The family snapshots of Tierney Gearon came to the attention of the art world through her significant presence in the “I Am A Camera” exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London in the spring of 2001, but her work had a strength and conviction that belied her newcomer status.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1962, Tierney was raised in an affluent and conservative home. Her career was kick-started when she was spotted by a European modeling agency while studying ballet in Utah. It was during half a decade of traveling the world through her modeling work that Tierney first became interested in life on the other side of the camera. An agent in Paris, impressed by a small scrapbook of Polaroids Tierney had taken of other models she worked with, encouraged her to extend her repertoire and she was launched into the world of fashion photography, earning respect from many of the most influential fashion houses and producing work for Times Square billboards and publications such as W the The New York Times Magazine.
After five years of jet-setting as a busy commercial photographer, Tierney felt the fashion world had taught her everything it could. She met and married a Frenchman (whom she has since divorced) and settled down for the first time to raise a family, having two children, Emilee and Michael. Following what proved to be an emotionally difficult time after the birth of her two children and the breakup of her marriage, Tierney began the highly personal project that launched her unsuspectingly into an artistic career, the documentation of her extended family.
The project acted as a personal journey for her and her family, literally and emotionally. Structured around journeys across the United States with her children to and from the homes of distant and diverse relatives, her images show lives comprised of comfort and confusion. Little in Tierney’s pictures could be called out-of-the-ordinary — we see generations of her family lounging on the beach, skiing, talking by the pool and watching TV. There is no documentary grittiness in these bright technicolor shots, whose backdrops range from sun-drenched beaches to the white ski slopes of the Alps. However there is an edginess at play that goes beyond the snap-happy impressions offered at first glance. Children stand nude on a beach against the backdrop of an azure sea, seemingly a family snapshot except that the children wear identical Disney masks and stare directly towards the viewer, unexpectedly reflecting our quizzical glance back at us. In her photographs as in her life, Tierney’s children form a powerful presence. They roam free, play-act and make-believe, sometimes to the camera and sometimes to the adults they find around them. An old man, hiding his face behind a mask in the shape of a bird’s beak, looks down toward a young boy dressed in Sesame Street underpants. The boy faces away from the camera and stares up at his elder – we do not see his face, but from his confident pose we feel that it is actually the man who is hiding from his younger counterpart. The children are not sentimentalized, neither are the adults alongside them. Tierney’s talent lies in her ability to capture life with all its surreality and confusion, as negotiated by children in an adult world. A boy stands forlorn by a poolside while his grandfather speaks on his cell phone. Two children look down at an animal laying dead by the roadside: the girl points her fingers in the shape of a gun and the young boy removes his wolf mask, both are confused and intrigued by the body in front of them. In another image a boy stands like a neoclassical cherub on a patio wall, looking down with a nonchalant glance from his “pedestal” at an adoring middle aged woman standing below. These “I Am A Camera” images are highly personal to Tierney’s own life, reflecting equal helpings of chaos and stability. But they also remain strangely anonymous and distant. They speak of particulars but also tap into ubiquitous questions about life. Freezing these moments seemingly through children’s eyes, Tierney presents us with the children’s complex mixture of innocence and insouciance, which comes from experiences as yet unmediated by grown-up sensibilities. Any questions we have as we look into these images are bounced back at us as the young counterparts concentrate on life lived.
In 2003, Tierney moved from London to Los Angeles, desiring to move away from the spotlight. She had two more children, Grace and Walker, by two different fathers between 2003 and 2006, which made three different dads for four kids. She continued working over the next three years on an evocative and revealing body of work, intensely personal photographs examining her relationship with her schizophrenic mother. Tierney’s photographs are deeply intimate, yet remain distance from their subjects. They resemble a personal study of family and motherhood, but also hardships of mental illness and aging. “The Mother Project” was shown in a solo exhibition with the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York in 2006, followed by the book “Daddy, where are you?” published by Steidl in 2007.
In Spring 2007, Tierney met Simon de Pury. Highly impressed with “The Mother Project,” de Pury commissioned her to do an exhibition. For the next two years she worked intensely to create the explosive body of work titled, EXPLOSURE. With no retouching or post work, the EXPLOSURE photographs are captured through the more classic mechanism of double exposure in camera. Each photograph has been composed by carefully combining two of the artist’s images whose compositions and themes act as counterpoints to each other: interior space and wilderness, youth and old age, solitude and companionship. The result is a powerful exploration of psychological terrain. The artist, her children and friends are the characters in these dramas which are staged against the backdrop of landscapes spanning locales from South Africa to India, Italy to upstate New York and the artist’s home in Los Angeles. Individually, each of the two layered images often portray a banal scene of domesticity or sentimental landscape but the masterful combining of images creates a wholly new and mysterious scene articulating premonitions of the future and haunting reenactments of the past.
In the Fall of 2009 Tierney was introduced to someone doing a children’s book for Stiedl and was asked to do a book of her own. Thinking it would be an easy, enjoyable adventure she soon realized it would be her hardest project to date.
The birth of the Shape Book and ABC Book started at the same time. She worked simultaneously on both, which made the process more playful. The ABC Book will be published by Damiani in the fall of 2013. It was a collaboration with Tierney’s youngest children and their friends. They explored new ways to come up with words for the alphabet often with strange and surprising results.
In the Shape Book, Tierney builds fantastical plastic structures and photographs people inside them. Both the person inside and the viewer are transplanted into another world. She again collaborated with her children their friends, and this time their pets, too. Speaking of the shapes, Tierney said, “The funny thing is no one tries to get out. That’s what’s so crazy. They just stay in there looking around.” The photographs capture the subjects disorientation and curiosity of the new world created by the shape. For the past two years, Tierney has shipped her materials — sheets of magenta, turquoise, vivid yellow plexiglass — to picturesque locales like St. Barts and Telluride, where she assembles them and corrals her own four children (ages five to eighteen), along with friends and various pets, for the pictures. Even the family’s Bengal cat, Striker, consented to a few minutes in a cube, where he luxuriated in the Malibu sun. “Once they’re in the box,” Tierney says, “they start doing their own thing.”
In the fall of 2012 for the first time Tierney was approached by The New York Times to a portfolio Oscar nominated actresses and create thirteen vignettes. Using super heroes as the concept she created magical visual moments — turning her still images into films. She described the experience as “magical for everyone. It was like being inside a group of kindergartners’ art project. We all became part of these fantasies and we lived them with each actor.”
Tierney’s work has garnered world acclaim by critics and collectors alike. An artistic autodidact, her technique embraces the accidental — capturing personal, haunting images. What results are portraits that are familiar yet uncanny, surreal candid life studies documenting her family and friends that provide a look into her own inner workings, desires and fears. A continuous diary of her soul.