By Dave Andrusko
I’m guessing that on a first take, I might not be the only one to be of (at least) two minds about photographer Christian Berthelot’s “Cesar,” which is part of the Circulation(s) festival on view at Centquatre in Paris.
“The French artist captures babies in their first moments of life — specifically, between three and 18 seconds of existing outside the womb,” writes Priscilla Frank for the Huffington Post. What was his motivation? According to Frank
“Far from the clichés and platitudes, I wanted to show us, as we are when we are born,” [Berthelot] explains in his artist statement. Far from the pristine images of rosy-cheeked babies we’re often used to digesting, Berthelot’s raw photographs capture babies as almost alien creatures — naked, screaming and drenched in bodily juices.
But who is speaking in the second half of this paragraph? Not Berthelot but Frank. Parents of newborns are quite aware that babies do not come out of their mother’s womb hair neatly combed, body free of what looks like lubricants, and smiling angelically.
They come out a mess, covered with a white substance called vernix, screaming to exercise their lungs, and to announce their arrival.
However, that they do not arrive looking like fashion models is part of the beauty and the mystery of birth. Their disheveled looks only make us more protective than ever and more amazed.
Slate’s David Rosenberg explains that Berthelot’s first experience with a caesarean birth came “when his wife underwent an emergency C-section to save both her and their son.”
“He was like a warrior who has just won his first battle, like an angel out of darkness,” ” Berthelot said. “What a joy to hear him scream.”
But prior to his son’s birth, “Berthelot felt like he was living in a parallel universe filled with confusion,” Rosenberg writes
“In the operating room, the parents do not see what is happening on the other side of the operative field,” he wrote via email. “We hear and we waited, we imagined. And then it got there and it was the first time we see our baby.”
Around a week later, Berthelot met Jean-Francois Morievnal, an obstetrician in the hospital where his son had been born. The two spoke about their mutual love of photography and, about six months later, Morievnal proposed the idea that Berthelot begin working on a series about midwifery in the operating room with a focus on caesarean births.
Berthelot did not just nonchalantly sidle into an operating room and start snapping photos. According to Rosenberg he trained for six months on how to work (unobtrusively and antiseptically, one would assume) in a surgical environment and began seeking out permission from the moms and the clinics to photograph the baby’s arrival.
“So far, 40 children have breathed their first few breaths in the presence of Berthelot’s lens,” writes Rosenberg. (You can see a representative sample at slate.com).
Rosenberg concludes, “The resulting photographs are at once graphic, heartening, suspenseful and gripping, capturing those rare moments in which the future hangs precariously, as if on a thread.” He ends with this wonderful blend of the gritty and the sublime.
The artist freezes newborn humans, caked in blood and gunk, beginning their lifelong journey, thus creating portraits for the youngest possible subjects. “All these photographs are for me, the first performance of a new human being,” the photographer said.