Contextual research Year 3 and Maternality

Taken from my critical review 27.01.20

During the break I have been reading up in-depth on a number of  photographers working in the same spheres as me (Davey, Boon, Laboile, Carucci, Abril, Calypso) , and managed to attend a number of exhibitions that relate to my practice in varying ways  , both directly to my pedagogical body of work within the MA (Year3 Tate), and to my broader practice, photographing stories and journeys of motherhood (Taylor Wessing and Matrescence). 

Part of the homework that was set for during the holidays as preparation for this module, was to write a critical review of three practitioners or exhibitions that related directly to our body of work/wider practice, to help contextualise our practice, and our place in the art world further. Below are my reflections on two of the exhibitions I attended, I chose to leave the third as decided to focus on the weeks readings instead . 


The first exhibition I attended was  YEAR3 PROJECT at Tate Britain, by Steve McQueen. 

Before attending the exhibition in person I wrote about it and a selection of accompanying reviews, during the last module, and how it had created a primal creative urge within myself, to run away to London and start photographing home educated children there, as a retort. Tate describes the exhibition and it’s premise in that it “offers us a glimpse of the capital’s future, a hopeful portrait of a generation to come.” (Tate Britain)

When the first press releases and critiques started coming out after it’s opening, there was (as far as I read , and I read quite a few pieces on it) zero mention of this collection of images containing any children from the home education community in London, which is huge, no children from pru schools, or children that attended school through hospitals or tutors at home where children have long term illnesses. I was incensed by it, a project the claimed to show the ‘face of Londons future’ …. blatantly expressing that this face didn’t include any children outside of the mainstream school system. This wasn’t an issue of home education, it was an issue of lack of representation/diversity within a project who’s very aim was to show diversity & inclusion. It seemed from these write ups to me, that the only diversity that this exhibition included was ethnicity and skin colour, and as undeniably important as that is, it doesn’t expunge the need for representation across the board. 

However, then the BJP article came out and it changed my understanding of the project.


Figure 1 © British journal pf photography ; issue 7891.

It made me realise quite acutely how lazy journalism can impact the understanding of an exhibition or body of work , it turned out from this article, that the exhibition did in fact include some home educated children, as well as children from pru and special schools, it was just that the mainstream British media had felt it totally unnecessary to even mention this fact, something I imagine, must of been quite embarrassing, and infuriating to both Tate and McQueen.

When the exhibition first opened the general overall reception from the media and critics was extremely positive, it was likened to the monumental undertaking of the 1955 Family of Man exhibition at MoMa  in more than one article. Of all the articles I read in fact, there was only one that wasn’t ready to bow down to the society changing project, and it seemed to resonate with some of my feelings on the exhibition. 

As I wrote in my crj post  last module;  

That of Harry Thorne of Frieze, In his piece entitled “ What All the Reviews of Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ at Tate Britain Have Got Wrong. Why are we so quick to praise mass participation?” where he states “My concern is the journalists who encounter ambitious community outreach projects like Year 3 and proclaim, before said projects even open, that they will ‘open a window on to our collective soul’ (The Guardian, September 2018) – those who are either too keen to signal virtue or too terrified of what might happen if they do not. A cursory glance at the recent history of public art will show that projects such as these are imitative (especially when public funding is involved) and, if praise is heaped blindly, the legacy of relational aesthetics will be large-scale participatory spectacles that disappear from the public consciousness just as quickly as they arrive. The risk is that we will end up with projects that do not help communities, but use communities for acclaim, only to discard them once more. Involvement does not equate to engagement. Participation is not praxis.” (Thorne. 2019 : Frieze ) ”   Contextual research week 11 . 

Showing the opposing side of that argument, Susanna Rustin of the Guardian wrote before the exhibition was unveiled, “If the attempt to represent London in all its diversity sounds didactic, even corny, I anticipate that the massed spectacle of childish humanity will be more surprising than that. Visitors from all over the place will leave with their idea of the city altered. (Rustin. The guardian. 22.10.18 ) Steve McQueen’s school photo will open a window on to our collective soul . 


I attended the exhibition at Tate Britain with my four children aged 18/15/12 and 9 years old. My practice revolves around our children, and has evolved along with my own personal journey of motherhood as I have written about previously in my last module. I see my work through the MA as a collaboration with them, and was especially interested to hear their views on the McQueen project and what they thought about these points as well.

Their main feedback however, was that it appeared to them to be some huge surveillance conspiracy ( to make it clear these are the imaginings of four children, and I am in no way saying that is what this is obviously, that would be insane!) . They commented on the expanse of the project, but mostly they were just bored. To them it was, one image after one image, all of them the same. We did have a discussion about the way that Tate had positioned schools with the same coloured jumpers together to create an almost rainbow effect, which could be perceived as a nod towards the projects aim to show a diverse London.

