Text and photography by Alexa Garbarino.
I used to see pregnant women as giant, cumbersome creatures — an image that was reinforced by the perpetual I Love Lucy reruns where a pregnant Lucille Ball ran around encased in mass quantities of fabric that passed as maternity clothes. My pregnant friend Nancy erased that perception when she posed nude for me in her living room, just days before giving birth to her son. This was pre-Demi Moore Vanity Fair cover and until Nancy, I had never seen a pregnant woman completely naked. I was stunned — not by Nancy’s girth, but by how strong and powerful and elegant she looked.
I was fascinated by her ripe body.
It would be another eight years before the idea of doing a series on pregnant nudes occurred to me. I was recently married, and because I was already in my late 30’s, my husband and I knew we should start trying to get pregnant right away. Coincidentally, a lot of my girl friends were having children at this time. As it seemed that my focus was all about pregnancy, I approached them with the idea for my series.
Because these first models were good friends, there was already a level of trust going into the shoot. I was able to forego the usual strategically placed fabric and even avoided what I now call “the hand dance”… one hand covering up here, the other hand covering the down there… Initially, I photographed the women in my studio and mostly in silhouette, but after a while, I felt that the portraits were becoming predictable and familiar. I wanted the portraits to speak to more than the fact that a woman was going to have a child.
It was when I photographed my friend in Miami that I went in a new direction with the project. Although Ann was not a professional model, she had posed for me often when we both lived and worked in LA. I knew she would be game for something out of the ordinary, and she didn’t disappoint. She and her husband, Christopher, posed together in their foliage-filled backyard — it resembled how I imagined the Garden of Eden would look. I could see that by being out of the studio and in a familiar environment, Ann could also step outside of herself.
After that shoot, there was no going back, I was determined to get the models in location that was significant to them. After a while, I had pretty much photographed all of my pregnant friends and began photographing friends of friends. While getting to know my new found models, I soon realized that every woman had a different reason for posing; many were inspired by Ms. Moore’s iconic shot, many knew it would be their last pregnancy, and many had struggled with infertility for years and wanted documentation of their hard won battle.
Ironically, I soon learned of my own issues with infertility. All of the infertility stories I had heard from the models took on a greater significance. I don’t know if it was because my instincts to “get the shot” just kicked in, or if I was secretly hoping that some pregnancy mojo might rub off on me, but I actively sought out pregnant women during that period, determined to include my own portrait in the series.
While a lot of the models were surprised at how heroic and gorgeous they looked in the photos, what I saw was their sheer joy in themselves. It was as if their pregnancy gave these women permission to have fun and be outlandish with their body. There was absolute freedom and innocence in their nakedness, and no judgment about their size or weight.
Aside from being exhilarating and often hilarious, the shoots in the public spaces were very quick. I usually had my location and framing determined before the day of the shoot. And because I used available light, we got there so early, we had to wait for the light to come up. Still, no matter how early it was, there was often someone around. That was especially true when shooting in New York City – someone was always around — club kids, early morning joggers, cyclists…
I think we actually foiled some would-be robbers at the shoot in Theatre Alley. Tiffany and her husband, Xavior, picked us up at our apartment that morning when it was still dark. Xavior made it clear that he was not at all happy that his wife was posing naked in 22 degree weather, but Tiffany was determined. It didn’t help matters that as soon as we all piled out of the car we saw two men up the street who were clearly trying to break into a back door. We all just froze for a few seconds and stared at each other before they took off running. I quickly set up my camera and tripod before Tiffany threw off her coat, and made sure she kept her shoes on after seeing 3 rats scurry across the alley.
Because her husband has proposed to her in a taxi, Tara chose a New York City cab as the location for her first pregnant portrait (she has posed twice more for subsequent pregnancies). It took a few of tries before I found a cab driver who not only owned his cab, but would meet us at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. I told him the nature of the project and he assured me that he would be respectful of the model and would not “peak” as he sat behind the wheel of his cab – it was against his religion to look at a naked woman who was not his wife.
I think Jess on the #6 Train was the most difficult shot, but one of the most fun. It was 4am on a Saturday at the 59th Street Station. When the train pulled up, the last car had only a man and a woman, sitting across from each other. Jess stood by the pole between them while I set up my camera. When I told Jess I was ready, she calmly turned to each of the passengers and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but we’re going to take a picture.” Then she threw her coat to her partner Chip. I frantically started shooting, barking out directions above the noise of the train. As soon as it pulled to a stop at 51st Street, the two passengers made a beeline for the door, both of them laughing, and the man said, “Only in New York.” The train doors shut and we had the car to ourselves. I shot one more roll of film. Jess had barely gotten her coat back on as we pulled into Grand Central Station.
Whenever a woman I was scheduled to photograph didn’t have a particular location where she wanted to pose, I immediately asked, “How about Times Square?” Everyone quickly nixed the idea, but happily, any location I mentioned after that seemed reasonable by comparison.
When it came time for my own portrait, Times Square was the place for me. In fact, I was thrilled to pose there because I was thrilled to be pregnant after three years of artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. I had the pleasure of being poked by my husband (with a needle) three times a day for months on end, I got naked for every doctor who happened by, and I flung my feet into more stirrups than a rodeo star. So throwing off my coat on a chilly April dawn in the middle of Manhattan was a cinch, and seemed like a fitting end to a very long ride.
I’ve photographed over 100 women for this series and I’m still amazed at how every woman’s shape shifts differently. While those nine months may feel like they’re going to go on forever, pregnancy is fleeting – I can’t imagine not wanting to document it.
Please visit Alexa Garbarino for more great pregnancy photographs.