Tierney Gearon, an acclaimed Los Angeles-based photographer, often casts her children as subjects, sometimes to much outcry. In 2001, her “I Am a Camera” exhibition in London sparked controversy, featuring portraits of her two nude children. Now, she’s turning to her children again, producing a book of 26 portraits — one for each letter of the alphabet. Gearon writes for LightBox about her motivations:
When I started the alphabet book four years ago I thought it was going to be a fun, easy art project I would do with my children. Little did I know I was about to launch on the hardest project I have done to date. Every image was like directing a different scene in a movie, or even a different movie for each image. The calculated kid-chaos playtime I set up with my children and their friends with different costumes and settings for each letter was not nearly as effortless as I’d imagined it would be.
The project started in the summer of 2010 when a close friend was going through a divorce and I thought it would be fun to focus on doing something creative and include the kids. For the past three years I have been playing nurse, cowboy and Indian, princess, etc., collecting any and every kind of interesting costume, mustache, funny object or prop.
All of the images were taken on school holidays or traveling on family trips. I would pack up the car and fill our luggage with all kinds of things, always was ready for anything and everything. We would play, set things up and then the magic would either happen — or not. How many moms do you know who would bring a red battery-operated mini-sized Mercedes out to the desert with a box full of spray-paint cans and then tell the kids it is time to decorate? How could the kids not love it?
Not every scenario went off without a hitch, of course. Take “Naughty nurse,” for instance. We were on holiday in Positano, Italy. We spent an hour carefully setting up the nurse station and special bandages that had to be wrapped just right. Grace [Tierney’s youngest daughter] wore a costume I bought for my oldest daughter, Emilee, 13 years ago. (I knew it would come in handy at some point.] Walker [Tierney’s son] was the perfect wounded-soldier patient. The problem getting all set up was, for them, the fun part. The minute I got my camera out, they said they were too hot and were done. I just snapped away as they complained. We somehow got the shot—a crying and moaning kid. Perfect!
I think I shot the most variations for the “A” image. It had to be great because it was the first letter of the book. We were on holiday in Mustique, in the West Indies. It was Christmas day and we sat for almost two hours waiting for a plane to land. Suddenly the perfect plane, the only plane, finally approached. At that very moment a security van passed by and said we had to get off the lawn. I couldn’t believe it—after all of that waiting! But in the end it turned out even better when we moved, because we found the ideal spot to capture the image.
Sometimes we would set up scenes and situations and they would sit there for days, and that was when the best shot happened. “Private Princess” is a prime example. We set up a pink playhouse castle in Montana, the whole kingdom spread before us. I found this great vintage red dress for my niece. She wore it every day we were there. I had other fun costumes and props for the kids. All kinds of situations happened near the pink castle. But my favorite moment was the quiet portrait at the end of the day, with my niece dancing alone—the calm after the chaotic playtime storm.
An hour earlier the whole party was happening; now it was just still.
The book is a complete friend-family collaboration, made with my two youngest children and their friends. It is a playful book — what I call an art book for children, or a children’s book for adults.
Tierney Gearon is a Los Angeles-based photographer. Tierney Gearon: Alphabet Book, published by Damiani and distributed through D.A.P., is available in November 2013.