For me personally, I found the project claustrophobic in it’s immensity. The whole thing was like a metaphor for the stifling, imposing, overbearing rigidity that institutionalised education represents to me personally. The photographs merged into one , the faces disappearing into each other, no one child unique, like a twisted nod to the “when everyone is super no-one will be” (Incredibles 2004) . Although some of the images are more informally arranged, and that is a strength of the project and was clearly a compositional choice, one has to ask the question, did no-one see how rigid and conformed and traditional this would look, the very opposite of the open, welcoming, portrayal that was being sought . 

My 18 year old son summed my fear and dread of these images quite aptly by saying the whole exhibition, both reminded him of, and made him feel a little bit like this …

Video © Star Wars Attack of the Clones 2003

Even trying to view the photographs up close it was hard to focus in on any one class let alone any one child, indeed for safety reasons there are many signs up asking people not to take individual photographs of the classes. Showing you the work is indeed to be viewed collectively as a whole (Interesting the children’s pack that you can collect for the door encourages children focusing in on individual children, which in itself raises questions) which as you can see from the images below, creates a dizzying effect. When I viewed the images of the children up close, there was happy smiley child, next to happy smiley child, next to neutral looking child, next to neutral looking child, next to sad looking child, next to sad looking child. One of the things that concerned me about this exhibition is that statistically one can assume, some of these children are so poor they aren’t having three meals a day, statistically some of them will be suffering from abuse, statistically some of them will be being bullied. The list goes on. ‘We’ used these children to create this fabulous inclusive view of our capital city (AND MAKE NO MISTAKE, I DO THINK IT IS A FABULOUS EXHIBITION EVEN THOUGH THIS POST MAY NOT READ ON THE WHOLE LIKE THAT, I JUST BELIEVE THERE IS MUCH MORE AT PLAY HERE TO BREAK DOWN AND UNDERSTAND) where everyone is welcome in our post-brexit era, without thinking about the individual children, their wants and needs, their individual stories, and that just feels wrong somehow.

Laura Cummings of the guardian said in her review : “Some classes break into laughter at the shutter’s click, delighted by the photographer’s rival smile, or perhaps by the whole surprise of the occasion (few primary schools organise these all-together-now group portraits any more). In at least one shot, a child is jubilantly singing while the teacher tries to maintain the conventional silence. And, sad to say, an entire class of grey-clad children looks fearful and tense. Looming top left is the grim overlord of discipline.”  ( Cummings. The guardian. 17.11.19)  Which shows me that it is indeed possible to see the individual children. 

But I ask, what are we looking through, or past, to see these images? 

In reference to this, I then have to ask myself, am I doing a similar thing, but on a smaller scale? It is, I can assume true, that I know the families and children in my images undoubtedly more deeply than these photographers knew these 76,000 children. But still, I am photographing children, and that comes with a moral obligation to consider how these images will be consumed, by whom, and in what context. Ethics and morals state I have a duty to do all I can to keep these parents and children safe, so I need to carefully considering where and how these images are used.


Figure 4Figure 4

Figures 2-4 iPhone Images © Rebecca Graham 2020

I found Fig 4, image so intriguing. I never take ‘sit still, stand up straight, smile for the camera” images of our children, yet when faced with the year 3 project images that is what our youngest did, emulating the formal pose of the children within the works, and mirroring it back at itself.

I am not without awareness that I view these images, and this project, from an extremely biased point of view. As discussed during Wednesday nights seminar this week, we all view, all images from a position of prejudice in effect. Where we have spent our whole lives being influenced and effected by the images we have come into contact with, whether consciously or subconsciously , but not just that, by every aspect of our lives, from the important to the mundane.  This exhibition, is not an exhibition of individual humans, it is an exhibition to be viewed in it’s totality, we are invited to view the subject as a whole, and consequently I cannot but help to view it in context, and that context is an institution that I , whilst seeing the obvious benefits for many, have made the conscious decision collectively with my family to shun for ourselves, as we inherently disagree with it.

Therefore, I have to ask myself, is it even fair for me to ‘review’ this exhibition when I am so incapable of viewing it from an uniformed and unbiased point of view ? 


