JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Self Publish, Be Happy and Image Text Ithaca (here). Softcover with a poster dust jacket, 120 pages, with 172 color and black and white archival photographs. Includes various texts by the artist. In an edition of 750 copies. Design by Brian Paul Lamotte. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: Carmen Winant is a visual artist and writer whose work focuses on the representation of gender in visual culture. Over the years, she has gathered together a vast archive of photographs of women, collected from a wide range of sources, and she uses these found images as the raw material for complex collages and installations that pose incisive questions about authorship, gaze, ideology, and power.
Winant’s mother kept a collection of photographs that documented her giving birth to her three children (she worked in a women’s health clinic and was interested in birth), and the artist stumbled upon these images when she was a teenager – “it was an amazing and slightly terrifying feeling to witness myself being born”. Years later, when Winant became a mother herself, she noticed the pervasive lack of visual representation of the process of childbirth. And so during her pregnancy with her second child, she started working on her project My Birth.
This work was recently included in MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018 exhibit and the photobook version was published to accompany it. And while the exhibit offers a visually striking installation (an archive of over two thousand images assembled together with a ripped blue painter’s tape and installed on two narrowly facing walls), the book approaches the material quite differently, boldly integrating images and text and creating smaller thematic groupings. In both forms, the work opens up an honest and straightforward conversation about the act of giving a birth, combining the photographs of her mother giving birth with found images of anonymous women collected over the years from a range of magazines, books, and newspapers.
Winant’s genuine feel for writing sets a powerful and engaging tone for the photobook narrative. The book opens with a series of questions, their directness and simplicity instantly grabbing our attention and then pushing us into the visual sequence. Given the intensity of experience, Winant was surprised that “very few people asked me about my birth. The delivery of another human being: weren’t they curious about its effect?” With straightforward bluntness, she tries to break the silent taboo around openly discussing the subject of childbirth – she begs, “just ask me”. And she then proceeds to offer a long list of potential questions, practical concerns, and emotional uncertainties, each on its own line: “Has there even been so much unknown? Were you thirsty? Did you feel brave? What sensation did you experience with the cord being cut? Were you cut open? How did it feel to create life?” The questions set the tone for engaging the subsequent parade of images with care, honesty, and authentic human curiosity, rather than as some kind of unspoken or illicit transaction.
The first spread with photographs pairs a small image (centered on the page) of a nude woman as other hands touch her belly, with a kind of implied wonder; the photo on the right, bigger in size, depicts a similar act. They are followed by intimate photographs of pregnant women focusing on, looking at, and understanding their bodies. As the pages turn, Winant presents pregnancy as mysterious, ordinary, and universal, and her selections show women in different stages during the sequence leading up to actually giving birth: during a regular visit to a doctor, pressing their faces into pillows to overcome pain; finding comfort in their partners’ arms; suffering; and releasing the pain in a bath. Again and again, Winant draws parallels and commonalities of experience from the visual repetitions, ultimately forming a single collective voice.
In the middle of the book, the text (broken into blocks, it actually resembles the arrangement of the images) interrupts the intense visual flow, allowing a momentary pause and a continuation of the verbal conversation about the experience of giving birth and its meaning. When we return to the pictures, the intensity increases noticeably, with multiple photographs in the next few spreads capturing the stages of labor: the hard pushing, the moment the baby is being born, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and the delivery of the placenta. Not shying away from including what some might consider explicit, raw, or clinically medical shots, Winant emphasizes the strength it takes to give birth, with all its pain, violence, and glory. The book finishes with a selection of images of mothers holding their newborns, bringing us back to the miracle and beauty of life.
The final image in the book shows a woman in the hospital room as she gazes in the hand held round mirror. The text on the right side reads: “By the time you are reading this, cracked open and flimsy, I will have birthed again. I am no closer to understanding who takes possession of this process, or locating the words to make it known”.
As a photobook, My Birth is simple and functional, without any elaborate design elements (there are no captions, or even page numbers), and that absence of clutter directs all the attention to its engaging content. The dust jacket is covered with images (and no text), opening into a poster, with the list of Winant’s questions on the inside. The layout of the images, their size, their position and number varies from spread to spread, bringing an element of surprise to each page turn. And the irregular edges of the cut out images add a hand-crafted personal character to the assemblage, reminding us of all the work that went into researching and collecting these pieces of the larger puzzle.
While childbirth should be a subject that all people are intimately familiar and comfortable with, the fact is that social, religious, and even governmental constructs both here in America and around the world often keep the realities of childbirth largely out of public view. This is what makes the openness of My Birth so powerful and engaging – showing real childbirth, given this stifling context, is almost a radical act. Winant’s pictures and the narrative they tell throw open the door, both exposing and normalizing childbirth, emphasizing its personal and universal nature.
Through the successful combination of text and visuals, My Birth doesn’t wait for permission, but empathetically reclaims control of an important conversation, focusing on the empowering and transformative experience that giving birth is for women. By speaking openly through her art, Winant is also implicitly declaring the importance of making women’s stories and experiences visible. The frankness of the imagery in My Birth may unnerve some sheltered and conservative viewers, but childbirth is a resolutely human process, and Winand is firmly asserting her right to make that shared human experience more transparent.
Collector’s POV: Carmen Winant does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).