Students Respond: “Winking Mom”

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Larry Sultan
Winking Mom, 1984
Chromogenic color print, 17 x 21.25
Gift of Jeanne Press and Richard S. Press ’60, P’ 90, P’08, P’12

This piece caught my eye by the dramatic contrasts in scale (between the woman up front and the figure in the back), not to mention the energy of a captured gesture in the wrinkles and expression of the lady’s face. But what kept pulling me in from an initial pause was the relationship between the lady, the small figure, and the title, which read like tension to me. The composition of the piece, beautifully pleasing with lines and subjects arranged along thirds, in many ways centers the figure in the back–the eye wants to go there to rest even as the lady’s face is the largest.

In this way, as a viewer I’m left wondering and imagining a story between the photographer, the mom, and this figure. Was there an intention to capture this figure, the winking a nod of more story and a secret between them about this person, with this person? And before the title, the wink also can read like a squint, perhaps trying to make sense of this figure too, but facing us, facing the wrong way. Suddenly, now as a viewer, we become part of this circle, we are the one’s winked at, squinted at, a stranger brought into an unknown story and tasked with speculating. The tension I mentioned, then arises from my focus as viewer on the figure in the back and the title’s focus on the mother’s wink. Is it a clue, hinting there’s more to the story? Or is my focus misplaced? And this is exactly what I find so fascinating about the piece: it makes me question intimacy–the intimacy between photographer and subject, viewer and subject, and even strangers (or maybe not?) crossing paths at a lake. It seems to beg the question to me, what is the intimacy that can be imagined, or perhaps always there, between strangers? And it also highlights to me the photo’s/artist’s, power to manipulate and recast intimacy that is always possible, so perhaps always there, to varying degrees.

-Victoria Xu ’21

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