Dona Schwartz: On the Nest

© Dona Schwartz ‘Kristin & Ryan, 18 days’ [detail] 2006

The contours of our daily lives

mould us into who and what we are.


There are two moments in domestic life that clang shut like gates. There can be no return. One is the arrival of the first child, the other the departure of the last. Before there were just the two of you, each the apple of the other’s eye. Then parenthood takes you by the hand and does not let go. It’s a giddy race in which you strive to stay one step ahead of this mishap or that calamity, accommodate the noise and mess, navigate the cross eddies of need and want. You turn your gaze from each other to focus upon the new life developing before you. It’s confusing, frustrating, exhausting and deep, deep down you fall in love with this emergent person. It is a love that lasts a lifetime.

Nothing quite prepares you for parenthood; nothing except a highly evolved instinct that you had no inkling you possessed until the switch is flicked by a tiny hand that reaches blindly towards you. The months before birth are spent preparing: emotionally, mentally and physically – choose a name, read Spock, decorate a nursery – convinced that you will shape this nascent life. And into this room you pour your hopes and dreams, and your anxiety. Like demigods, parents prepare a little Eden…

But not for long…

You soon learn that, even before a toddler can speak, she or he has a highly developed sense of their own personal taste. What they will eat and what they will not. What they will wear and not wear. Which toys are loved, and which discarded. And, soon enough, the nursery is colonised and, before a dozen years are out, the demigods will be expelled, and paradise is lost. Stuff mounts up. Walls change from baby-pale to infant-bright and on to the brooding clutter of adolescent angst. The family dynamic is boisterous and in flux, full of compromise and joy, tears and hugs: a drama in which each actor plays many roles and leopards change their spots. It is an eternal present as you run just to keep up.

But not for long…

Suddenly, it seems, the toing-and-froing of teenagers is just the froing of young adults. And they are gone… to college, to another town, to new relationships… They leave the room that was once their microcosmic realm to dive headlong into the wider world. Like a skin sloughed off, the room retains some sense of its former owner, but now it is empty … and too small. As the second gate closes, you turn back towards your partner and look out towards the future. Once again there is anticipation and there is apprehension, but now there is a new awareness: all things end.

Dona Schwartz is a photographer and visual ethnographer. Her photographs of expectant parents and empty-nesters mark those moments when each couple stands outside the gates of family life. Like Flemish paintings of the seventeenth century, they are portraits that reflect their subject in the symbolic resonance of acquisitions: toys, posters, furnishings, books, musical instruments and sports gear, accreted and layered; the sedimentation of childhood. But the subjects of these portraits are not there. The parents-to-be and the empty-nesters attest to that absence. This is not their space. It was once. Perhaps it will be again. But for now they remain familiar strangers in a place elsewhere but the present.

Alasdair Foster

© Dona Schwartz ‘Abby & Ben, 15 days’ 2009


Alasdair: How did ‘On the Nest’ begin?

Dona: My previous project, ‘In the Kitchen’, was a multi-year project exploring the dynamics of my own newly blended family in the hub of our daily domestic life. For two and a half years I photographed the domestic interactions of our six kids, two dogs, friends and acquaintances. I photographed celebrations, hostilities, chaos, calm, alienation and coalescence. Our house pulsed with energy, and it wore me out. One testy afternoon when I was thinking about photographic work focusing on teen transitions, I vowed to pursue and valorise other life transitions. Eureka! Adult transitions: the transition to parenthood and then, the transition to life after child-rearing.

While the project was born of frustration, it proceeded with awe, affection and respect. I came more fully to appreciate the incredible leap of faith the transition to parenthood demands. As I was photographing empty nesters my own nest was beginning to empty, and I could easily relate to these compatriots, traveling the same path to a shift in identity and a new place in life. I encountered (and shared) a mix of responses and feelings: excitement, sadness, weariness, nostalgia, anxiety…

Who are the people in the images?

Most I had never met before I photographed them. I posted fliers in places expectant parents might frequent, I put out calls for participation in various newsletters, I used word-of-mouth referrals. I tried to include as broad a range of parents as I possibly could.

What was your approach to making the image?

I wanted to make environmental portraits, pictures of the parents in the spaces they’d created for their children. That meant balancing people and place.

Prior to each portrait session I would visit my subjects in their homes, describe the project and the uses to which the images would be put. Then I’d ask to see the room and shoot test photos so that I could make decisions about where I’d want to set up when I returned. I was shooting 4×5 film with studio lights, so all of my gear had to fit into the space along with my subjects and me. It was challenging to say the least.

