Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other: Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA

A grid of photos of arms, hands, feet, bellies, and breasts in black and white create an abstract sense of movement.
Vanessa Woods, Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other, 2020. 49 panel unique collage from original photographs, 44 x 44 inches. © Vanessa Woods, courtesy the artist.

Whether nuclear or chosen, nearly everyone takes pictures of their families. All my friends, especially those with toddlers and smartphones, can attest to that reality. For an artist undertaking such a universal subject, the challenge is to make intimate pictures that speak in compelling ways to others—those with no direct relationship to the people or places portrayed. The work must transcend the specificity of your family, describing relationships in a way that many can recognize, while also being well-executed, powerful, and multifaceted. In Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel, CA, husband-and-wife artists Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods strive to do just that. Though their approaches to a shared experience are divergent, they both foreground their projects in the often experienced, but infrequently discussed tensions and paradoxes of being a parent and raising children.  

Since becoming pregnant with their first child in 2012, Smith and Woods have been making work involving one another and their three children. Their processes have evolved over this time—not only in terms of their own growth as artists, but also in terms of their relationships to their growing children and one another. This exhibition represents new directions and experimentation for both artists and demonstrates, especially in recent years, how their children have become active participants and collaborators. (To any envious parent: mild bribery is involved in cajoling their subjects before the camera or into a tub of plaster, both of which involve a stillness and cooperation I don’t associate with young kids).

A black and white image of three photos irregularly arranged on a wall.
Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods, Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other, January 8–February 12, 2022 (installation view). Center
for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA. Photograph by John Janca.
Buried under picture frames, a little girl is face to face with a silhouette of a head.
Josh Smith, from the series “The First Years,” 2014. Gelatin silver print, 7 ¾ x 12 inches. © Josh Smith, courtesy the artist.
A hand tugs on a string, pinned to the ceiling at several points
Josh Smith, from the series “The First Years,” 2014. Gelatin silver print, 7 ¾ x 12 inches. © Josh Smith, courtesy the artist.

Use of 35mm, medium, and large format cameras “throws things a bit off-balance,” Smith commented as we talked about the work, “forcing me to change my approach to the recurring subject matter.” He sees the resulting photographs as both “a family history of sorts” and “pictures with poetic intention.” “Photography is so generous in this way,” he continues, “where pictures can exist as both keepers and interpreters of your own history.” Smith’s selections in this exhibition increasingly embrace the enigmatic and ambiguous, akin to the work he admires by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. A freestanding wall with three photographs exemplifies this impulse. On the left in Stickers (2021), Smith documents an artwork created by his daughter, a collage made in the lid of a shoe box that is comically surrealist, like a bizarre reimagining of a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. Smith paired it with a portrait of the back of his daughter’s head amidst two framed paper silhouettes that uncannily match her size and short, barely flipped hair. This whimsical duo evokes the feeling of Alice in Wonderland, the simultaneous delight of going down the rabbit hole to a world of wonder and humor, but a world equally marked by slipperiness. To the far right, a cryptic string construction on the wall, coupled with a disembodied small arm, evokes Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s enigmatic photobook Evidence. Unorthodox compositions and unexpected gestures combined with a masterful use of light—to illuminate and soften, and to obscure and confuse—present a more equivocal experience of parenthood.

Two photos—in one, a small body is cradled on another's belly, its hand pressing; in another, a little leg wraps around another.
Vanessa Woods, Yours/Mine, 2022. Two gelatin silver prints, 19 x 30 inches. © Vanessa Woods, courtesy the artist.

Historically, Woods’s collage-based works have relied on found source materials. Here, she only uses only her own photographs of her family and self as fodder, printing, cutting, scaling, and reassembling these pictures; the process itself becomes a proxy for her experience of motherhood. “When I make collages,” Woods explained to me, “the original image is decontextualized through the act of cutting, its meaning re-contextualized through new associations. In many ways, this is like parenthood, where the process of becoming a parent erases the pre-parent identity and reassigns it as something else.” In some instances, she creates more layers by mounting printed photographs to foam core and rephotographing them amidst the same bodies. Boundaries blur further through mirrors used to distort through reflection and plaster-cast body parts that distort by mimicking reality. Even with careful examination, it feels futile to tease apart the order and number of individual photographs and props in a work like Assembling (2021). Woods’s larger-scale collages—made possible by using her own source material—viscerally engage the viewer as the depicted bodies approach life-size. The exhibition’s titular piece is a seven-by-seven grid of small-scale, square collages that operate as both a singular composition and a tumbling sequence of foliage, arms, legs, torsos, and breasts that simultaneously suggest intimacy and claustrophobia; bodies appear so intertwined, they are practically indistinguishable. 

I will not attempt to speak of what I cannot begin to know; I am the last childless woman among my friends. But, for me, Smith and Woods translate their unembellished range of emotions as parents with curiosity, a sense of continual discovery and rediscovery. Every moment of tenderness, awe, and gratitude is tinged with uncertainty, about who these children will become, but also who the two artist-parents will become through this experience. What will be gained, and what will be lost?

Josh Smith and Vanessa Woods: Each One of Us Was Fastened to the Other
Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA
January 8–February 12, 2022


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Author: Allie Haeusslein

Allie Haeusslein is the Director of Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco, the largest space dedicated to photography in North America. Her exhibition Looking Back: Ten Years of Pier 24 Photography will open later this year. She conceived and edited the publication Photographers Looking at Photographs: 75 Pictures from the Pilara Foundation Collection (2019). Her writing has appeared in Aperture, British Journal of Photography, ART21 Magazine, and Foam Magazine, among others.