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On Exhibit: portraits of mothers and daughters

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So what are we to make of Niki Berg's nude Self-Portrait With Mother--the mother's ample pink body exposed, belly, scars, and all; the grown-up daughter hiding behind her?

Should we be flinching like this? Wishing someone had called out a warning? "Mrs. Berg, Mrs. Berg, you've indulged this daughter once too often . . ."

If you haven't yet seen the "Mothers and Daughters" photography exhibit at the Field Museum, and if you're a mother or daughter yourself, you might want to make up your own mind about Niki and her mom, and take in the rest of this rich, diverse show while you're at it. Mounted by Aperture Foundation after a nationwide call for entries, it includes the work of more than 80 photographers.

One caveat: the exhibit notes say it was intended to "describe the changing nature of women in American society," but there is little evidence of change here. Most of the women in these photographs are where they've always been--in the kitchen or bedroom, front porch or backyard. They are cooking, cleaning, tending the kids. As indicators of change go, a sign outside the Field Museum men's room announcing the presence of a "baby changing table" within is stronger evidence than almost anything in the show.

There are two exceptions: Keith Glasgow's uniformed soldier holding her infant daughter, and Rosemary Porter's capsule treatise on the circumstances under which a woman is both a mother and a person with a profession. (Always, the sense of time stolen, of sacrifice.) The latter includes a "snapshot" of Porter behind her camera in a frame with a carefully printed note from her daughter: "Mom at 3:05 please set cookies and milk on the table and open the side door. You may work in your darkroom all! day (I want to be able to say I have a photographer for a mom)."

The conventional scenarios are here, from the infant nursing at her mother's breast, to the tossing of the bridal bouquet; the traditional, sentimental treatment of them is not. These are mostly clear-eyed studies of the reciprocal relationship between the generations, the complementary blooming and aging, the inevitable body switch: first the inchoate woman-child, captive observer of her mother's full-blown womanhood; then, the mother watching warily as the daughter edges into womanhood herself. Joel Meyerowitz's Stella and Tessa catches this moment, as does Sage Sohier's riveting black and white, Rendezvous Beach.

Predictable follies are exploited: a Hollywood beautician preens at poolside in bleached hair and black net, while her prepubescent daughter cringes in the background; three generations of Kentucky women pose, like peas in a pod, next to a tiny yard full of gewgaws; two Manhattan matrons take to the street in full and futile war paint. Saddest are the portraits of "failed women," middle-aged wallflower daughters with resentment and defeat in their eyes, next to mothers still charismatic, still powerful.

But there's a bounty of joy and strength as well, including repeated evidence of one ordinary truth not often noted: that a daughter has a continuing claim on her mother's body--the physical access a son has only while he is very young. From Frances McLaughlin-Gill's painterly image of a moppet pillowing her head against her mother's thigh, to great grown girls obscuring their mothers as they sprawl in their laps, these daughters claim their territory. Hugged and tugged, the mothers go on about their business, whether the daughter in tow is 2 or 20. They are cushion and bed, shelter and shield.

The show is full of examples of this easy closeness, the body language of unconditional acceptance and mutuality: I'm hers, she's mine. Niki Berg's self-portrait is part of a spectrum that includes Jock Sturges's beautifully composed pinwheel of mother and daughters on the beach, and Gary Winogrand's casually journalistic, but equally effective New York street scene. Not to be missed: a rapturous, untitled black and white by Mark Goodman, which could have taken its name from the motto on the daughter's T-shirt: "Together Is Cool."

Mothers and daughters will find themselves in this show, and it may be that fathers and sons will also enjoy it. (Many of the photographers represented are men.) On the other hand, it may be harder for men to relate to. The few who wandered in while I was there seemed to go through quickly, and the only comment I heard was from one who had paused in front of a portrait of a muscle-bound mother-daughter duo. "Look," he said to his female companion: "It just goes to prove that working out won't give you big breasts."

"Mothers and Daughters" will continue at the Field Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt Road at Lake Shore Drive, through March 13. Hours are 9 AM to 5 PM daily. Museum admission is $2 for adults; $1 for children and seniors; Thursdays free. Call 922-9410 for information. (Unfortunately the catalog Aperture published for the show, with an introduction by Tillie Olsen and her daughter, is not available at the museum, and it was rapidly selling out at Kroch's on Wabash.)

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jock Sturges, Sage Sohier.

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