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Photographer Jessica Todd Harper reveals her idyllic home at the Print Center


[Kelly is drawn into Harper’s immaculately composed, richly toned photographs of family; through her admiration, she wonders if these scenes can ever come true for onlookers. — the Artblog editors]

The “lovey,” otherwise known as the toddler’s comfort object: broken-in, comfort-giving, no-frills. It may be overlooked in “Marshall with Family and the World” by all who don’t have one at home. I have never seen a lovey that has bells and whistles, or even bright colors. This is Jessica Todd Harper’s version of parenthood in The Home Stage at the Print Center. Classic-looking images: ethereally lit and deftly composed, devoid of bells and whistles. This lovey is certainly a part of Marshall’s family…and it makes a relatable entry point for other parents.

Posed, pristine portraits

Jessica Todd Harper, “Marshall with Family and the World” (2013). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014. 26 5/8″ x 40″.

But the relatability ends there. Otherwise, I am drawn to these photos as simply art pieces. The compositions are beautiful. Many seem modeled after classic paintings: I think I spot Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” in “Abby Sees Hugh in the Front Hall”. The landscape seems sculpted to fit Becky in “Becky (Lake)”.

Family in living room
Jessica Todd Harper, “Abby Sees Hugh in the Front Hall” (2013). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014. 26 5/8″ x 40″.
Woman by lake
Jessica Todd Harper, “Becky (Lake)” (2013). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014. 26 5/8″ x 40″.

The spare composition and lack of smiles in these posed images remind me of Sally Mann’s photography. But Harper’s family is more relaxed than fierce; there is obvious love and comfort here. These are almost like snapshots, except that the one-in-a-million shot for most of us is Harper’s every photo. And Mann’s photos are ultimately more truthful.

Perfect poses and blissful backgrounds

After a few minutes of walking through the show, I found myself thinking: Where are all the modern trappings? It’s almost like she curates her entire house to make her photos look good. I pictured a pile of noisy, blinking plastic toys just out of the frame in each shot…I was proud to have spotted a potty in “Marshall with Christopher and Grandma,” and modern-looking shoes in “Nicholas with Mom and Milo”.

Rocking horse
Jessica Todd Harper, “Marshall with Christopher and Grandpa (rocking horse)” (2010). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014, 32″ x 40″.

The extent to which the images are posed (casual though they look) makes them idealized, not relatable. The photos of family resting together appear candid: not smiling but not unhappy, just present…relaxing in this quiet moment with kids.

Mother and son
Jessica Todd Harper, “Self Portrait with Marshall (lion)” (2009). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014, 16″ x 20″.
Man and baby
Jessica Todd Harper, “Christopher with Nicholas” (2008). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014, 16″ x 20″.

But Harper isn’t a documentarian–she is putting these shots together to tell a story. She tries to make photos that are psychological portraits focusing on environment. She is presenting familiar family moments: warm memories of childhood or child-rearing, or utopian ones we have seen in magazines. And she does so in a romanticized way, but I find the images themselves almost too beautiful to get past to look for any message.

A fantastic alternative reality

I do find a hint that it isn’t all dreamy and ideal in “Becky and June (in my old bedroom)”. The dimness in the background makes the room impersonal, and the vintage bedspread and dressing gown make this scene look dated–like it could be anytime from the 1800s to today. Mom seems relaxed but lost in thought, elsewhere. THIS is relatable: the impossibility of appreciating every single moment with our babies; the need for time to think, even while parenting.

Mother and child
Jessica Todd Harper, “Becky and June (in my old bedroom)” (2013). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2015, 40″ x 60″.

I think this show is the breathtaking lie of parenthood. My first impression was feeling at home: I am in this club. But the more I looked, the more distance I felt between Harper’s family and my own. Her house is pristine, her family has cocktail hour in front of museum-framed portraits, and there is always good lighting to make you beautiful as you daydream in bed with your relaxing baby. She is not tripping over toys; setting off sirens, which wake the baby; landing on Legos and letting out a scream. This is not my beautiful house. I am curious if Harper sees this side of her work. The title Home Stage certainly alludes to the dichotomy. Home: personal, intimate…Stage: posed for onlookers, cleaned up, well-lit…

Family portrait
Jessica Todd Harper, “Family Portrait” (2012). Archival pigment print on Epson Lustre paper, printed 2014, 26 5/8″ x 40″.

Harper has clearly mastered her art form. With their magical lighting and striking compositions, the backgrounds are as much the subject of these photos as the family members. Harper says these images are inspired by parenthood, “entering into an alternate and strange world”. I feel like her parenthood is an alternate and strange world, too, because these photos, with their striking backgrounds, bear no resemblance to the more chaotic backgrounds in my own–and presumably most people’s–beloved family hearth.

The Home Stage by Jessica Todd Harper is on display at the Print Center from Jan. 23, 2015 – March 28, 2015.