Catherine Angel Photography  
My Daughters

Camera Arts
June/July 2000

The Work of Catherine Angel

By Abigail Foerstner

In the iridescent late-afternoon light of her own backyard Catherine Angel began photographing her daughters 11 years ago. Glowing light and the charmed circle of childhood fuse into the sylvan universe of these black-and-white photographs. A high-walled fence protects the girls from prying eyes as they run freely through the scorching Nevada heat and go skinny-dipping in the pool. “The interior of the house is Mom and Dad’s space, but the backyard is theirs. It connects them to nature. They are whole and strong, free and defiant, self-assured and knowing,” Angel says.

The children exude a life force, expressed in patterns of light and form in the pictures. Two “arms” created by vertical shafts of sunlight appear to be lifting Bessie out from the water of the pool and childhood games flow into a sculptural choreography of frozen motion. Body language plays a crucial role in the poetic grace of the pictures. The magnetism which young children press together when they sleep and play weaves a lyrical tapestry of subconscious communication and physical well-being. The three girls fold together like pearls in a shell in one image where they nap in the cocoon of a blanket stretched across the grass.

“At first I was trying to take the best photographs I could of my children. When I decided this could be serious work, I kept asking myself, is it good or is it too cute? Am I just a mom looking at her kids? So I didn’t show it until this year at the Houston International FotoFest” earlier this year, she says.

The arts community at the fair validated her efforts and patrons purchased numerous prints. Angel has a lecture on the work scheduled for July in Santa Fe where she also won an invitation for representation by the Photo Eye Gallery. The photographs go on exhibit July 14 at the Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery in Dallas.

“My Daughters,” as Angel’s series is called, eludes time and place, except for the occasional tell-tale appearance of in-line skates or a Barbie doll. This is a world most adults have misplaced in the lost continent of childhood fantasy. Angel follows with the camera as Helen, now 11, and the twins Bessie and Nadine, now 8, head off into imaginary adventures.

Spontaneous antics take on a sinister meaning in some of the photographs, however. In one picture, Bessie makes a face that contorts her features into a frightening reminder of accidents and deformity. In another, she opens her mouth as if to scream and conveys all the appearances of a child drowning. “I knew she was really singing,” Angel laughs. Even cat scratches and a patched eye can take on sinister proportions as though the images symbolically communicate a mother’s anxieties for her children, who are blissfully oblivious to danger.

“I didn’t want to photograph them as cute little girls looking perfect. I didn’t want to reinforce the façade that girls have to look and act the right way,” Angel says. “In these photographs, they can look at themselves as strong individuals. I’m making photographs that challenge what children should be.”

Angel says she mostly photographs the spontaneous events that unfold through the play, though she may ask the girls to pose slightly differently in an activity that is already underway. Her photography, unlike the picture-perfect snapshot, steps from literal realities into a terrain of illusion ad interpretation. Angel says there are three levels of a good picture: one that captures what is really going on, one that reveals how that event looks in a photograph, and one that connects to the viewer’s life. Those three different documents give the image a life of its own.

Catherine and Dennis Angel adopted the children as infants, choosing India as the mother country of their children because they admired the culture and knew they would be eager to share in the heritage of their daughters. The honeyed skin and dark eyes of the girls give their pictures an exotic distance from the family home in Las Vegas.  Dennis appears in some of the photographs looking like a foreigner who fell in love with a distant land and stayed there to raise a family.

Angel started photographing her daughters when Helen was a baby but didn’t realize the scope until she made the first prints in 1997. She notes, “ I had stacks of contact sheets, over 10,000 images of my daughters from the last seven years. How had I not noticed? I simply had shot the film, developed, made contact sheets, and stacked it away.”

Photographs of children represent a compelling tradition throughout the history of photography. Julia Margaret Cameron created mystical yet sensual 19th-century tableaux that cast her daughters and friends in biblical and mythical roles. Harry Callahan’s surreal photographs of Eleanor Callahan and their child helped sanctify life as art in contemporary photography. Callahan’s impetus inspired his student Emmet Gowin’s dreamlike pastorals of Edith and her children. Nicholas Nixon with his annual portraits of his wife and her sisters and Sally Mann with her edgy vignettes of childhood have carried the tradition into current photographic legends.

Gowin influenced her most, Angel says. She didn’t have a clue who he was when he came to speak at Indiana University while she was a graduate student in photography, but he needed a place to stay. “So I said, okay, he can stay with Dennis and I. I was so blown away when I saw his work and so touched by him as a person.”

Like Gowin and other artists who photograph their families, Angel transcends the very personal nature of her work. She confronts the passage of time, “the inevitability of loss and the brevity of life nipping at my heels.” In some of Angel’s most recent pictures, Helen commands the scene like a goddess-alone. The statuesque portraits tell a complex story of newly fitting adolescence that sets her apart from her sisters.

