I was at The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the other day and ran across a little exhibition about The Pictorialists, a group of photographers from around 1900 who worked to bring their medium into the realm of fine art. While roaming around the show, I discovered The Manger by Gertrude Käsebier, an image from 1899.
The picture, a mother in long white robes and a veil who peers down at a “baby” nestled against her, reminded me of our conversation about Julia Margaret Cameron’s Madonna portraits and the Victorian-era hidden mother images. But instead of the mother cut out of the image like in some photos we saw in class, the baby here is totally invisible in this mother’s arms—in fact, there’s no baby at all! I was a little alarmed when I first learned that the bundled blanket is just a prop in the image; the absence creates a feeling of loss or longing comparable to the sleeping/dead baby images we’ve also looked at. While the image is of a nativity scene, I like to think it could be interpreted as the reverse: a death, a mourning, rather than a birth. Whatever the case, Käsebier’s ability to transform a “normal” woman into a consummate Madonna figure here mirrors Cameron’s photographic talents: celebrating and using the ordinary to make staged arrangements authentic and emotional.
Käsebier, also a mother who took up photography in her forties like Cameron, became a successful photographer quickly after she created The Manger. Aligning with American Alfred Stieglitz, a pioneer in the world of photography and promoter of pictorial photographers, Käsebier took her painting knowledge from art school and applied it to a new kind of image-making style. After the first Kodak camera came out in 1888, photographers of Käsebier’s kind worried about the normality of the photograph, a product of its new accessibility. Hoping for legitimacy as an art form, the group pulled current art trends from painting—impressionism, symbolism, and the Arts and Crafts movement, for example—and incorporated them into their images. The blurred light and shadow and overall soft quality of The Manger heighten its gestural or painterly quality, for example. What do you think?
A closer look:
Käsebier, Gertrude. The Manger. 1800. Platinum print.