 ‘Part 2 Maternality’

The next exhibition that I went to was ‘ Part 2 Maternality ‘, curated by Catherine McCormack and shown at Richard Saltoun gallery in London. This exhibition was the second part of a two part exhibition (the first being matresence), with the first part showing prior to Christmas in the gallery. The idea behind the exhibition is described on their web page as themes of maternal experience, ‘Maternality,’ reflects on the etymological root of the word mother and its close relationship with material matter, the very substance from which the universe is created (in Latin mater/materia). ( Richard Saltoun. 2019)


Figure 5, iPhone image © Rebecca Graham 2020

The first image you are presented with as you enter the gallery, behind the desk where you collect the exhibition information from, is a large printed image , tacked directly to the wall by artist Liv Pennington. I thought Penningtons’ idea was genius. On opening night of part 1 Maternality, Pennington did a live performance piece entitled ‘Private view’, where ladies were invited to take a pregnancy test , the results of which (the pregnancy tests little blue line or lines) were then photographed and compiled into a single image. Pennington has performed this piece at other galleries, and the lady working at the gallery pulled up some of her past pieces from other exhibitions, where ladies had found out on the night that they were pregnant, some after trying to conceive for years. No-one had a positive pregnancy test this time round, but those blue lines took me straight back to finding out about my own pregnancies, but perhaps more crucially to the piece, it took me back to the tens, hundreds of pregnancy tests perhaps that  I took over the 9+ years we took conceiving our own children, and the mental and emotional turmoil that goes with each one. The collective image is like a look straight into the deepest recesses of someones thoughts and feelings, the hope, the joy, the despair, the excruciating anguish, it is a mix of everything rolled into and presented anonymously , no way of knowing or identifying who’s image was whoms, or which lines came with pleasure or profound sadness.

There is some wonderful 360 degree images on galleries now that show you the different rooms layouts, and the pieces during the show. You can view them at this LINK HERE . Like this online exhibition, I really like the idea of including a vr gallery of my final major project exhibition, as it is a wonderful way to make sure you reach audiences who otherwise may not be able to attend and experience the exhibition, whilst simultaneously keeping the exhibition ‘alive’ for as long as I wish online. This is an interesting prospect for many reasons, as well as the above, the MA is a huge amount of work, and having a continuing manifestation of that work would be great to be able to reference back too. Also, given my subject, and it’s place in the history of pedagogy, it would be an interesting and informative thing to do for future generations to be able to go back and look at what the exhibitions was like, where it was set, how it was laid out, what you were presenting. Lastly, when I am old and grey I can show my grandkids what I did one year when I was ‘young’ and thought completing an MA , whilst facilitating one child through A-levels, and another through GCSE’s was a wise idea !

Lucy Davis, for the Telegraph wrote a review of the exhibition HERE ( Davis, Telegraph) the piece titled the unvarnished truth of motherhood. Davis says “The works mostly tackle the subject’s darker complexities – that birth is something that people can’t quite cope with looking at, for instance, or that the first few months of rearing a child can be disappointing and exhausting, rather than the joyous experience we are led to believe.” (Davis, The telegraph) . I found this “birth is something that people can’t quite cope with looking at” to be not quite true , myself, but then I am used to seeing birth everyday, and being around people who feel passionately positive about depictions of it that are in no way filtered, or abstract. 

The art in this exhibition was very much different to the pieces in the pre 2020 exhibition ‘Birth’ at TJ Boulting Curated by Charlotte Jansen . It is hard to say what was different about it, each was as successful as the other, but they seemed to encompass different types of art, and definitely different representations of motherhood and birth. Jansens’ exhibition seemed revolutionary, direct, raw and in your face, to the point, Where as  MacCormacks’ was, it seemed, more abstract and conceptual, Jansens’ was significantly more photography based whereas Macormack’s was heavily sculptural, installation and mixed media pieces . Neither was better than the other, they were both impressive in a very different way, and it was good to see that each curator had approached the subjects in quite different ways, both, were, I believe revolutionary in their depictions of birth and motherhood, and address important issues of what we see motherhood as in todays world. This makes me think again, what type of instillation I am going for for the FMP, I wrote last module in my presentation about wanting my final outcome of the MA to be an interactive submersive exhibition for families. Neither of these galleries were that, but there were elements I would take from both, like the bright modernity of ‘Birth’ and the mixed media , tactile of nature of maternality to come together and create my vision of an exhibition about children, about pedagogy in a way that makes the images of learning, a learning experience. Something for all the family, and all the senses. 

I have to admit, when I read the telegraph write up, I wonder if I was at the same exhibition as Davis. I didn’t notice some of the things mentioned in her piece. But I did attend with my four children, so undoubtedly couldn’t pay as much attention as I did at Jansen’s exhibition which I attended with my husband. This is something I will also bare in mind  when with children, it IS hard to take everything in, so how can I help overcome that in my exhibition? 

