At age 60, photographer Anne Geddes has found herself exploring new creative endeavors and a new life in New York City. Anne talks to us about breaking down artistic barriers, forging her own path and the power of babies.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
It was April, two years ago. I had been in Europe prior to that and then in Toronto on a promotional tour for a meningitis series that I photographed. So our flight into the US when we first came to live here permanently was from Toronto, which took just over an hour. I remember being so thrilled that I didn’t have to get on that long flight home to Australia.
When you’ve done it hundreds of times, it just gets really, really tedious, so I just remember flying into New York and marveling at the fact that it only took an hour to get there.
It was a great feeling because we talked about moving to New York for years and at one stage, we had an apartment here and we had talked about moving here permanently. I had to blame my children because they went to university in Australia and we stuck around for them. We talked about moving and talked and talked and talked. Circumstances just didn’t allow for it. It was really exciting to actually land here in New York and say, “That’s it, we’re here and this is going to be our home.”
Why New York?
I love the energy of New York. I like the fact that so many people are compressed into a city like this. I love the diversity. I love the creativity. I love being able to walk a city. I haven’t driven a car since we left Australia and I don’t really miss it. Riding the subways here, there’s a great communal feeling that everybody’s in it together. I think that’s quite energizing.
How was it moving across the world at this stage in your life? You’re almost starting fresh.
I had lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago from Australia, and she said, “Wow! It’s a really brave thing what you guys did,” and I was like, “Oh! I never really thought about it like that.” But I guess it’s pretty brave to move to another country when I’ve just turned 60, shed a whole lot of our things deliberately, and completely change our lifestyle. I’ve always been a great believer in not following the regular rules and I don’t see any reason why my life at 60 can’t actually regenerate again into something that I haven’t done before. That’s what I’m aiming to do here. I think I’ve got a lot more creativity within me and a lot more things that I actually want to do.
It’s probably safe to say that you haven’t been following the rules for your entire career.
I would say so, yes.
I know when you started, people said photographs of babies would never sell.
I started my career in portraiture, which I did for ten years. It gave me a solid grounding, not just in photography technique and lighting, but in how to deal with children of different ages and how to manage different circumstances. You have to learn to create order out of what can sometimes be a little chaotic. In order to keep my sanity, once a month I would do an image just for myself where I didn’t have to answer to a client. That’s how one of my first well-known images was made, the photos of the two babies in the cabbages. Doing that gave me a huge sense of relief, to be able to create work to only please myself. That’s how I started to photograph babies, as a celebration of new life.
I think there’s this whole cliché around images of babies. In fact, one of the first publishers that we went to said, "To be honest, photographing babies is never going to work.”
It was quite a dismissive attitude. I was quite puzzled by it and I suppose now that I’ve been photographing babies for 30 years, it still puzzles me that there’s a sense that an image with a baby in it can’t be art.
Why do you think that is?
A lot of the time I think it is because pictures of babies are cheesy and cutesy and all those terrible terms.
Babies are so incredibly important in people’s lives. Families are transformed by them and they represent something that’s so important to the human race. They’re us right at the very beginning of our lives, when nothing good or nothing bad has happened. They’re total purity. I guess for 30 years, I struggled to find the words to actually describe why I do what I do because those words are totally accurate, the ones that I’ve always used.
Because there was nobody else doing what I was doing before me, I just carried on down the road and did what inspired me. I guess I paved the way.
I feel like it’s a common theme in our interviews: when you discover a passion within yourself that automatically brings out your best work.
You do. One of the most pivotal moments in my career was while I was pregnant with my youngest daughter Kelly. I was struggling to find my own style. I was basically photographing children in their own environments and it just wasn’t clicking for me. I saw a photographer’s advertisement in the local newspaper. The ad featured this very simple photograph of a young girl in a sparse studio situation. I remember seeing it and thinking “Oh, my God! That’s what I should be doing.” I called Leanne, the photographer, and said, “Would you like an unpaid assistant?” She was like, “Yeah. Cool. Come along. I shoot every Saturday.”
I remember the moment that I walked into that studio in Melbourne and it was like, “Oh, right. This is it.” I could control the lighting and the backgrounds and all that sort of thing, but it was that simple elegance of a portrait shoot that really made everything fall into place. It was all about the child’s expression, no other distractions. I’m a great believer in the fact that a simple, classic image can captivate for a lifetime. You’re going to know your children for longer as adults, so you want to capture them as they are at two years of age. You want to capture what they liked to wear, and what their personality was like.
When I was shooting, I wanted to interact with that child and get a wonderful sense of their personality. Parents would say “Oh my God, that’s exactly what they are like. You’ve really captured them.” It’s rigorous work doing portraiture of children because it’s an art form in itself to connect with a child who considers you a stranger. To spend such a short amount of time with them and still draw something out requires incredible physical and mental stamina. I still do some portraits now, but I do it by choice and it’s very selected. I’ve come back full circle, in a way, because I love being able to create something timeless for a family.
