Ying Ang, The Quickening

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (here). Softcover with linen sleeve, 8.6 x 11 inches with red-string binding, 90 French folded pages, with 116 color and black-and-white images. The book is made from various uncoated papers, and employs a combination of offset and riso printing techniques. Includes various texts by the artist. In an edition of 280+20AP. Design by Heijdens Karwei. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the process of giving birth to a child and becoming a mother is perhaps one of the most universal of human activities, its physical and emotional realities continue, even today, to be shrouded in a kind of mist of optimistic positivity. We all know the societal stereotypes and agreed upon talking points: pregnancy is a life-affirming, transformative experience, the birth process is hard but exhilarating and triumphant, and motherhood while full of challenges is often the best thing that has ever happened to a woman.

These things can of course be true, but the road to motherhood isn’t always (or ever) so easy, and more and more photobooks made by women are openly engaging with its darker and less publicly acknowledged sides. Carmen Winant’s excellent 2018 photobook My Birth (reviewed here) was one of the first to pull back the curtain on childbirth, and others both before and since have sensitively dug into a range of less widely discussed issues, from the frustrations of infertility treatment (Elina Brotherus, Carpe Fucking Diem, reviewed here) to the decision not to become a mother at all (Jackie Dives, Becoming Not a Mother, reviewed here). Father photographers have tended to make photobooks that can only supportively watch from afar while wrestling with their own issues in becoming fathers (Cole Barash, Stiya, reviewed here), so the burden generally falls back on mothers (and mothers to be) to reveal their own truths.

Ying Ang’s recent photobook The Quickening adds to this more balanced study of new motherhood, taking on its psychological ups and downs with a searing splash of poetic honesty. Her book covers the period of time from pregnancy through postpartum (anthropologically summed up in the term matrescence), and follows the roller coaster of her thoughts and emotions as they whipsaw her back and forth. Photography isn’t, of course, a direct medium for capturing emotional states, so Ang has experimented with a wide range of aesthetic approaches and book-making techniques to attempt to communicate the strained rawness of her feelings. Her results are memorably intimate, allowing her ever evolving set of fears, obsessions, and anxieties to come through with jarring authenticity.

The photographic subjects Ang has at her disposal – herself, her husband, her child (after he arrives), and her immediate surroundings – are in many ways quite limited, so Ang had to find ways to use them each expressively. The Quickening generally follows the loose arc of her pregnancy and the growth of her son, so there is a quiet rumble of chronological progression that pulls the narrative along. Her book actually begins before it starts, in that Ang has grafted a smaller photobook (titled “Bowerwood Blues”) to the front of the main book, like a scene-setting prelude. It provides a glimpse of her life “before”, where Ang and her husband are surrounded by a hollow emptiness – empty rooms, empty patios, empty boats, empty seas – that will soon be filled by the arriving child. The anticipation is palpable, with the small book ending with fruit on the vine ready to be harvested.

The front and back covers of The Quickening are provided by a folded riso print (in layered blue and pink) of a nighttime view of gnarled tree branches, immediately providing both a darker change in tone and the introduction of the kind of process dislocations that will become a steady drumbeat throughout the book. Nearly every page turn or subsequent spread finds Ang twisting us around, with back and forth movements between color and black-and-white, with switches between full bleed and white bordered imagery, and with intrusions of half cut and three quarter cut pages that disrupt the regular flow. This leads to a feeling of never being able to expect what will come next, and to a general sense of upended anxiety and unease, which of course matches the undulating waves of Ang’s shifting moods.

While we might assume that self-portraiture might form the central core of this kind of inward-looking investigation, many will be surprised by just how few straight on images of Ang there are in The Quickening. Aside from one tightly cropped black-and-white image with a wary stare (paired with a hauntingly hollowed out tree trunk), Ang generally sees herself indirectly, most often veiled, reflected, ghosted, shadowed, or fragmented into parts of herself. In these photographs, she becomes a parade of partials and incompletions – her pregnant belly, her hand grasping at the shower door (like a horror movie), her weary eye, her faraway stare in bed, her hand pulling at the curtains, her face striped by shadows. It’s clear from the aggregation of these scenes (and many others) that she’s struggling, her precious few moments of personal time lost in a kind of ambient fog.

