It is a sacrifice, and dealing with sacrifice probably strengthens people. I think it’s possible that that becomes visible. I think the perspective you get is significantly different if you’ve raised children. People who find themselves absolutely obligated to the welfare of another first wind up understanding the needs of others more readily than people who have gone through life taking care of themselves alone.Although Selkirk’s project engaged the spectrum of economic class, he makes no claim to accessing sociological absolutes. “In the end, there were people who were extremely poor when I photographed them and people who were pretty darn wealthy. It’s about these people and the consequences of their experience. There’s no pretense of being a survey with any scientific basis whatsoever.” In awe of his target mothers’ stoic ability to track and nurture children, he sought to capture the pathos of their lives in a moment of reflection, the emotional sum of their responsibility for another. As they sit or stand still before his giant camera, they confront their fate, then move on. “I wondered if you could see their competence, is really where it all started out.” It’s apparent just by their age that these were women of a particular historical cohort, reared on the expectations and imperatives of feminism, and party to all the gender-role psychodrama that has played out in recent decades. Motherhood was something to be reinvented, and even defended, as parenting was juggled with professional lives. What’s extraordinary about Selkirk’s career-long focus on the human visage, famous and not, is that he suffers from the same rare disorder as Oliver Sacks — prosopagnosia, or face blindness. He finds it next to impossible to visually recognize people, with the exception of those he has photographed. “I sometimes think that’s why I take pictures of people. The only movie stars I recognize are the ones I’ve photographed.” The project’s technical aspects are unique and worth noting. Selkirk found a wood-and-leather circa-1900 view camera and modified its use of glass-plate negatives to that of 11-by-14-inch film. He attached a vintage uncoated lens that, he feels, traded “the indiscriminate craving for definition” of digital systems for the humanity-embracing aspects of the hand-crafted device. The camera’s bulk allowed him to be removed from the women’s attention, for an enhanced sense of solitude as he shot his subjects. He drum-scanned the negatives, which Hurricane Sandy ended up destroying — a force majeure that locked in what was already intended to be a digital project that fused the archaic with the cutting-edge. He made archival prints from the digital files using monochrome piezographic inks that he mixed for color himself, which confer an unprecedented tonal range. “I think we’re just in the early days of learning how to use the infinite potential of digital to restore the mark of the artist’s hand.” The works are embedded in ¾-inch slabs of glass, like insects in amber, which creates an off-the-wall floating effect he has pursued for 30 years — photographs as exquisite tangible objects. Neil Selkirk: Certain Women is on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York through May 1.
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