Controversy and chaos collide in the photography of Tierney Gearon, discovers Millie Walton. No wonder Charles Saatchi is a fan.
Tierney Gearon is hard to pin down. It takes a couple of weeks for me to catch her on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, and even then it’s only for a few minutes, as she’s “arrived at a friend’s house and doesn’t want to look rude”. I shouldn’t be surprised; she is one of the world’s most sought-after photographers. Yet despite the fact that she’s balancing two jobs as an artist and mother, she’s more than willing to talk and welcome me into her world. There’s a familiarity to her, even though we’ve never spoken before, and her answers feel genuine and unrehearsed.
The way she puts it, she sort of stumbled into photography. Born in Georgia, initially she was a ballet dancer “and then I cut my hair and became a model. While I was modelling and travelling around the world, I kept a Polaroid diary of everything I did. One of my agents saw the Polaroids I’d taken of the other models and said, ‘Oh my god, you’re an incredible photographer!’ That’s basically how I broke into fashion photography.” There’s a pause as she’s seen something she needs to take a photo of – a little girl playing with her mum. “Give me two seconds.” Despite this little interlude, Tierney doesn’t usually carry her camera around with her. She finds it “far too intense”, preferring instead to allocate dedicated work trips.
She’s back, slightly out of breath and laughing. “Sorry about that! Where was I? When I got married I put my photography aside for a while to concentrate on having children and being a mum,” she continues. “When I started having marital problems aged 38 I needed to find myself again, so I started photographing my family in a new, artistic way. I’m one of those people who believe that you should just follow things in your path. You never know what’s going to happen.”
In 2001 Gearon’s photographs were showcased in the Saatchi Gallery in London – a huge achievement for a virtually unknown artist. However, the exhibition (‘I Am A Camera’), which included two photographs of her nude children (then aged four and six) caused public outrage, resulting in the near-seizure of her work under indecency laws. The abuse propelled at her by the media was particularly vicious – a News of the World review labelled the show “perversion under the guise of art”. She was, she says, “an innocent person who was simply trying to document” her life, but looking back on the controversy now Tierney appreciates how naïve she was to the art world. “When Charles Saatchi saw my work he knew that something would happen because of it,” she says. “Those were intended as light, funny images. To me, the darkness is in the eye of the beholder. If you see something dark that’s your issue, not mine.”
Did the incident cause her to reconsider her artwork? “It made me lose interest in the business of the art world itself,” she says. “I feel like a lot of galleries and people are just looking for sensation. Charles Saatchi is a master at advertising, creating sensation. Being a successful art director is an incredible gift and he is very talented. It’s great to have people like that appreciate your work, but at the same time one needs to be careful not to get caught up in the art world game.”
Perhaps that’s why Gearon’s images are so rooted within the domestic world. She works through an organic creative process, which naturally encourages people to use their imaginations. “Usually I direct organised chaos and interesting things happen within it,” she explains. “A lot of the time people don’t even know I’m taking their photograph.”
It’s that combination of reality paired with fantasy that makes her photographs so mesmerising. The worlds she depicts often have a way of inviting the viewer in while also evoking an atmosphere that’s punctuated by sadness or uncertainty. This is most obvious in ‘The Mother Project’, a series of photographs that explores Gearon’s relationship with her mentally ill mother. Despite the hardship that must have entailed, the artist looks back on her childhood fondly. “Both my parents gave me an enormous amount of love and allowed me to be an individual,” she recalls. “They gave me the space to be creative and to appreciate creativity.” It’s something she aims to allow her own children by encouraging them to collaborate with her on projects. Her most recent release, ‘Alphabet Book’ – “an art book for children and a children’s book for adults” – is the result of that collaboration and an enchanting example of what combined imaginations can produce.
Aside from being an outlet for creativity, I wonder why Gearon feels so compelled to photograph and what it is that she’s hoping to capture in her images. “My photography is like a diary of my soul,” she says. “Every single project I’ve done is a way of working through different issues in my life. My images tell a story, they provoke emotion and feelings.”
What’s the story behind her current series, ‘Colorshape’, I ask. “It’s about putting someone in a box. I wasn’t raised with a lot of boundaries, so by putting someone in a box I was also learning to contain myself.” One can’t help feeling that the project, like all of Gearon’s work, will keep going until she discovers exactly what it is she’s looking for. She admits to be being “a perfectionist” and says that “I may appear disorganised from the outside, but anyone that really knows me understands that even the chaos that sometimes surrounds me is an organised chaos.”
Organisation, it would seem, is the key to Gearon’s sense of stability. It’s a way of grounding herself and her children. “I have a very distracted personality and I create structure by creating a strong family home that feels safe for us,” she explains. “I don’t drink, smoke or do any drugs. We go on a lot of family trips and I have a huge support team, which includes my close friends and family.”
I wonder how her work has developed since becoming a mother. “All of my projects are from my heart and soul. I feel I have become more focused and more confident over the years. I live in the present, which keeps my work very current, but I don’t work every day so my work doesn’t consume me. My children consume me.”
We move on to talking about her relationship with her audience. With 54,000 followers on Instagram, it’s safe to say Gearon has a significant following who enjoy viewing her professional work as much as the “visually inspiring images” of her everyday life. “I’m not even sure who my audience is because I’ve never met them,” she muses. “But I feel that people who appreciate my work are people looking for something raw and individual, something very authentic. Because I share myself with people in my work, people reach out to me, they feel understood by me. Instagram has been very interesting because I am able to communicate directly with my audience and people can share with me, too.”
It’s a refreshing take on the social media craze that’s consuming our lives and expresses Gearon’s genuine lust for life. “As long as I love what I do I will continue to do what I do,” she says. “As soon as I lose interest or inspiration then I will move on to a different medium so my goal is to never stop finding inspirations and discovering new things.”
It seems a simple philosophy, but one that most of us could do with adopting ourselves. Our conversation ends, leaving me feeling uplifted and impassioned. In the world of Tierney Gearon, nothing is impossible.