The time of their lives
The photographer Tierney Gearon’s new alphabet book is an intimate portrait of her kids at play. Where’s the controversy in that?
Ruby Warrington Published: 10 November 2013
Sunbeam Stones: ‘This was shot in Palm Springs, on holiday with Marc Quinn and his family’ (Tierney Gearon)
The 26 images in the American photographer Tierney Gearon’s new Alphabet Book depict what could be described as the “organised chaos” of life with children. “I have basically spent the past four years collecting costumes and props, and I would just travel with this bag of stuff. Then, whenever I was with the kids, we would dress up and keep shooting,” she says. Her pictures are set in locations as diverse as Italy, Los Angeles, her friend Marc Quinn’s house in London, and the celebrity island of Mustique. “What I do is set up situations and create chaos, and out of that comes something interesting.”
The result is a quirky and colourful take on a children’s ABC book, which doubles as an intimate portrait of Gearon’s family life. Starring her two youngest children, Grace and Walker, as well as “my nephew and nieces and the children of my closest friends”, the book was conceived as a fun way to help a friend get over the heartbreak of her divorce. “I just believe that when you do a creative project, it gets you to a better place,” says Gearon, who ended up taking on the entire production process herself.
The LA-based photographer achieved notoriety in 2001 when candid photographs of her older children, Michael, then 4, and Emilee, 7, were shown as part of the Saatchi Gallery’s I Am a Camera exhibition. They included two naked poses and one of Michael urinating in the snow. “It didn’t really affect them,” Gearon says. “They were just funny shots. It’s not like I was robbing them of their souls.” Rather, if anything was damaging, it was people asking them: “ ‘How does it feel for your mum to photograph you naked?’
“I was, like, ‘Not as bad as it feels for someone to ask. You’re the one questioning it like it’s something shameful.’ ”
Since her younger children came along (she had Walker when she was 41), Gearon admits she hasn’t “really been there in some ways for my older children. I’ve been listening to Disney tunes for 20 years now, and by the time my youngest is grown up, my older daughter will probably have a baby.” Not that she would have it any other way. Describing herself as “like a child myself”, she says: “My favourite people to hang out with are children. I’m going to Hawaii in a couple of weeks and my friend’s, like, ‘I’m not bringing my kid.’ I’m, like, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ I just love doing kid things — going on adventures and exploring.”
In a sense, the children in the Alphabet Book are acting out a sort of fantasy childhood — one in which the sun always shines and life is one big game of dressing up (albeit fraught with tantrums). What does Gearon remember from her own youth? “My parents just gave me the space to be who I am, to be an individual,” she says. “I’m very right-brain — I didn’t test well. I never went to art school because I wouldn’t have got in.” Instead, she took up photography after a stint as a model. “I don’t care about the gallery world and the art world now: I’m just in my own world.”
Gearon feels the freedom she grew up with isn’t available to children today. “Kids don’t live outside any more, they’re just kept in a box, in a container. When I first moved to LA, my son, who wasn’t even eight, knew the whole neighbourhood in a couple of hours just from riding his bike around. Now, I have someone walk my kids to the shop.” Meanwhile, behind securely fastened doors, she says, you have all this overprotection. “But the truth is, what your kids find on the internet is way more dangerous. People are so worried about their kids getting touched by a paedophile or kidnapped. But how often does that happen?”
In the Alphabet Book, the letter K is for “Kissing Kids”, and depicts Grace and a friend locked in a very adult-seeming embrace — the only shot that might be described as mildly controversial. Gearon laughs. “I’ve got way more controversial outtakes. My son with a gun, my daughter with a cigarette… In this one, I was, like, ‘Pretend you’re a couple on a date. Make out like you’re kissing.’ It was a two-second moment, but it worked.” She shrugs. “What are you going to do: send me to jail because my kids are kissing?”
Tierney Gearon’s Alphabet Book is out now (Damiani £25);thephotographersgallery.org.uk. To buy it for £22.50 (inc p&p), call 0845 271 2135 or visit thesundaytimes.co.uk/bookshop