Memories of your teenage years tend to be clouded by raw emotions, from the first pricks of lust to the thrill of independence. Siân Davey, an English photographer, brings that phase of life into sharper focus with her series “Martha”, now being published as a photo book, in which she spent three years following her stepdaughter’s journey out of childhood. From lazy summer afternoons in the Devon countryside to long, bleary nights dancing at clubs and devouring pizzas, she captures an adolescent world which may feel lost to those who have already passed over the threshold into adulthood.
Family relationships – especially complicated ones – have always been at the centre of Davey’s work. She began her career as a photographer documenting the final days of her father’s life; the detritus of pill bottles and old letters in his hospital room reflected the sad end to their difficult relationship. When her daughter, Alice, was born with Down’s syndrome, Davey used the camera to confront her instinctive feelings of fear and denial. The resulting series, “Looking for Alice”, published as a photo book in 2016, chronicled her daughter’s early life. Using a medium-format camera, which captures Alice’s world with intensely tactile detail and delicate light and colour, Davey follows her daughter as she watches TV, gets a haircut, and plays at the beach. With her wispy bowlcut and soulful eyes, Alice is irresistibly charming – and, ultimately, much like any other child.
One project led to another when, one day, Alice’s older sister, Martha, aged 16 (above), asked Davey why she no longer photographed her. In the question, Davey detected anxiety, about whether Martha was being valued or loved enough, emotions Davey recognised in herself.
“Sisters in the kitchen doorway”
Before pursuing photography full-time in 2014, Davey spent 15 years practising psychotherapy, which she describes as a “profoundly intimate process, as is portrait photography. Both are essentially a dance between subject and object.” There are clues to Davey’s relationships with her sitters in their smiles – or resentful stares. “For this photo I was just in the kitchen and there wasn’t enough light, so I told Martha to stand outside.” Here Martha plays “the surly teenager”. “Alice is mirroring this teenage mindset.”
“After the Swim (i)”
This photograph of Martha (far left) and her friends, who have just emerged from a lake, was taken early on in the project, just before the girls started hanging out with, and dating, boys. “There’s a wonderful fearlessness and lack of inhibition in this image,” says Davey. Their skin tones are warm and their poses relaxed. It’s a far cry from the contorted positions sometimes assumed by women in fashion adverts or Instagram selfies. The overall effect is sensual rather than sexual. “I was acutely aware that I was a woman photographer and mother working intimately with young women,” Davey says. “I was also aware that in the making of this work the girls didn’t have to ‘perform’ to the male gaze. I guess that would have felt liberating for them not to be judged on body shape and size, and therefore feel safe in front of my lens.”
“Martha’s First Love”
As Martha grew up, she began spending less time at home. Davey followed her into a new world of parties and boys that she was making for herself. “It was important that I got a handle on the groups’ boundaries and that I didn’t overstep them – notwithstanding the fact that these boundaries were often unspoken.” Because Martha invited Davey into her world, she was able to witness moments in the life of a teenager that are normally guarded from parents. This sun-dappled photograph captures a deeply private look: Martha locks eyes with a new boyfriend.
“Gathered by the River - Last Light 7pm”
Davey’s work has a painterly feel to it, partly due to her use of a medium-format camera, which she says makes her think more carefully about the composition of a shot than she would if she were using a digital camera, with its limitless exposures. It’s worth the trouble; her photographs reproduce the delicate skin tones of her subjects in a way which is closer to brushwork than pixels. The muted greens of the countryside, which often serve as the backdrop of the series, conjures a modern-day English pastoral in which the bright hoodies and beer bottles feel like a natural update to the genre’s themes of youth and nature.
“The Last Family Holiday - France”
Martha, now 20 years old, hasn’t yet said what she gained from the project. “She needs time time to reflect on what’s happened, and that could be years away,” says Davey. “Because of the collaboration, our relationship strengthened. I loved and admired how she didn’t ever feel the need to be anyone apart from herself, and I think that is evident in the work.”
Davey has two more children to photograph, her sons Joseph (left), 13, and Luke, 30. Her series on Joseph is closest to being finished. “I’ve been photographing him every week for the last two years.” Recently, though, the project hit a wall. Stuck, Davey went to see an exhibition of work by August Sander, an early 20th-century German portrait photographer. Suddenly “I felt like I’d met God in a picture...I felt so moved.” She switched from a portable 6x7 camera to a heavy 10x8 camera with glass plates, similar to one Sanders would have used. “The moment I switched, the magic returned,” says Davey. “The scrutiny of the new large format shone a light on our relationship and intensified it somehow. Joseph is under the microscope, and so is my intense love for him.”
Martha (Trolley Books) is out now