One of the lasting images of the 90s might be a baby sitting snug in a flower pot, head adorned with blossoms.
Looking at those images in 2020, there’s a whimsical sweetness to them that can cut through to even the cold, broken soul of a Victorian months into an interminable COVID-19 lockdown.
“I used to moan to my husband: ‘Have I got a flower pot tattooed on my forehead?’ Because that’s all people would talk about,” photographer Anne Geddes told RN’s Stop Everything! recently.
Geddes’ photographs of babies — nestled in pea pods, cabbages and oversized flowers; sprawled somnolent on pumpkins, or sporting flower crowns — exploded into the public consciousness via her 1996 coffee table book, Down in the Garden.
This tome of tots landed on the lap of Oprah Winfrey at the height of her daytime talk show glory, catapulting the Australian-born Geddes into international fame — and commercial saturation.
There were Geddes greeting cards, calendars, books, posters — even dolls.
“It actually took me years before I could open the book [Down in the Garden] and look at it again,” Geddes admitted.
But the New York-based photographer says she has now come to terms with the success of those early images.
Storytelling with pictures
Geddes was born in 1956 in Queensland, the middle daughter of five girls; consequently, no photo exists of her as a newborn.
“I always would have loved to have seen myself as a newborn, and I think that’s why I was actually drawn to doing portraiture,” said the photographer.
As a teen, Geddes was a fan of Life Magazine’s photojournalism, but it wasn’t until she was in her mid-20s and living in Hong Kong with her husband that she taught herself photography, using a second-hand Pentax K1000.
By the time she was 30 and based in Melbourne, things clicked into place and she began photographing families, children — and then finally the subject that would come to define her career: babies.
“[I realised] I can do really beautiful, simple portraits, and I can make beautiful images for families that will last a lifetime,” she said.
She started simple, but soon experimented with the fantastical, eventually turning to the kinds of elaborate shoots she would become known for.
After relocating to Wellington with her husband and their two young daughters, she began working on Down in the Garden — inspired by the gardens of New Zealand’s capital, as well as children’s books like Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
“I don’t think of my work as baby photography. I think of my work as storytelling, and that’s what I was doing with Down in the Garden.”
Geddes said she wished she’d called the book “Down in the Garden: A Children’s Story … because in a lot of ways, it was taken a bit too seriously”.
Fame and detractors
Geddes had already had some success in New Zealand with her first calendar and greeting card range, but her appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show changed her life.
She said she wasn’t familiar with Winfrey or her show’s popularity, at the time.
“So I never really understood the power of a moment where Oprah would pick up my book and say: ‘This is a fabulous book. This is one of the best coffee table books I’ve seen’,” she recalled.
Down in the Garden landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list, and through Winfrey, Geddes met Celine Dion.
The photographer would go on to collaborate with Dion on a 2004 “concept album”, photograph the crown prince of Morocco, and produce many more best-selling coffee table books.
Geddes’ work runs the gamut from the whimsical to the serious, and includes a number of campaigns to promote the health of mothers and babies.
While she regularly photographs pregnant women and older children, babies remain her primary focus.
“It’s always puzzled me over my career when … people used to say to me: ‘So when are you going to photograph things other than babies?'”
She compared the focused nature of her work with that of celebrity photographer Richard Avedon or landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
“[People never asked Adams] ‘When are you going to stop photographing landscapes?'”
‘The only diva in the room’
There’s an old showbiz adage: “Never work with children or animals.”
But Geddes said the key to a successful baby photoshoot is that “absolutely everything needs to revolve around them … They have to be the only diva in the room, the only ego is them”.
Babies must be warm, comfortable and well-fed, and Geddes sets up her often-elaborate shoots — with themes like ‘heaven’ or ‘underwater’ — the day before, so that once the babies are on set she can immediately start shooting.
The price tag of a Geddes shoot now sits between US$250,000 and US$350,000, and involves months of pre-production, a large on-set team and payment for the babies.
“Fantasies do cost money,” she said.
Geddes doesn’t audition babies or use modelling agencies, but prefers to photograph either newborns (“great for sleeping photos”) or six to seven-month-olds.
“The six to seven-month-old babies are wonderful because they’re just sitting [for the first time] and they’re really pleased about this,” she said.
Proliferation and pilfering
In the age of the internet and smartphones, cute images — whether it’s kittens or babies — are being made and shared online at an alarming rate.
Geddes said this has affected her business “dramatically”.
“There are millions and trillions of photographs that are being taken on iPhones every day … [But] I really think [these photos] are just a fleeting thought. I don’t think people are thinking about them in any permanent sense.”
Which is where Geddes, and other professional photographers, still have an edge.
“I can create images that will live forever … It’s a work of art on the wall,” she said.
Smartphone photography is also having an impact on her subjects, who she said put on “fake smiles” as soon as someone brings out a phone.
“It’s unreal, these babies spend their lives with a phone in their face the whole time.”
Another problem of the online era is how easily images can be stolen and used without credit.
This led Geddes (representing the Professional Photographers of America) to lobby the US Federal Government in 2019 to pass the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement Act to help artists pursue legal action for works used without permission.
Geddes used to be able to fund her next shoots with the profits from her coffee table books, greeting cards and prints — but those physical objects aren’t as popular as they once were.
As a result, she recently joined a slew of artists and creatives who have turned to crowd-funding to build communities of dedicated fans who will support their work.
Despite her misgivings about smartphone photography, Geddes said: “I think we have to embrace the world that we’re living in.”
“There’s no point in saying: ‘Oh, people can’t take photos on cell phones as good as I take’ … It’s just a different way of using photography, and I celebrate that.”
During the pandemic, the photographer started a “joy series” on her Instagram, asking fans from all around the world to send in their own baby photos.
So far, her Instagram has featured babies from 77 different countries.
“I was trying to figure out how I can make a difference in this awful world that we’re all experiencing right now, and spreading joy is the way to do it,” Geddes said.
“Babies are such a common, joyful language.”
After 30 years of photographing babies, Geddes is still in awe of them.
“I’m fascinated with the whole process of pregnancy and new life, and it’s more relevant in these COVID times, today. We need to really appreciate the fact that these new, little babies are coming into the world,” she said.
Posted , updated