I think my over riding feeling when comparing the two, was that Jansen’s ‘BIRTH’ was much more ‘now’ and in touch with the mothering, and birth worlds, whereas the MacCormack exhibition materiality, appeared to be more for an art based market, depicting artistic representations.  Maybe to say Jansen’s discussed the ‘now’ of birth and motherhood, whereas MacCornmacks’ ‘maternality’ seems to be more of an artistic look at the history of birth and mothering perhaps? MacCormacks exhibition was a quiet, dignified , art world approach, which was beautiful and affirming, whereas Jansen’s appeared to be a modern , abrupt slap in the face that we all wake up to the real world of pregnancy, birth and mothering, with all it’s political, social, psychological and philosophical nuances. 


Figure 6 © Graham, Rebecca. 2020.

I was especially drawn to the pieces in the room above, Judy Chicago’s The crowning shows a beautiful tapestry of the moment a baby is crowning, whilst Carmen Winnant’s ‘woman must write herself’ is the beautiful piece hanging on the left. Resembling a traditional bedspread that squares would be added too over the years, each square depicts a different moment of motherhood, womanhood, breastfeeding, birthing, sensual images, the sphere and entirety of being a woman encompassed together, it is a truly powerful piece. 

Annegret Soltau’s stitched photograph (Fig 7)  entitled On the birthing table, pregnant 1 (1978) , according to the exhibition write up , “draws attention to the pregnant body as something that can come apart and back together in uncanny transformations.” ….. “of coming apart at the seams” and “the fabric of pregnancy bodies is therefore something that can be manipulated creatively, but which is also subject to violence through cutting and perforation – felt as much through the surface material of the body an physically ” (exhibition catalogue) was a favourite with my son , who having been born into the world via c-section, and being witness to a mother recovering from c-sections with his brothers and sisters was drawn to the piece, but described it as macabre and haunting.Figure 7 Figure 7

Figure 7, Image © Graham, Rebecca. Photograph Annegret Soltau’s stitched photograph ‘On the birthing table, pregnant 1’ (1978)

Whilst my daughter, and youngest son, were drawn to the political nature of the questions raised in these pieces below.

Figure 8 , iPhone image © Graham, Rebecca. 2020. Images © Jo spence / Hackney flashers ‘who’s still holding the baby’ 1978Figure 8Figure 8


  1. World schooling – Whilst there is no dictionary definition of world schooling, as there are many ways in which different families implement this method of living and education, for understanding; the general theory revolves around combining travel and education, and utilising the culture you are in to further education and development.


Tate Britain. ‘Steve McQueen year 3’ Available at : (accessed 28.01.20)

1955 Family of Man exhibition at MoMa

Graham, Rebecca. Bambino art photography. Contextual research week 11 . Available at : ( accessed 28.01.20 )

Thorne, Harry. 15.11.19. Frieze. What All the Reviews of Steve McQueen’s ‘Year 3’ at Tate Britain Have Got Wrong . (Accessed 05.12.19)

Rustin, Susanna. 22.10.18 The guardian. Steve McQueen’s school photo will open a window on to our collective soul . Available at (Accessed 28.01.20)

© Star Wars Attack of the Clones. 2003. Video Youtube.

Cummings, Laura. 17.11.19 . The guardian . Steve McQueen: Year 3 review – skewed ties, missing teeth and hope. Available at : (Accessed 28.01.20)

Part 2 Maternality . Curated by Catherine McCormack. 2019. Richard Saltoun gallery, London. (Accessed  28.01.20)

Maternality at Richard Saltoun. Galleries now. (Accessed 04.01.20)

Davis, Lucy.  13.11.2019. Artists reveal the unvarnished truth of motherhood, from pregnancy tests to the mess of childbirth. The telegraph. (Accessed 04.02.20)


Figure 1, Graham, Rebecca. 2019. Photograph of BJP magazine. Lloyd, Joe. Jan 2020. British journal pf photography ; issue 7891. Year 3.

Figures 2-4, Graham, Rebecca. 2020.  – iPhone Images view of year3 project by Steve McQueen at Tate Britain.

Figure 5, Graham, Rebecca, 2020 . iPhone image Maternality sign outside Richard Saltoun gallery, London.

Figure 6, Graham, Rebecca. 2020. iPhone panorama of Gallery 2, Maternality. Richard Saltoun gallery, London.

Figure 7, Graham, Rebecca. 2020. iPhone image of Photograph Annegret Soltau’s stitched photograph ‘On the birthing table, pregnant 1′ (1978)

Figure 8, Graham, Rebecca. 2020. iPhone image of Jo spence / Hackney flashers ‘who’s still holding the baby’ 1978


1) Steve McQueen, Year 3 project, Tate Britain, London.

2) Maternality , curated by Catherine McCormack, Richard Saltoun gallery, London.

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This blog is written as part of my studies on the Falmouth University photography ma, an accredited educational programme.