) – Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Michael Landy, Damien Hirst et al – discovered her work.
It was his then-wife, Kay, who first introduced him – the women had mutual friends, and Kay had asked Gearon to donate a photograph to an auction she was organising. At a subsequent auction to raise money for a homeless charity, Gearon sold another photograph. It was bought by, as would be revealed a few months later, Charles himself.
A little after that, he would invite Gearon to be included in his I Am a Camera exhibition, held in London in 2001. It was a big deal. “I will make you famous,” he is purported to have told her. And true to his word, he did. But this was, as Charles is so good at orchestrating, a notorious kind of fame. A photograph in the exhibition captured Gearon’s two young children naked on a beach, their faces covered with masks. Uproar ensued, naturally buoyed by the tabloids’ attention – the News of the World called the exhibition “perversion under the guise of art”. Scotland Yard was called, threats of child-pornography charges were made, Gearon was interviewed, accusations of exploitation were levelled. But the photographs remained on the gallery’s walls. Nobody was arrested.
Gearon has remained resolute about those images. In a rebuke written in The Guardian at the time, she wrote: “I don’t see sex in any of those prints, and if someone else reads that into them, then surely that is their issue, not mine… I happened to have my camera there and I took the picture. That’s how all these pictures come into being.” But despite her resolve, it did, in many ways, turn her against the commercial art world. She turned back inwards, towards her family.
Perhaps her most famous series of photographs is The Mother Project, images taken of her mother in upstate New York, a woman who, at that point, Gearon was largely estranged from. “As I got older and then I had children, that’s when I began photographing my mum, because I was afraid that I was going to be like my mum,” she says. “Am I going to be a crazy mum, like my mum was with me? Or am I going to be crazy? Is it genetic?”
The photographs capture the many faces of her mother’s mental illness. In one, she stands in a gas station in the snow, creasing up with laughter. In another, she sits naked on a motel bed, cupping her breasts, while Gearon’s older daughter listens to headphones in the background, face turned away from the camera. The pain of reconnection is evident, captured further in the accompanying documentary by Peter Sutherland and Jack Youngelson. In it, their relationship is laid bare – they yell at each other, Gearon weeps over her childhood, moments of poignancy are brief. The photographs hold a subversive kind of beauty.
More recently, a change. Just over a year ago, Gearon’s mother moved into her home in Los Angeles. She had developed frostbite in New York and then gangrene, resulting in her foot being partially amputated. She could no longer look after herself. “It’s made me feel really old,” Gearon tells me. “It’s been very challenging looking after her.”
So she turned back to photography. She speaks now of her work in terms of “creative projects” – these ongoing series of photographs that, for Gearon, are a way to heal, both through the photographs themselves, but also through the process of creating them. “I started doing this body of work on photographing [my mother], me, my older daughter, my younger daughter – it’s almost like four generations. So we go on these road trips and do these images together, and it’s fun, like we’re playing, like little kids. It’s been a very beautiful thing – what I realise is, when you do creative projects together, especially in photography, it’s something that we can all do together – it’s just sitting still together.”
And the resulting photographs, awash with the sun of the West Coast, do have a serene, curative quality to them. Where The Mother Project visibly bristled with pain, in this, Gearon captures moments of peace. There are even visual signifiers of connection – she and her mother stand together in the sun, hands clasped, eyes shut. In a series taken in a motel room, the “four generations” of women gather together, near naked, Gearon’s younger daughter lying across their laps. The photographs are a reflection of life. Gearon’s mother is now off alcohol and drugs. It is becoming easier. “She’s still difficult, but the thing is that she has a lot more moments of mental clarity, which is really amazing, and it’s been an incredible thing for my children to witness.”
Gearon still calls her photographs documentary. But I ask her if, behind that, there’s a will to tell a story, to choose what the viewer sees. “Well, it’s definitely an incredible story. It’s like a love story between me and my mum – I have just accepted her and celebrate her. And it’s not just documenting, it’s such a beautiful story, and it’s my way of processing it.”
For Gearon, photography will always be a form of therapy. Her emotional connection to the art form is heightened by the way it has become so woven into the bonds of her family. The two parts of her life are inseparable. “My work is a discovery, it’s a way of me processing things, it’s a therapy. There’s incredible meaning to every project that I do.”
She is in the process of cataloguing her work, work that will eventually make up a diary of a monograph, complete with words to accompany the images. “It’s amazing, because it’s like organising your life, it’s putting your life into all these different compartments, which is actually quite healing.” With her photographs, Gearon is stitching old wounds.
Photographer by Tierney Gearon
Text by Jack Moss
See the full series in the latest issue of 10, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…