Photographer Sage Sohier’s mother, Wendy Morgan, was a model in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was photographed by Richard Avedon, Horst, Irving Penn and Louise Dahl-Wolf. “As I grew older, there was no use competing with her and so I assumed my position, quite happily, on the other side of the camera,” Sohier writes in the prologue to her new book, Witness to Beauty (Kehrer Verlag). The book features images Sohier has made since the 1990s of her beautiful, elegant mother. The portraits—some posed, some more casually observed—often include Sohier herself as well as her sister, Laine. As in her previous books, Sohier uses her camera to examine family dynamics and self-presentation. Here her photos also inspire thoughts on how ideas of feminine beauty contribute to women’s sense of self.
The book begins with a preface, showing old images of Morgan: as a child and debutante; as a model posing for LIFE, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Charm; as an elegant young mother. Then Sohier’s photos begin. The first, taken in 1994, shows her mother checking her makeup in her mirror. Mirrors appear again and again in the book. In one image, Morgan is taking a bubble bath surrounded by mirrored walls; we see a reflection of Sohier behind her camera, giving directions. Another photo, taken in a store dressing room, shows Morgan cinching her jacket at the waist while critically checking her profile in the mirror; Sohier stands in the background gazing into the mirror with an expression of wistfulness or uncertainty.
Photos of Sohier, her sister and their mother hint at humor and tension. All three pose in their bathrobes with mustache bleach on their upper lips. In another image, Morgan casts an appraising eye on Laine as she tries on one of her mother’s old evening gowns. In another photo, she eagerly puts an ornate necklace on Laine. Some tableaux are staged in front of painted portraits of Morgan, bringing the younger version of Morgan into the scene.
Morgan remains a game model, willing to be photographed in both vulnerable and funny moments. In her text, Sohier writes, “I hope that her incredible vitality, zest for life, and resilience come through in this book.” —Holly Stuart Hughes