For many photography lovers, portraiture can be a polarizing genre. It’s often espoused as a way of honing in on a person’s inner world, gazing directly into a subject’s eyes, coaxing their demeanor forth to unfold for the camera. But for others, this direct encounter feels too obvious, and should instead be implied through traces of human presence—their stuff, not their faces. There are also those who favor the in-between, or the awkward moments more aligned with chance, and slowing things down.
Photographer Lisa Sorgini’s portraits of mothers and their children are often described as scenes imbued with painterly or cinematic techniques. Yet the photographer’s quiet presence, drenched in passive reflection and slow observation, make these works distinctly photographic. Sorgini’s juxtaposition between highly-contrasted otherworldliness and warm familiarity embody a dimension that’s defined by the photographer’s process.
“Photography as a medium has always felt mysterious to me. At its foundation, the process of making photography is cathartic, and in its most esoteric form, it feels like an extra sense—or a more layered way for me to see the world. When I’m making a photo, it’s as though I can view another dimension from what’s actually in front of me, that was hidden without the camera.”
Sorgini started making photographs of mothers almost five years ago, the same year she became a mother for the first time, while losing her own. This cyclical reality, experienced all at once, was transformative for the photographer, completely changing the course of her life and work. “Making images of this time became therapeutic—a way to process my unrecognizable new life, as I so often felt like I was outside of my own body, and the things happening around me felt like they were happening to someone else.”
The golden light illuminating Sorgini’s photographs are what prompt many others to at first compare her work to Renaissance paintings, the honeyed tinge of sunrise brought into liquid clarity as the viewer peers closer at each image. As a natural extension of her previous explorations of motherhood, Behind the Glass emerged as a way to communicate the sensual complexity of mother and child within the confinement of pandemic lockdowns. In these images, the mother’s presence is often interrupted by reflections of the external world, sculpted and humanized through their aura rather than their faces. The images look in on families, willing the glass of their windows to disappear, even if just for a moment, so that their pent-up energies might have space to breathe and spill out over the walls of their domestic confinement.
As kids crawl all over their mothers, pursuing curiosity for every surface and object within their range of view and reach, we see how the collapse of community and support networks eliminate the potential for dispersing energy across multiple caregivers. It’s a dark existence, and yet mothers are conditioned to be grateful, never creeping too close to doubt.
“Even as children, we are encouraged and rewarded when we are positive, focusing on the good. I think this translates into adult life in a detrimental way,” Sorgini reflects. “The emphasis on lightness avoids the fact that darkness must also exist. This means that we find it difficult to discuss an existence that strays from being okay. We ask people, ‘How are you?’ knowing full well that they will respond with, ‘Good, thanks.’ This manifests in a particularly dangerous way in motherhood, especially in the digital age, when our family structures are much smaller and less connected.”
Sorgini hopes that her work will allow mothers to feel seen, during and after the pandemic, and prompt others to reflect on the isolation and darker moments of parenthood. “Before having children of my own, it felt like I was only presented with a distorted, partial view of what it looked like to be a mother. I would see babies and young children in films and television shows, all happy, subdued, and clean. Mothers were, at their worst, a little flustered, but on the whole composed. But this has not been my reality, nor the reality of any other mothers that I know. Where is the snot, the tears of both the mother and child, the anxiety, the blown-out nappies? Or the leaking, healing, and forever-changed bodies and minds of the women who have grown and birthed these babies? I saw no obvious discourse anywhere that addressed the reality I was living, so I started making my own visual conversation.”
Editor’s note: Behind Glass was a winner in the LensCulture Critics’ Choice Awards 2020. To discover more amazing projects, check out the rest of the winners! And if you are making your own images that reflect your own experiences at home these days, please participate in LensCulture’s HOME’ 21 International Photography Prize.