Talia Chetrit’s Photographs Unravel “The Taboo of Motherhood”

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Joke by Talia Chetrit
10. Talia Chetrit, ‘Align, 2019.’, from JOKE (MACK, 2022)Courtesy of the artist and MACK

In her new Mack-published book, the American photographer prods at the margins of motherhood, labour and lust

On page 99 of Talia Chetrit’s latest photo book, Joke, is an image of her partner Denis and her son Roman. Denis is wearing a Gucci body harness and a long black ruffled skirt and casually feeds their son who sits in his high chair, neck craned to catch the teet of the milk bottle. “I think it’s a good image,” the New York-based photographer laughs. “There’s friction there.” The image is layered with visual jokes, from the choice of a high fashion fetish garment in a kitchen, to the role of a father as though slave to the child. 

The title of Chetrit’s book prefacing scenes of pregnancy, childhood and parenting challenges a viewer’s preconceptions of such concepts. Her deadpan wit connects the images, which are funny and sweet yet subversive in their sincerity. “There is a picture of my C-section in the book,” the artist notes. “To me, it’s not an emotional image. I’m walking the line of a trope and there’s humour in it, it looks like a face. I do appreciate the stories and reactions I’ve gotten from women in response to it.”

“When someone says my work is about motherhood, I’m like, it’s not. It’s more about the taboo of motherhood,” says Chetrit, who explains she wanted to broach the subject because it was an under-represented theme in art. “People don’t want you to have children if you’re a professional.” Bringing sex, fashion and the processes of her job into the frame therefore directly recognises tensions within choices for mothers today, as well as the role of privacy when creating imagery to share.

Having picked up the camera at an early age, the images in JOKE span a nonspecific timeline – some are from Chetrit’s teen years, others capture her later work as a fashion photographer. A number of them show Roman on set in the arms of models. “I wanted [this] to be a series, but when the pandemic happened, I couldn’t take him to shoots anymore,” Chetrit explains. Despite knowing near to nothing about fashion when she started working in photography – “I couldn’t have told you who Steven Meisel was when I was first approached about shooting fashion,” she confesses – garments lend the images yet another layer. “When I started to bring clothing into my work, it felt like it really needed to have a purpose,” the artist explains. “I was really into transparent clothing for a while because it was everything and nothing at the same time.” Another joke: “You could argue that I wasn’t dressed or that I was fully dressed.”

As well as Chetrit’s plasticky clothes – sheer trousers that expose her genitalia – garments by Telfar, Molly Goddard and Eckhaus Latta feature. Chetrit’s partner Denis – “honestly, the best subject I’ve ever shot!” – dons tulle and ruffles, while a nappy-clad baby Roman holds a mini Chanel chain bumbag. In another image, his little legs are sprawled out next to patent thigh-high boots. “To put clothing with BDSM references in front of your kid brings two worlds together that are used to being kept separate. I photograph myself and my family in part because they’re available to me, but they become a way for me to talk about other things. I don’t think of my work as being about my family or myself. There isn’t much disclosed – my life still feels private even if I am literally showing my privates in my work.”

It is this contradiction that is central to Joke – having sex, working, posing nude or interacting with luxury garments are pastimes generally placed at odds with being a mother. I’m reminded of both Kim Kardashian, who, with the hindsight of motherhood, told Andy Cohen her only regret is her sex tape and Carolee Schneeman, whose recently opened retrospective at the Barbican flags just how long women have been using their bodies and sexuality for art – and how long it’s also been seen as taboo. “I am genuinely surprised when people find things like the vagina pictures shocking,” says Chetrit. “I thought I was playing with a trope. What’s more surprising is that a vagina can still be shocking.”

Joke by Talia Chetrit is published by Mack and is out now.