The relations between mother and daughter form one of humanity’s great subjects–one that is remarkably little treated in the visual arts, although it often inspires literature. The mother and child theme in serious visual art more frequently looks at the boy child, and leaves the women with girls to the hands of the sentimentalists and illustrators. Among the many benefits of feminism are that it has encouraged appreciation of the positive love between mother and daughter, has unabashedly declared its essential pleasure, and has promoted our understanding of the way female power passes through the generations. A new show of photographs looks at these and other facets of what may be to many women the most important relationship of all.

About nine years ago, a group of women photographers began meeting regularly to discuss photography and their own artworks. Known informally as Women Who Shoot, the Women’s Photo Works group now includes more than 40 members who prod and encourage each other, and often have collective exhibitions. The current one, Mother/Daughter, is on view in Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams House. It includes 36 photographs and photo-based, mixed-media pieces by 15 artists. There is some, but blessedly little, easy sentiment or cuteness here. These artists have the advantage of knowing their subjects from the inside, as well as from alert observation.

Overall, the straight photography here is stronger than the manipulated pieces or mixed-media work. Laura Drey’s four silver prints stand out among the many good pieces. Drey depicts four aspects of the mother/daughter relationship and imbues these images with genuine emotion when they could so easily have been sappy or saccharine. In “Loving,” a dark-haired, sitting mother with the smile of a Madonna looks up at the toddler who stands before her. The child gazes down intently at her mother, her grubby little fingers holding the woman’s face. I don’t think this photograph could have been posed; I believe Drey saw, framed up and recorded this unself-conscious moment without the subjects’ awareness, which says a great deal about her observational powers and the absorbing nature of the relationship she depicts.

Drey’s three other pieces offer the same kind of fresh truth. In “Comforting,” a sad young girl slumps against her mother’s still body. She holds her mother’s fingers, and looks inconsolable–but is in fact absorbing strength from the inexhaustible store of comfort in her mother’s warm flesh. In “Enjoying,” a middle-aged mother and her grown daughter lean together, temple to temple, and laugh at something outside of the frame, while in “Caring” another woman reaches over to smooth something off the cheek, to burnish the perfection, of the lovely young woman her daughter has miraculously become. In each of these images, the intense physical connection between daughters and mothers is presented in very thoughtful ways.

Julie Stovall shows us that the connection endures even as it is tested. “Wanting & Not Wanting” indicates that to-and-fro dance between mother and the wide world that every daughter must dance. The toddler reaches back toward/pushes away from her mother’s legs while the wind blows across an enticing expanse of grass. Stovall’s “Daughter & Mother” is an absolutely beautiful picture, an excellent print filled with lovely light. Here are an old woman and an older woman. They look out at the camera, but lean together. Both are plump and soft, with heavy breasts, no waists, wrinkled skin. Their relationship has long since passed the age of innocence and simplicity that Drey shows us in “Loving,” but it has lost none of its preciousness or power.

A woman longs to give her daughter not just love or strength but a magical protection–to be the mother, but also the fairy godmother. Liz Priestley portrays this beautifully in “Dana and Savannah.” Here, a tall, elegant woman wearing a strapless gown stands with her young daughter, who is wrapped in glimmering cloth. The older woman’s long, long hair pours over the girl like a silken garment through which no harm can come.

In “Ilana and her Mother,” Artie Dixon shows a young girl forthrightly positioned before the camera. Her hands reach up to her mother’s, who stands behind her, her long brown hair flowing down to mix with her daughter’s lighter tresses. Many strengths come to girls and women from their fathers, their brothers, their lovers. But only from her mother can a girl learn to look upon the world with this fearless, concentrated gaze. EndBlock