You probably know the name Anne Geddes. If you Google “famous photographers,” she pops up in suggested names, sandwiched right between Andy Warhol and Weegee.
If, for some reason, you do not know Anne Geddes’ name, you most certainly would recognize her work. She did those photos of babies dressed up as bunnies and cabbages and gingerbread men and other harder-to-distinguish objects. She did those adorable yet slightly unsettling visions of teeny newborns stuffed inside very large pockets and, once, chilling in a faux amniotic sac with Celine Dion. She made the calendar that hung on your kitchen wall in the late ‘90s and the birthday card you hoped would have $20 inside it, but didn’t.
Like Lisa Frank and Thomas Kinkade, Geddes’ imagery formed the desktop wallpaper to my childhood. I grew to know and love it almost without my consent, like a mediocre song on the radio that keeps playing over and over and over again, until you start to crave it like a warm, fuzzy blanket. More babies, more babies, I would find myself thinking, laughing too hard when it came time to switch the family calendar from March to April. A baby as butterfly! Inspired choice.
I wrote my college admissions essay on an Anne Geddes photograph. The prompt was something along the lines of: “Write about a work of art that made a lasting impact on you.” I was 17 years old and most definitely not ready to answer that question. And so I made a joke. If you want to be in an Anne Geddes photograph, I thought, you have to sign up early. Like, before you are even born. And so, in my essay, I praised the ambitious babies of Geddes’ photos, their fearlessness and body positivity, and speculated on their commendable distance from the typical trappings of the modeling world ― sex, drugs and low self-esteem.
I got waitlisted at some very prestigious universities as a result.
Needless to say, Anne Geddes has been a very serious part of my life as a very serious arbiter of taste. You might even say, had I not written about her work a decade ago, I may never have found myself writing about art professionally. And yet it was only recently that the idea popped into my head that I could actually speak to the woman who, for all these years, had enchanted me with candied visions of babies in every fruit and vegetable variety known to mankind.
Who is Anne Geddes? Is she self-aware? Sincere? Does she consider herself a fine artist? Is she in fact a bunch of babies stacked atop each other in a large trench coat, like that scene in “The Little Rascals”?
I called a number. The phone rang. “This is Anne,” said a woman in an Australian accent. Anne Geddes is Australian? My first question: “Tell me about your childhood. Where are you from?” She responds, “Well, I’m Australian, obviously.” Right. Off to a good start.
In short, Anne Geddes is very serious about her work. Born in 1956, she grew up a self-described country kid on a cattle ranch in North Queensland. Although she felt creative from a young age, Geddes didn’t pick up a camera for the first time until she was in her 20s. Her inspiration wasn’t quite fine art, it was photojournalism à la Life Magazine. “I was mesmerized by images of people, the way they could tell stories, a moment in time frozen forever,” she said with warmth and wholehearted candor. “It still fascinates me to this day. The power of a single image to change lives is incredible.”
Growing up, the possibility that Geddes could one day become a professional photographer never occurred to her. Raised in the 1950s and ‘60s, before photography was an established part of everyday life, Geddes recalls only seeing two or three pictures of herself as a kid. “I grew up in an era where once a year we were taken to the photographic studio in our Sunday best,” she said. “I look at them now and I can’t get across a sense of who I was as a child.”
Geddes, in her own photography, aims to capture the essence of each specific child at that specific moment. “If you’re bringing your 2-year-old, you’re going to look at that image in 20 years and you’ll remember what they looked like when they were 2.” Like a butterfly, I guess, or a vintage can of tomatoes.
When Geddes first started taking pictures, she was 25 years old and living in Hong Kong with her husband, who had taken a job in television. She started off by photographing families in their own environments, but felt that setup didn’t allow her to find her own style. Then something clicked when, a few years later in the 1980s, Geddes saw an ad for a studio photographer in Melbourne.
“There was very simple lighting, a very simple canvas backdrop,” Geddes said of the studio. “A pin dropped and I thought, that’s what I want to do. I want to dictate the environment and control the lighting.” Geddes volunteered to be the photographer’s unpaid assistant. “The moment I first walked into a photographic studio everything fell into place.”
