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On Womanhood: Emily Weithorn’s Body of Work Examines Identity and How Femininity is Presented

Posted by on March 8, 2018 | Student Photography

An image from “A Certain Kind of Woman,” Wiethorn’s project which combines still life and self portraits to explore her understanding of womanhood. All photos © Emily Wiethorn

For many of us, our first idea of who we are is shaped by our parents. Our first steps, our first words, our first view of the world at large are all colored by the presence, or absence, of our parents, for better or worse. For Emily Wiethorn, an MFA student in the Studio Art program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, her work—and much of her identity—has been inexorably influenced by her mother. At times raw and unsettling, her work is unflinchingly honest, testing the boundaries of their relationship, and ultimately, bringing them closer together.

Wiethorn hails from Melbourne, Kentucky, a 20-minute drive from Northern Kentucky University, where she received her BFA in Applied Photography. Wiethorn developed a command for lighting during undergrad, but it was during graduate school at Nebraska where her work truly began to take shape, though her inspiration was hundreds of miles away. It was during breaks, back at home with her mother, where she truly found an outlet for her expression.

An only child, Wiethorn grew up alone with her mother, who worked from home. Wiethorn says her great-grandmother was a prototypical “Southern woman,” and raised her mother in her image of femininity. This image placed a high importance on hospitality and politeness, but also physical appearance, leading her mother to be extremely self-conscious about the way she looked, which in turn, helped form Wiethorn’s early ideas about feminine identity and the inward gaze. She admits to taking after her mother’s personality and mannerisms, as well, internalizing her influence, but not unpacking it. “I relished in those disguises that I learned from her,” she says.


Wiethorn pairs portraits of her mother with softly lit environmental scenes for “The Fragility of Home.”

Wiethorn’s first project, “The Fragility of Home,” focuses on her home life and her mother’s influence. Intensely personal and intimate, the series mixes portraits of her mother with abstracted views of their home that feel equally critical and sympathetic. She juxtaposes an artificially lit portrait of her mother all made up with one of her bleary-eyed, makeup-free face bathed in harsh, shadow-streaked swaths of sunlight. She sets the scene with images of various rooms in her home, and imbues still lifes of her backyard flora with as much drama as her portraits.

For her next project, Wiethorn turned her camera on herself. Determined to build a studio practice and “learn how to become an artist,” Wiethorn took the next logical step in expanding her scope, examining the effects of her internalized influences on her perspective of femininity. Without her mother present, she took her place in front of the camera, using her body to explore her understanding of womanhood. Of the series, which she titled “A Certain Kind of Woman,” she says: “I explore what we show to the world as women,” using her own inherited sense of womanhood to unpack the way women are taught to present themselves.


A self-portrait of Wiethorn for “A Certain Kind of Woman.”

For Wiethorn, that means references to her mother’s hospitality and the colorful—but always slightly dated—patterns and styles of her clothing choices. She says her outfits, all bright floral prints and pastels, represent the designated color palette of the feminine woman. Wiethorn makes all of the clothing herself, and a closer look reveals that she’s added a layer of permanence to the aesthetic by physically taking it into her body—the familiar floral theme can be found on her own full-sleeve tattoo.

From lighting to styling, Wiethorn’s artistic choices in the series are all intentional. Learn more about Wiethorn’s inspiration and creative process, as well as the impact of the work on her relationship with her mother, in “Storytellers” (PDNedu, Spring 2018). Read the free digital edition of PDNedu here.

Matthew Ismael Ruiz