I gave no direction as to how the subjects should present themselves. They chose what to wear for the portrait. I did nothing that would mask the cultural clues I was seeking to capture in the portrait and remained alert to particular kinds of gendered or hierarchical self-presentations. With expectant parents, I became attuned to the salience of the woman’s pregnant belly and how her partner would orient himself towards her. Would he place his hand there? Would she? How would their presentation as a couple relate to previous portraits they’d had made: at the prom, on their wedding day? Had I done any directing, these cultural clues would have been surrendered to my own directorial attempt at making meaning, which would have been counter to my aims.

How did you research each couple and what did you discover?

In order to provide some insights into what they were thinking and feeling, I asked expectant parents to answer a short series of questions. The lives they imagined were filled with love – love for their as yet unknown child and love for one another as partners in the adventure of parenting. Mothers and fathers alike imagined a child-centred life, and some thought it would bring a new sense of proportion. Many were concerned about their child’s health and wellbeing, and worried whether they would be competent parents. Among the most important anticipated changes was the impending lack of control: putting family before self. These hopes, anxieties, expectations, values and ideals were embedded in the spaces the parents organised for the arrival of their first-born.

Expectant parents are on a threshold, perched between who they have been and who they are about to become. I was struck by their innocence and their courage. Innocence, because there was no way of really knowing what they were about to experience as parents. Courage, because, despite the many unknowns, immediate and future, they were committed to the journey.

Preparing a nursery is like building a stage on which the family story will unfold. The rooms reveal how the parents plan to approach the next act in their narrative, the ideas about parenting they have embraced, what’s been rejected or remains unconsidered. By carefully examining these environmental portraits those ideas, and more, become apparent. I think they amply reward close reading.

The portrait of Nicole and Stephen helps illustrate my point. In the closet the tidily arranged and organised onesies and diaper covers, the tiny shoes and extra diapers express Nicole’s and Stephen’s assumptions about their baby girl’s needs, both immediate and future. Clothes for the first few months are carefully hung on little hangers, while larger sizes are labelled and stowed in containers above. Colourful bins below are packed with other essentials. All is in order. Nicole and Stephen are in control – for now. Neatly packed and ready to go, Nicole’s hospital bag waits on the floor by the bookcase. In fourteen days, she would be on her way to the hospital and motherhood.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Nicole & Stephen, 14 days’ 2008

Similarly, Toijya and Frank assembled a room for their baby that envisions their future. Messages of love and hope are hung on the wall above the crib. An alphabet quilt hangs over the side – it’s never too soon to start learning! Toys and books await time spent in the rocking chair, the arm of which is draped with a soft receiving blanket. My attention was drawn to the diminutive empty portrait frames waiting to be filled with pictures of a happy baby and radiant parents… Despite the good intentions and resolve to succeed, I discovered later that Toijya and Frank had separated, their pictured future reconfigured.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Toijya & Frank, 6 days’ 2007

Kevin and Jason chose to celebrate Jason’s home state of Florida in the décor they selected for their baby’s room. Jason grew up in Orlando and the room exudes his attachment to his birthplace through the display of Disney characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse in particular. In a nod to their current home, a Minnesota Vikings football was given space within the Disney universe they had constructed. Kevin and Jason would meet their baby in one week’s time when he was delivered by a surrogate. Their ongoing social media posts suggest the happy family is thriving.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Jason & Kevin, 7 days’ 2007

I came to think of these rooms as sacred spaces that enshrined histories and cultures, interpreted and displayed for the parents-to-be themselves, as well as their families. The rooms existed like this only briefly – once in use they would never again be so pristine. This moment of innocence would soon be supplanted by the realities of life with a newborn, complete with sleeplessness, disarray and disruption. To me the rooms read both as ephemeral and precious; their makers seemed heroic.  

© Dona Schwartz ‘Amy & Andy, 2 years’ 2010

What kind of feelings or concerns did the empty-nesters share with you?

Mixed emotions. Time was on the minds of many – there was more of it. The daily lives of many of the parents had revolved around their kids’ activities, schedules, interests and needs. Some were at a loss trying to figure out how to fill the hours, while others enthusiastically returned to interests they had put on hold while raising their family. Many mentioned the control they now had over what they could do and when they could do it. They appreciated the lack of clutter. The quiet surprised many and made some feel sad. Without kids as their focus, many parents shifted their attention to their partners and seemed to be rediscovering the person to whom they’d been married for many years. Despite this newfound freedom, most parents missed their kids and day-to-day involvement in their lives.

Just as the empty nesters had entered a transitional phase in their lives, so too did the spaces their kids left behind. What to do with the room? Some remained untouched, shrines to the lives once lived there. Others changed gradually, finding new uses while remaining available for when the son or daughter came to visit. The status of the child’s bed became a key indicator of parents’ place in the transition to the empty nest. Was the bed made and ready for the child’s return, or was the bedding stripped off, folded and piled on top? Was the bed transformed into a work surface for sorting papers or clothing? Had the bed been removed altogether?