Yet Angel struggled for years to take seriously her own work of her daughters. She teaches photography at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and knew that in the academic world, photographs of your children are the kiss of death. How could I take this seriously? Too sweet, too cute, not art. It frightened me in other ways, too. My children were not dressed in some of the photographs, a simple reflection of our lives in our backyard. But I knew this issue had been a problem for other photographers. Would my photographs also be seen as too dangerous? Self-censorship creeped in. I worked on these photographs for another four years but didn’t show them-11 years of work unseen.”

The Houston Fotofest gave her the hope in the form of positive feedback from a knowledgeable audience. She got feedback of another sort as well. She made copy slides of her pictures and when she brought them for processing to a lab she’s used for years, lab personnel turned the images over to the authorities. Despite the obvious poetic nature of the pictures as epiphanies of childhood, the nudity in some images raised questions at the lab about child pornography. A local detective and an FBI agent called Angel in for an interview. Confident that a simple explanation of her work as an artist and art professor would suffice, the couple went without an attorney,

They Angels were told they could be arrested if the images were found to be pornographic. “ We went in on a Wednesday and they told us they’d let us know by Friday,” she says. It would be an additional long and terrible week before they learned the pictures had cleared scrutiny and the case was dropped.

“We had to hire an attorney. We are pleased there are laws that prevent child pornography but this could have been handled differently. I had been going to that photo lab for nine years,” Angel says.

“It’s hot in Nevada. The children were out there in the splash pool and with the hose in a private yard. I made that decision, that choice to raise my daughters to be comfortable with their bodies, to have a positive image of themselves, to be self-assured and not feel the shamefulness that girls of my generation felt growing up. I didn’t know the proper name for body parts until I took a class in college. The incident took a toll in terms of her sense of freedom to pursue the project. The girls themselves will dress and act differently as teenagers and will require new approaches to portraiture in any case but Angel hopes to photograph them for the rest of her life.

All of Angel’s art validates women’s experience and spiritual experience. The radiant glow and atmospheric shadows of late-afternoon light enhance the metaphors of life, death, and spirituality that drift through her photographs. “The preciousness of life is incredibly spiritual,” she says.

She found the meaning of that preciousness early in her marriage when she discovered she had ovarian cancer in her early twenties. Nearly 10 years later, she would explore in her artwork the despair of facing death and the rebirth of survival. She created “To Embrace,” an installation of missed-media collages interspersed with a poetic text collage that chronicles her battle with cancer. The ARC Gallery in Chicago featured the exhibit this spring and it opens at the Matrix Gallery in Sacramento in October. The work weaves images of flowers, family photographs, and fences into metaphors for the unseen paths that life can take. Some pieces lead the viewer through a window, from a world of shadow pictures to one where everything seems clear and bright. Angel holds all these myriad bits together within an icon-like frame and a hint that spiritual forces bring the fragments fusion.

The collages visualize life piercing beyond the real world as we know it, just as flowers pierce through to the light from the subterranean abyss of their roots. Angel poured a whole lifetime of photography into the collages, using her own images and muted copies of family photographs. Gouache washed over the work lends a quality of faded memories.

Hands folded in gestures that suggest both self-protection and prayer play throughout the collages. The hands connect Angel to her studies as a dance major at the University of Oklahoma. “I had grown up taking ballet but once I realized I wasn’t going to ever dance for the New York City Ballet, I began questioning what I wanted to do, “she says. “Because I had the experience of cancer, I wasn’t interested in a collaborative effort like dance.”

Her journey into photography all started one day when she looked up from her desk and saw in front of her: a picture her father had taken of her when she was five, a pot of violets and a half-filled bottle of water. She borrow Dennis’ camera and shot off a role of film. “It was such an intense experience that I opened the back of the camera in my excitement and ruined the film.” Fifteen minutes later, she was in Dennis’ painting studio on campus telling him she had decided to become a photographer. She begged her way into an already-filled Photo I class and never looked back. “I got lost in the music in dance and I got that same feeling in photography. I was seeing something that transcended reality and holding onto it on film.”

Technical Notes

Catherine Angel photographs with a Mamiya 7 camera and an 80mm lens and a Deardorff 8x10 camera with a 210mm lens. She started photographing the children with the view camera and a tripod, then switched to the handheld Mamiya to capture spontaneous moments. She hopes to switch back to the 8x10 camera as the children get older and she seeks out images with more “contemplation between the sitter and the photographer.” A pivotal technical challenge in printing the work was to find a paper that would make the dark skin of the children glow. “I ordered every warmtone paper I could find. As soon as I saw the first print with the Ilford stock, I said, ‘Yeah.’ The paper is Ilford fiber base, warm tone, semi-matte. The paper has an egg-shell surface that isn’t hard and glossy,” she says. It is a multi-grade paper that allows her to burn in the background with a 0 filter and use a #3 filter for skin. “I hadn’t used a multi-grade paper since intro to photography, but now I’m sold on it.”