It’s very interesting the way you describe the importance of children and how it transforms a family. That perspective is really inspiring.
To look into the eyes of a little baby is really like looking into their soul. They are completely open. They are total goodness. If you have a little baby in the room, it changes the attitude of pretty much everybody else there. There is no pretence with babies and that's what I try to capture in my images.
You’ve had a consistent subject matter across your career, so how have you evolved?
I get asked that question quite a lot. When I first started photographing babies, some fellow photographers would say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I used to do when I was starting.” It’s almost like they’re suggesting they went on to more important things.
Like models! [Laughs]
If I was a fashion photographer or a landscape photographer or a food photographer, people wouldn’t say, “When are you going to start doing something else?” I just keep doing what I’m doing and loving what I’m doing.
You mentioned you feel like you’re coming full circle. Do you feel like you’re moving back into more simplistic work like in your early portraiture years?
It depends on the project. I’ve worked with the same stylist, Dawn McGowan, for 30 years. I’ve just finished shooting the 12 signs of the zodiac for my 2017 calendar. Some of these projects are quite complicated in terms of props, styling, and research. Sometimes, I find it a little bit frustrating because of all the work that's gone into an image and people are just like, "Oh, that baby's so cute." But look at the symbolism, look at the colors! [Laughs]
Have you seen a change in your work since moving to New York?
For the past couple of years I've become a bit more cause-driven with my photography. I've photographed two campaigns featuring survivors of meningitis. It's incredibly brave of the families to put their child in a campaign when they've obviously gone through a whole lot of pain and suffering. They're doing it to save other children. It's incredibly fulfilling for me to have them say, "As soon as we knew you were doing this, then of course, we would be involved." It's a very, very personal thing. Imagine if you have a little child who's lost all of her limbs. As a parent you would be very protective of them. It's enriching to think that I can make a difference in that way. I do consider myself a global advocate for children and it's a great honor, but it's taken 30 years to get to the point where people really trust me and know that my motivation in genuine.
There's no such thing as an overnight success. What makes you keep going?
I think it's very important to follow your instincts. That’s the best advice I can give. Your instincts and your guiding light are unique to you. Just trust your instincts because, generally, the first thing that pops into your head is the right thing. That's what I've always done with my career. I feel like a lot of younger people feel like they have to have an exact claim: “I’m going to be this, and do this.”
I try not to photograph with blinkers on, because you miss the magic. I can't say, “This is exactly what I want to achieve in this image,” because something could happen completely out of left field and you want to be open to everything. My career's been a little less structured, which is a good thing.
Can you talk a little bit about moving your photography into a business?
I first started out doing greeting cards, business-wise. It's a big responsibility to take on because you have to keep producing work. You really need to have a bankable amount of images for holidays… Christmas, Halloween, Easter, birthdays and weddings. A lot of the images people will recognize of my work are from those early days. That isn't to say I didn't enjoy doing them, but there's a certain amount of pressure that always comes from turning your passion into a profession. You can’t be like, "I don't want to photograph today." You have to. That’s what a professional does. Everyone can take photographs these days but everyone is not a photographer. That denigrates the profession itself.
Was there a moment when you first started to feel successful?
When I was producing my first coffee table book, Down in the Garden, I wasn't the “Anne Geddes” that everybody knows. I was working away creating images at my studio in Auckland, New Zealand. Oprah Winfrey really changed everything. She's just the most generous person. She picked up the book on her show and said, "This is the best coffee table book I've ever seen." It just went went straight up the New York Times bestseller list. It was quite strange being in New Zealand after that, because I had a bit of a buffer to be able to work quietly. I used to think that I missed out on the opportunity to see all that hoopla. But, in hindsight, it was good not to be involved in the fame, so I could just go back and stay true to what I was doing and keep working.
What about after all the hoopla? How do you deal with becoming a household name?
It’s quite surreal, but you just deal with it. It’s a good type of fame, because everybody loves babies. People's response to my work is a joyful response.
No one's going to go like, "You suck!" [Laughs]
It’s also good being a photographer, because most people don’t know what I look like. It’s only in context that they recognize me. I think I tap into a really human world that people live in; I tap into their private family lives and they feel like I understand. It’s lovely; people will show me photos of their babies, or hand them over for me to hold.
I'd like to do some significant awareness campaigns, but in line with still producing my own work. There are a couple of amazing creative projects in the works. What I really want to do is embrace all this new technology and see how I can use it in my work. What I’m always doing is telling a story, and now there are so many ways to do that.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Not so much a piece of advice, but… I grew up in a set of circumstances where we weren't really encouraged to make anything of our lives. I was born in the 1950s, in the north of Australia, and attitudes were very conservative then. Especially attitudes about girls and women. For me to come through that and become who I've become, speaks to what you have within yourself to do something and make a difference. I just plowed all the way through, doing what was the most logical to me.
What does New York mean to you?
Home. This is the only city I've ever lived in where I can honestly say I’m never going to leave. I feel like I came home when we landed here in New York.
Visit AnneGeddes.com for more.