This is the amazing thing about Anne Geddes. Those posed portraits in front of khaki-colored backdrops which I imagine most photographers would find dull and monotonous ― if not soul-sucking ― genuinely galvanize Geddes. Her chosen profession is more than just a gimmick or a way to pay the bills: It’s a lifelong passion. A dream come true.
As a studio photographer, Geddes began with straight-up baby portraits, no frills. And then a greeting card company approached her to make a line, so she began delving into more experimental sets and costumes. “Once you start doing greeting cards, of course, you have to do seasonal images,” she said. And then came the calendars, and thus, more costumes. The more festive the threads, it seemed, the more attention Geddes’ work received.
And the more Geddes speaks, the clearer it is just how passionate she is about photos, and babies and, mostly, photos of babies. “How wonderful is it going to be for this child to see in such wonderful detail their newborn selves, at the very beginning of their lives?” Geddes muses. “I’ve photographed thousands of babies over my 30-year career and I’ve never lost that fascination and awe at the sight of a newborn. At the very beginning of our lives, there is so much potential, so much purity. All these words sounds so trite but it’s very true.”
In case you were curious, Geddes is still taking photos of babies today. In her most recent series, she transforms babies into symbols of the zodiac ― a baby lion for Leo, a cocoon of twin butterflies for Gemini. She’s also working on a series called “Baby Look at You Now,” where she juxtaposes ‘90s baby photos with pictures of her subjects all grown up. If you posed for Anne Geddes at any point in your life, you’re welcome to submit.
“When I first started, I said I wanted to be the most successful portrait photographer in Auckland,” she said. “Then I said I wanted to be the most well-known in New Zealand and then, Australia ― and the rest is history.”
Is Anne Geddes implying she is the most successful portrait photographer in the world? I, for one, would not object to this statement.
I asked Geddes where she considers herself on the spectrum of fine art to commercial photography. Although her work has been the subject of an exhibition at Qatar Museums, it thrives, for the most part, on calendars sold for around $14.99. “I think [fine art and commercial photographer] are pretty much the same,” Geddes said, shattering my brain into a million baby heart-shaped pieces. “And I know a lot of people would dispute that. I know there is a lot of snobbery in the art world, but you can’t tell me that every fine artist doesn’t want to be successful.”
Maybe not every, but certainly most. “Every fine artist wants to be commercial, and I’ve always found that a bit of a conundrum,” Geddes continued. “Most have an exhibition in a gallery, they sell some work, and then a book is published. I came at it from the other way. There was nobody going down the same road as me. I was just doing what I wanted to do creatively. Forging new paths.”
I try my hardest to hold onto my long-held convictions ― namely that a photographer whose primary output is greeting cards is not working in the same sphere as one whose work hangs on the walls of painstakingly curated gallery spaces. And yet, as someone consistently drawn to powerful images that exist outside the mainstream art institution, a part of me is wooed.
Geddes is the ultimate antidote to art world snobbery. Your life may not be changed by a schmaltzy image of a baby propped up in a sunflower pot, or slumped atop a giant egg, but you’ll probably crack a smile. It’s bizarre yet oddly inspiring to know that, despite being one of the most commercially successful photographers in the game, Geddes has followed her own vision every single step of the way.
When I professed my teenage love for Anne Geddes, I did so under a veil of sarcasm. I was young and insecure ― paralyzed by the prospect of writing about something I genuinely loved and respected and too wobbly in both my tastes and ability to defend them to even begin to think about a work of art that had shaped me.
Although I did all I could to evade the question posed by that pesky common application, and any significant mental breakdowns it may have induced, my response illuminated what I’ve now come to recognize as a deep appreciation of bad taste. Stripped of pretension and ambition, schemes and strategies, “bad” art often lays bare the insides of both artist and viewer. In the case of Anne Geddes, it also lays bare those adorable baby bodies.
I hung up with Anne Geddes in something of a daze. She had given not a single knowing wink, not even the subtlest of hints that some part of her baby-tastic career was just the teensiest bit silly. Instead I got lines like, “Babies transform lives, they transform families, they bring so much hope.” And you know what? They do!
This is a story about an artist who changed my life, who inspired me, albeit in a roundabout way, to embark upon the first piece of art writing I’d ever created. I was ashamed to say it then, but 10 years later, I’m ready. I love Anne Geddes and all her weirdly dressed babies. I love them. I love them. Oh my god, they’re so cute and weird, I love them so much.
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