Lollie and Alan are pictured [below] in their son’s bedroom. It was like a time capsule containing historical artefacts of their son’s childhood and adolescence. I wondered if they saw the room as I was seeing it. On the wall to the right, a plush cloud and rainbow hangs above a multi-coloured bunch of balloons. It seemed fantastic to see this nursery decoration still hanging on the wall of a twenty-something’s bedroom. Fast forward to find sports memorabilia and competition medals, an electric guitar and amp… the pencil holder is fashioned from a Heineken beer can suggesting the life journey to young adult.

Momentarily commingled with their son’s left-behinds, new linens and pillows wait to be unpacked as the décor is updated. In the midst of the clutter, Lollie and Alan stand rather stoically. The passage of time is written on their faces and in their postures. Lollie leans slightly into Alan, conveying the comfort and predictability of their longstanding relationship. The room, as pictured, will soon vanish, adapting to new uses as the parents’ lives transition.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Lollie & Alan, 3 months’ 2010

In contrast, Christina and Mark live in a large house on the outskirts of town. They have all the space they need, and their kids’ bedrooms remain as memorials to the lives of each former occupant. Books, video cassettes, musical instruments and games share space with knick-knacks and collectibles. A pink stuffed bunny waits for the room’s former occupant to return home for a visit. The kids move the bunny from room to room – a kind of gotcha for the unsuspecting recipient, a joke amongst the siblings. It looks especially out of place in this room coded blue-for-boy, in sharp contrast to the stag’s head mounted on the wall, a trophy the son earned hunting with his dad.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Christina & Mark, 14 months’ 2010

Heather’s daughter had departed seven months before this photograph was made. In that time the room had been almost entirely transformed, serving as an adult den and exercise space, complete with video and music collections, a TV (large for that time) and a stack of audio-visual components. The bed had been replaced with a futon that could accommodate a guest, should the need arise. The bright green walls and the poster on the ceiling are the only traces of her daughter left behind. Heather leans comfortably into the bookcase, fully at ease in this room she has repurposed to serve her and her partner. She was unsentimental about the transition and ready to embrace her next chapter.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Heather, 7 months’ 2010

The last image in the empty-nester series is of you and your husband.

It was important to me to include this in the series both as an expression of solidarity with all the parents I’d photographed and also as a nod towards self-reflexivity. I wanted to be clear about where I was coming from, that I stood on the inside, looking in. That’s characteristic of the way I work.

I saw myself in the parents at the end of ‘active duty’. I could recognise emblems of parenthood in the rooms their children left behind. While the nurseries reflected an imagined future, the empty bedrooms told another, more prosaic story, reflecting contemporary culture and family life realised over the course of childhood.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Dona & Ken, 15 months’ 2012

I waited over a year to make the self-portrait… until I felt like my sense of self had begun to shift. My partner looks directly at the lens while my gaze seems a bit distracted. To be honest I think I look a bit grim in this image, while my partner looks pretty content.

In a world where spectacle and celebrity clamour for attention, what is it about ordinary lives that makes them interesting and valuable?

We live our lives in the everyday. The contours of our daily lives mould us into who and what we are. If we are to understand our successes and our failures, our values, ideals, and hopes, our challenges, struggles and triumphs, we need to consider the minutiae of daily living.

I sometimes reflect on the complexity of all the things we do in the course of a day and how easily things could completely fall apart. When I think about the ways in which people cooperate and care for others, and the ways in which cultures and societies manage to endure despite so many moving parts and novel challenges, it amazes me and makes me realise that everyday life is a feat worth exploring and celebrating.

© Dona Schwartz ‘Debbie & Jim, 2 years’ 2010

Biographical Notes

Dona Schwartz was born in Philadelphia in 1955. She has a BA, magna cum laude (1977), from the University of Pennsylvania, and an MA (1979) and PhD (1983) from the Annenberg School of Communications, also at the University of Pennsylvania. Since 2018, she has been a Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Calgary. Her work has featured in solo and group exhibitions in North America, Asia, Europe and Oceania, and is held in a number of public and private collections including the Library of Congress, Washington DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY; the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; the Portland Art Museum, Oregon; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ; the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University; and the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.

She has published four photographic monographs including ‘In the Kitchen’ [Kehrer Verlag 2009] and ‘On the Nest’ [Kehrer Verlag 2015], and received several awards and cultural grants. Living and working in Calgary, Dona Schwartz currently serves as President and Chair of the Board of Alberta’s annual photography festival, Exposure.

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.