Maisonette Muse: Claiborne Swanson Frank
In her latest body of work, “Mother and Child,” portrait photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank explores what motherhood means in the 21st century. Turning her lens on 70 mothers and their children - including Carolina Herrera, Aerin Lauder, and Patti Hanson - Frank’s images capture the intimate bond between mother and child. Complementing these delicate portraits is a series of inspiring interviews on motherhood. Below, we ask Claiborne to share her own answers to some of these same questions.
Find signed copies of “Mother and Child” here on Maisonette, just in time for Mother’s Day.
How did your career in photography begin?
I’ve been styling and taking portraits of my friends since my early twenties. After leaving Vogue in 2009, I began building my portfolio in earnest. That body of work became my first book, “American Beauty.” I received a lot of encouragement from my family, my closest friends, and Ivan Shaw, who at the time was the photography director of Vogue.
What are your goals as a photographer?
I am, at my core, a storyteller, and photography is my medium. My goal is to create portraits that both document humanity and our specific cultural moment in time. In the case of “Mother and Child,” I want to leave behind stories of our generation, including what it means to be a mom today.
You’ve said that your young sons Hunter and Wilder inspired the project.
Yes, the idea for this book came after the birth of my first son, Hunter. Motherhood transformed my world. In many ways, I was a child until I had my own children. The small reality of my day-to-day, and my own needs, exploded with the birth of my first son. I suddenly had a responsibility and purpose I had never known before.
Equipped with this insight, I felt inspired to tell a modern story of motherhood, to document and honor this profound human experience. My hope was to take portraits of mothers and their children that captured love and joy, to stop time, and show how this experience connects us all.
How has motherhood changed the character of your work?
Motherhood has changed the way I see as a photographer, forcing my style to evolve. The process I used to create images in my last two books did not work in a single one of the seventy shoots I did for “Mother and Child.” Before, I was focused on getting a perfect shot. I had quiet, peaceful sets; I picked the locations and styled the subjects. It was about establishing a deep intimacy and connection, and creating a moment between us in a very controlled environment.
There are a lot more variables at play when photographing children. What was that process like?
In every shoot, there were moments of peace, moments of chaos, and everything in-between. It all seemed out of my control. There was no way to make sure the dress was perfect; to choreograph the moment; to control or pose a child. It challenged my process and formula deeply.
At the beginning, I’d leave a shoot and not know what I’d gotten, or if I had anything usable. But then I’d get home, go through it all, and discover these incredible moments. I’ve realized that the most beautiful moment cannot be curated.
Through this process, I basically re-learned how to be a photographer. I was forced to be very present, to shoot in a freer and looser way, to trust that the moment would appear, and that I’d be able to document it. This creative evolution completely mirrored the evolution – and the growing pains – that I’d been experiencing as a mother.
Tell us a little about what motherhood has meant to you.
The greatest gift my children have shared with me is their LOVE. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that they have so much unconditional love for me, and I for them. I never knew being a mom would be this much fun. But, at the same time, I also didn’t know how hard parenting can be.
I’m fortunate that my career gives me an identity and purpose that is separate from my role as a mother and wife. It's important for women to have a place in their life that is all their own, that feeds their core and inspires their lives. I feel that having a career has made me a better mom. When I feel full and nurtured as a human being, I am able to give more of myself as a mother.
What has your relationship with your own mom taught you about the bond between mother and child?
My mother is one of the great loves of my life. It’s a deep love, but an easy one. She’s my best friend, my teacher, my healer. She has held me through my darkest days, and celebrated me during my lightest.
She also happens to be the most thoughtful, kind, and funny woman I know. She’s always giving back in ways both big and small. She never forgets her thank-you notes; she always shows up. Her curiosity is boundless: she’s interested in everyone and sees the world through a technicolor lens. My mom inspires me to be a better person. And as a photographer, my mom taught me to shoot from my heart, and to see the beauty in everything.