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).
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.
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
We’re here because of you.
By becoming a monthly subscriber or making a gift of your choosing, you’re directly helping the Variable West team build a stronger, more resilient and diverse West Coast art world. Your support makes it all possible!
Make a one time or recurring gift