Chapter 3: Early Maternity Photography

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

Photography as an art form has expansive outlets and avenues in which it can stem off to. From landscape, to portraiture, to action and lifestyle, the results of photography are endless. Just as in how photography in general evolves, whether it is the technology used within photography or the outfits worn on the models being photographed, so do particular specialties within photography. For example, a particular sector of portrait photography is of maternity photography. When we look at how maternity photography has evolved, we see an in depth change over the course of its development. At one time Maternity photography was a type of photography that was explicitly used within medical textbooks and “how to” diagrams. Now, we see maternity photography includes Madonna-esque figures and endless beauty.

The pregnant body was seen in other art mediums early on, such as paintings and sculptures. It was both bountiful and beautiful, but specifically served one purpose as; “In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity” (Berger. 63.). Berger offer’s a difficult realization from early aged maternity art that in some cases still hold true today. As seen in early maternity art, the art was produced from the male gaze, and therefore was interpreted from a male gaze. Those who viewed maternity artwork, being either a man or a woman, were influenced to view the pregnant body as something “different” and “abnormal” since it was being presented from the male gaze and was therefore something far removed and different from the anatomy of a man. It also caused women to continue to survey their own bodies and compare to other women’s bodies’ pre and post-pregnancy. Society continues to impose on women to get back to their “pre-baby body.” This is an immediate result of society’s male gaze on the woman’s pregnant body. Since the man never experiences pregnancy, he is only able to understand the differences in the female body physically, and not wholly understand these changes mentally emotionally.

Essentially, it is the genetic makeup and physiological development of the woman’s capability to bear a child that sets aside the major difference from men. And yet:

For thousands of years, because of her awesome ability to spew forth a child, the mother has been feared and revered. She has been the subject of taboos and witch-hunts, mandatory pregnancy and conferment in a separate sphere. She has endured appalling insults and perpetual marginalization. She has also been the subject of glorious painting, chivalry and idealization. Through it all she has rarely been consulted. She is an object, not a subject (Bright. 8.).

It is through the male gaze that has determined the female as an object and not a subject. With her ability to bear a child, the mother often becomes an object figure rather than a subject within the realm of society therefore reflecting itself upon art as well. This new, pregnant body takes precedence and becomes a part of the woman’s body. She is no longer merely a woman, a daughter, a wife; she is now a mother due to the physical changes in which her body underwent. Indeed it is, “an experience of identity in transformation that proceeds on its own course within the woman’s body, but not under the woman’s direction,” (Matthews. 86.). Although as expected, a woman can never fully prepare for pregnancy. There is no future-telling ability that allows for the woman to be “ready” for pregnancy, and furthermore, the woman has no control over what is over what is about to happen to her body over the course of the next 42 weeks or so. And weeks or so. And so, a woman’s body becomes manipulated, developed and changed and changed more than ever before, all without her mind telling it to do so, and anatomy taking the wheel.

Historically, these physical, unexpected changes to the woman’s body were documented in art forms such as paintings, writing and other mediums. A “true” capture of the moment such as what photography has to offer was not seen with any artistic value supplementing it. And with that, “The physical productions of the pregnancy body are indiscreet—a subject for the doctor’s office, bedroom and the private talk of women” (Mathews. 1). Society rarely saw photographs of the pregnant body outside of locations such as the medical textbook or within woman-to-woman conversations. As a direct result of this, within early modern photography, it is difficult to discover a plethora of maternity photography. As Matthews offers:

We were astonished at the shortage of visual images of a bodily event as fundamental and important as pregnancy. There were very few images of pregnant women in public visual culture, such as art books and galleries, newspapers, magazines, posters and advertisements. When public photographs of pregnant women could be found, the pregnancy has often been dealt with in an extremely limited, idealized and dehistoricized way. The images themselves have usually been highly stylized and sequestered in specialized viewing areas such as medical textbooks or maternity clothing catalogues. (Matthews. 1.)

And so, earlier areas of maternity photography were not as much a form of photography for the viewer’s pleasure, but were merely informational. Photographs of the pregnant body were widely found in medical texts and “how to” books along with women-to- women conversations. It is interesting to note that, as Mathews offers, a “bodily event as fundamental and important as pregnancy,” was not captured in ways outside of the medical textbook. Drawing an emphasis on the word “fundamental,” pregnancy is indeed a necessity and often times a “calling” for women. The want and desire to become a mother at some point in a woman’s lift is a common desire. However, “even a desired, ‘natural’ pregnancy is a complicated physical, psychological, and social passage, both intensely private and unavoidably public” (Mathew. 2.). In the past, to embrace a pregnant body was abnormal, and the pregnancy was sometimes hidden and not exposed to society. Even though the right to motherhood and the experience of pregnancy is something many women desire and having a “calling to”, to flaunt a pregnant belly for society’s eye could be seen as scandalous. Through the lack of pregnancy art and photography in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this offers an idea that pregnancy cannot be seen as beautiful as was merely a function of reproduction.

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