Claiborne Swanson Frank is no stranger to portraiture, but it was her latest project that changed the way she approached the creative process behind taking photos and capturing moments. Her latest book, Mother and Child (Assouline) is an impossibly stylish ode to motherhood, with the likes of Aerin Lauder, Lauren Santo Domingo, Nicole Trunfio and Charlotte Groeneveld all posing for sun-drenched, emotive pictures with their little ones side by side.
The book idea came to Swanson Frank after the birth of her first son, Hunter. “My small reality of life and my own needs exploded with the birth of my first son. I suddenly felt a responsibility and purpose I had never known before. With my new insight, I felt inspired to tell a modern story of motherhood, to document and honour this profound human experience. My hope was to take portraits of mothers and their children that captured love and joy, to try to stop time in a series of portraits – and show how this experience connects us all.” Upon seeing the heavenly images inside Mother and Child, we knew we had to delve a little deeper inside the world of Claiborne Swanson Frank and learn more about her path to photography, how she approaches motherhood and why gratitude is a morning ritual that keeps her focused on what’s really important.
Your new book, Mother and Child, has recently launched. Can you tell us a bit about this latest work and how it all came about?
This book idea came after the birth of my first son, Hunter. Motherhood transformed my world. In many ways, I was a child until I had my own children. My small reality of life and my own needs exploded with the birth of my first son. I suddenly felt a responsibility and purpose I had never known before. With my new insight, I felt inspired to tell a modern story of motherhood, to document and honour this profound human experience. My hope was to take portraits of mothers and their children that captured love and joy, to try to stop time in a series of portraits – and show how this experience connects us all.
Was the creative process the same for each of your three books, American Beauty, Young Hollywood and Mother and Child, or was each theme different to put together and produce?
The creative process I used in my last two books did not work in a single one of the seventy shoots I did for this book. Before, my professional life had been focused on getting a perfect shot. I had quiet, peaceful sets; I picked the locations and styled the subjects. It was all about creating a deep intimacy and connection with my subject and creating a space for a moment between us in a very controlled environment. And then, when I started photographing families for this book, all of that went out the window. In every shoot, there were moments of peace, moments of chaos, and everything in-between. It all seemed out of my control; there was no way to make sure the dress was perfect, to choreograph the moment, to control or pose a child. It challenged my process and formula deeply. At first, I’d leave a shoot and not know what I’d gotten if I even had gotten anything usable. Then I’d get home and go through it all and discover these incredible moments. I’ve realised that the most beautiful moment is never the curated moment and throughout this process, I was basically re-learning how to be a photographer. I was forced to be very present, and shoot in a freer and looser way, and to trust that the moment would appear and that I’d be able to document it. This creative evolution completely mirrored the evolution – and the growing pains – that I’d been experiencing as a mother.
Your fashion career started at Vogue Magazine as an assistant to Anna Wintour, how did that role prepare you for the world of photography, and more specifically, portraiture?
I think the greatest gift of my time at Vogue was the reality that if you tried hard enough, anything was possible. I was surrounded by creatives chasing their dreams and I realised I could do the same. It opened my eyes to a new world of infinite possibilities.
You’ve photographed many talented and inspiring women, how do you choose your subjects?
I choose women that inspire me and that are endlessly creating and contributing to the world.
You have two sons, Hunter and Wilder - how do you juggle motherhood with your photography career?
I run on a lot of green tea and coffee. In reality, I rarely feel balanced. Trying to find the balance between work and family is a daily struggle. I love my family above all and I love my career, so I make it work. I have an amazing nanny who is part of our family and without her, I would never be able to do what I do.
What does a typical morning in your household look like?
I am starting now to wake up with a prayer of gratitude for all the good things in my life. I find that having a focus on gratitude and what you have attracts abundance into your life and keeps your heart focused on what is important. I then go to my kitchen. I make hot water and lemon and start my coffee machine and heat the bottles of milk for my kids. My youngest is a year old and loves his milk in the morning and my 4-year-old still loves his too. I drink a glass of warm water with lemon and then I make coffee for me and my husband. I bring my children’s milk and our coffee into my room and we all climb into our bed together and snuggle for a little while. This is my favourite part of my day.
What has been the best thing about motherhood so far?
I think the greatest gift my children have shared with me is their LOVE. I feel overwhelmed with gratitude that they have so much unconditional love for me and me for them. I never knew being a mom would be as much fun as it is and at the same time I had no idea how hard parenting could be. No one can teach you how to be a parent; you have to learn each day and find your own truth as to how you want to raise your children. Being a parent forces you to look at your life, your morals, and the values you want to install in your children. Parenting has forced me to evolve as a human being and being a mother has made me a better person.
How do you handle the stressful parts of being a mum?
I think self-care is very important. I am a better mom when I am honouring my own needs and taking care of myself. I love taking long walks in nature, I love yoga and barre classes. I pray daily and love to journal and get lost in a good book or movie when my kids are asleep. My rituals ground me and help me to feel centred and strong in my role as a mother and in my life overall. When I feel healthy and centred and connected to the Universe I can function from a higher place in all parts of my life.
What does being a mum mean to you?
Once I became a mother my life was no longer my own. My heart belongs to my children and I see life through a different lens now. The beauty and power of motherhood have left me transformed.
Has your own childhood influenced you as a mum today?
In huge ways — I think the environment you raise your children in has a powerful impact on who you become. I was born in a beach town in Florida, we then moved to Europe as a family and lived there for a few years. My father bought a vineyard in Napa Valley, so we ended up spending the rest of my childhood in California. I feel that in my heart I am a citizen of the world. My parents made a great effort to open our eyes to the world and I think my childhood experience left an imprint on my heart and the way I see the world
How would you describe your parenting style?
I set out to parent from love and from a high space of moral values. I spoil my kids with affection. I think I am a fun mom — I have a very active childlike side of my personality. I could work on my consistency in terms of discipline and patience.
You have a fashion background and often style your own subjects and work, what are some of your failsafe items of clothing for a run-around day with the kids?
What’s coming up next for work and play?
I am going to take the summer off to be with my babies. I worked every day last summer creating this book. These years go by so fast and I don’t want to miss it.