Ang does a consistently insightful job of picking symbols and stand-ins that she can visually use to represent herself or her emotional states, these objects almost doing a better job of communicating her feelings than the self-portraits. As the pages turn, she offers us the empty void of a rock pool, a withered flower, a shorn stick, various dark birds and swans, a lonely lighthouse, the messy bottles of feeding, misty views of nearby buildings, a room covered in plastic sheeting, a sad pinwheel, the roof of a house surrounded by overgrown trees, a spider trapped in a shot glass, a slumped birthday cake, and eventually, at the end of the book, some more positive flares of light. Each one of these items delivers the punch of different psychological tremors – claustrophobia (and the feeling of being trapped), loneliness (and emptiness), tension (and anxiety), the feeling of being overwhelmed (or drowning), of being stripped down to her bare self, desperation, frustration, separation from the rest of the world, and even a kind of resigned pessimism and bone-tired exhaustion.

When the child comes into view, the orientation shifts and reverses, and we now see Ang on the other side of his all-consuming needs. One of the strongest single images in the photobook rethinks the typical fragility of a baby’s touch, capturing the grasping hand of the child tugging on his mother’s gold necklaces with an unexpected determination and tenacity. Of course the child is seen lovingly here and there, but Ang also provides moments when the child looks ominously distorted and otherworldly, especially in baby-monitor images taken in the middle of the night, when the infant rises up with the glowing eyes of a phantom.

In another resonant pairing, the baby reaches out to the world outside, pressing his outstretched hands against the glass of the window, while on the other side of the spread, mom sits trapped behind the prison bars of the crib at night. The lovely innocence of the child is captured in images of tousled hair, open searching eyes, sleeping with his mouth open, and a smiling upside down view in bed, but these moments don’t seem to provide much opportunity for Ang to let her guard down and relax – the insistent grasping hands soon return. Yet another solid pairing makes this relationship, and its aggregate effects, clear – the child’s outstretched hand in bright light, with mother reduced to featureless dark shadow. And when the father is seen at all, he’s often dissolving into blur or obscurity (at least from the mother’s perspective) – he does his job with the bath and the wake ups, but soon fades away, leaving Ang to carry the load. As the pages continue to turn, Ang’s world seems to get increasingly indefinite, with images turned into squints and approximations, and night and day becoming interchangeable.

Ang smartly uses snippets of text intermingled between the photographs to open up further doors of insight into how she’s thinking. Some of these are short poetic lines that pull us into the mother’s perspective, from feeling the baby’s heartbeat pumping inside your own body to being overwhelmed by the scent of the newborn. Ang is a clearly a dedicated (if obsessive) list maker, and other texts offer charts of time increments and exhaustive packing lists that seem to provide ways for her to attempt to control an uncontrolled situation. But these then give way back into twists and turns of obsession, role playing, and dark fantasizing, with bouts of crying and comforting on the part of both mother and child. As seen in these confessional words, Ang struggles with the durable power of the maternal connection, ultimately getting lost in collapsed time and memories of her own father.

Part of the successful construction of the jangly emotional landscape found in The Quickening comes from its innovative design decisions. The overdone red string binding should be the first clue that we’re in for a photobook experience with more intensity than usual, and the brash switching between printing processes (riso, black-and-white, color, screenprint etc.) continually keeps us off kilter. Printing the baby monitor images in silver ink on dark blue paper is a particularly inspired choice, as the process gives those images even more ghostly strangeness than they would have had normally. The half cut text pages then interrupt the visual flow, forcing us to stop flipping and engage with Ang’s words, thereby giving them more attention-grabbing presence. Seen as an integrated photobook statement, The Quickening feels full and robust, with multiple, sometimes conflicting, approaches interwoven into a powerfully coherent whole that forcefully matches the image content.

As a self-published art object, The Quickening is far more sophisticated than many more casual do-it-yourself photobook efforts. Its deliberate complexities are likely the kinds of features that would scare off larger publishers, but those specific choices and details are integral to the overall atmosphere Ang was trying to create – her kind of obsession may not work at scale, but it thrives in hand-crafted volumes. In the end, this is a superlative photobook worth searching out, one that not only challenges us to come to grips with the hidden traumas of new motherhood, but takes risks with its own expressive efforts to communicate the rich contours of those very real struggles.

Collector’s POV: Ying Ang does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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