OUR MOTHERS: Portraits by 72 Women Photographers edited by Viviane Esders Stewart, Tabori & Chang pounds 19.99

Emily Green
Saturday 17 August 1996 23:02 BST

Viviane Esders started with men. Several years ago, she asked a selection of male photographers to provide portraits of their fathers. The result was a book called Looking for Father. Her new book, Our Mothers, does the same again, except with women. Here, 72 women from 14 countries offer photographs of their mothers, snapshots of themselves and short written texts.

At first, Our Mothers seems unremarkable. The design is conventional, print quality okay, no more. Kathy Ryan, the picture editor from the New York Times magazine, offers a foreword, along with a picture of her own mother cooking. We half-expect recipes. Instead, the succession of images and reminiscences that follows is riveting, and occasionally heartbreaking.

It is hard to say which is sadder: the contributions of the women who lost their mothers as young girls, or those who grew up hating all-too- living ones. It is no contest, however, as to whose contributions are the more poignant. New Yorker Ariane Lopez-Huici offers a picture that looks as if it was taken in the 1940s. A lovely young woman smiles shyly from a car window. She is delicate, but there is a fresh, game quality to her beauty, like that of the young Grace Kelly. The reader admires her with startled pleasure, then learns in the short text that she died at 30, when her daughter was 10. Understandably, Lopez-Huici idolises her mother.

By contrast, the Parisian Claude Alexandre produces a quirkily framed black-and-white snapshot of a woman wearing big shades and a fake leopard- skin coat. "No desire, no joy, what could she have done? She failed everything," writes Ms Alexandre. Another Parisian, Dominique Auerbacher, offers stills from a video. One shows a slovenly-looking woman slumped in bed before a glowing telly, legs akimbo; the other is a haunted face caught in a mirror. The text is a befuddled harangue from mother to daughter.

The Vanity Fair photographer Annie Leibovitz captures her parents' plain Slavic faces with sombre respect. The result is noble, perhaps faintly dull. Many of the photographers seem confounded by the prospect of their mothers' mortality. The mother of the Paris photographer Jane Atwood looks like the toughest dame ever to work a plat du jour place. As if at the end of a hard day's work, she is leaning back in a chair, cradling a cognac glass. Her watchful glance still says: don't give me gyp. The daughter's text pleads: "Mama! Let's not wait until it's too late!"

Sylvia Plachy from Woodhaven, New York, not only accepts death, but lurks wonderingly at its fringes. We see her mother miserably stooped at a lace- covered dining table. The old woman stares blankly ahead of her, subsumed in a haze of cigarette smoke. It is as if the dark congregation of furniture around her - weighty old-world stuff - is suddenly too much. The caption reads: "My mother in 1980 after my father's funeral." It is wrenching, then momentarily infuriating: who the hell stood there taking a picture at a time like that? Obviously the daughter did, and when a slight shock wears off, it is clear why. This wretchedness she captured is the ghost of some great love.

Two contributions bespeak a witty respect and sly affection between mother and daughter. The German photographer Jaschi Klein has her tiny mother perched on an outsized white chair, set up in a half-drained canal. A life-sized dummy of a horse is hooked over the back of the chair. The woman holds a miniature book open, but looks straight on. The caption goes: "The lady fakes interest, but she really wants to read."

Mari Mahr is listed as a British photographer, and indeed she lives in south London, but she is about as British as Bull's Blood. She was born and raised in Hungary and her work is beautifully, ineffably European. The text tells us that her mother was a communist who dreamt of equality for all, and died two years before the fall of the Berlin wall. Ms Mahr offers a sequence of four fanciful composites titled The Dreamer's Birthday. In the first of these, an urban roofscape is showered by stars. By the end of the sequence, each window of what looks like a government building is starlit. The work is handsome, lyrical and wise.

It is tempting to find significance in the nationalities of the women who participate. Like Ms Esders, 32 are from France; 24 are from the United States, three from Britain, two from Germany, two from Russia, and one each from Australia, Canada, Cuba, Holland, Israel, Italy, Korea, Panama and Switzerland. The preponderance of French and Americans, presumably, has to do with the nature of Ms Enders's address book and, to a lesser degree, the opportunities in those countries for women photographers. Then, of course, there is the matter of national attitudes towards public displays of intimate material.

Some of the work inadvertently endorses the privacy argument. Two Americans and one French woman photographed their mothers naked. Their preoccupation with sagging flesh and bulging veins seems nervous and vain. Disconcertingly, one German daughter fashioned her mother as a Leni Riefenstahl-issue folk goddess, without much irony.

Yet for every banal moment in Our Mothers, there is a wonder, such as a simple snapshot of Nan Goldin's mum. She stands in a girl's bedroom, quietly satisfied about something or other. Here we have the original shrewd but sweet New York Jewish lady, and the picture is subtly suffused with love. The same goes for this remarkable book. Of the 28 photographers who declined to submit work for the book, one evidently cried: "I cannot photograph my mother!" For those who did, the assignment may have robbed them of their detachment, but their humanity reminds us all the more forcefully of our own.

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