Reclaiming Midwives: Stills from All My Babies

Photographs by Robert Galbraith, Film by George C. Stoney


Kreps and Lyndhurst Galleries
November 13, 2006–April 2, 2007

Reception: January 18, 6–9 p.m., with talk by photographer Robert Galbraith and curator Linda Janet Holmes, 7 p.m.


A traveling exhibition curated by Linda Janet Holmes, Reclaiming Midwives features photographs by Robert Galbraith that explore the lives and experiences of black midwives in Georgia in the early 1950s. Galbraith was a cameraman for George C. Stoney’s 1953 film All My Babies, produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Georgia Department of Public Health, and intended as an instructional tool for the midwives still delivering most of the babies in rural Georgia at the time. The film, featuring Albany, Georgia, midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900–66), has traveled to train midwives around the world.

“Galbraith’s photographs tell a collective story about the multifaceted experience of midwifery as an intimate and embracing experience for women of varying ages. … To me, the subtext of these photographs is more than the fact that family life is central to the stories of midwives. Delivering and having a baby are dramatic events in most families. These photographs are filled with striking examples. Galbraith is a compassionate photographer who has documented a cultural tradition that continues to this day.”

—Deborah Willis, University Professor of Photography and Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

“By reprinting and re-presenting these images to the public, Galbraith and [curator Linda Janet] Holmes are able to reclaim not only the vital legacy that black midwives represent, but they also remind us of the immediacy and emotional power of the documentary image. In addition to recording many of the key scenes that made up the film, Galbraith emphasizes the communal bonds formed between traditional midwives, often called ‘granny midwives,’ and their clients. The sense of kinship within a segregated society is visible in these photographs, while the regulation and certification of midwife training (which was the primary purpose of the film) becomes less prominent. The narrative power of Galbraith’s work is linked to the traditions of American photojournalism and is strengthened by the photographer’s commitment to portraying his subject. Galbraith may not be well known in the history of documentary photography but his training in both film and still photography places him squarely within the tradition of socially concerned artists of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.”

—Lisa Henry, curator and writer

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Untitled (Next day continuing care). Albany, GA, 1952. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy Robert Galbraith. 
 

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Interviews with Robert Galbraith and Linda Janet Holmes

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Undergraduates students from the spring 2007 course "Multimedia Documentary Production" interivewed curator Linda Janet Holmes and photographer Robert Galbraith for a class assignment. Selected tracks from this session are below.

QUESTIONS FOR CURATOR LINDA JANET HOLMES

In a time where most births happen in modern hospitals, what do you think the people who come here have to learn and take away from the images?  Response by Linda Janet Holmes (1:42)

Both the images of Reclaiming Midwives and your text discussing the traveling exhibition reveal a strong presence of religion in the lives of midwives in the 1950s. Can you elaborate on this role of religion and spirituality in midwifery?  Response by Linda Janet Holmes (1:36)
 
How would you feel about a person of non-African descent curating this same exhibition?  Response by Linda Janet Holmes (1:08)
 
There is a clear sense of community between midwives and mothers indicated through the exhibit and photographs. Since this type of relationship cannot be said about modern medical birthing experiences, are there present day relationships along these lines that can still be found in medical care or in our larger society? 
 
The photograph "Catching Up On Rest" seems to serve a dual purpose in the exhibit. It suggests that the work of the midwife is exhausting, but even in her sleep Miss Mary (Mary Francis Hill Coley) seems to portray an almost angelic peace and certainty of purpose. What do you see in this photograph? What did you mean to communicate by including it in the exhibit?  Response by Linda Janet Holmes (0:48)

QUESTIONS FOR PHOTOGRAPHER ROBERT GALBRAITH 

As a Northerner without much experience with life in the rural South, describe how you felt the first time you walked into one of the family's homes.  Response by Robert Galbraith (0:43)
 
What was going through your mind as you made these photographs? Did you ever feel at times that you were out of place, or felt that you were invading the women's privacy?   Response by Robert Galbraith (0:49)
 
Could you describe your impressions of Miss Mary (Mary Francis Hill Coley)?  Response by Robert Galbraith (0:54)
 
What prompted you to pursue midwifery as a subject? Follow-up question: What was your job on the film All My Babies?  Response by Robert Galbraith (0:35)
 
Participating students: Bryan Baker, Eric Bishop, Annalee Bloomfield, Gretchen Doores, Mary Grant, Marissa Seuc, Emily Shenkin, Kathy Stanton, Macey Stapleton, and Anna Wu. Photograph above by Anna Wu.

RELATED EVENTS

February 4, 2–4 p.m.
Screening of All My Babies, with Director George Stoney and Judith Helfand, of Working Films. Richard White Auditorium, East Campus, Duke University. In conjunction with the Documentary Happening
 
March 8, 7 p.m.
Screening of All My Babies
The March 8 screening of All My Babies will be held at CDS.
 
This beautiful film is the story of “Miss Mary” Coley, an African American midwife in rural Georgia more than half a century ago. Conceived as a demonstration film for illiterate “granny” midwives—produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Georgia Department of Public Health—All My Babiesquickly transcended its initial purpose. The film has been used around the world by UNESCO and has become an enduring nonfiction classic. Written, produced, and directed by George C. Stoney in collaboration with Mrs. Coley as well as with local public health doctors and nurses, the film shows the preparation for and home delivery of healthy babies in both relatively good and bad rural conditions among black families in the 1950s. In addition, the film is both a deeply respectful portrait of “Miss Mary,” who is revealed as an inspiring human being, and a record of the living conditions of her patients. All My Babies was selected in 2002 by the Librarian of Congress as a "culturally, historically, and artistically significant work" for permanent preservation in the National Film Registry.
 
Collecting Black Women's Birth Stories: An Oral History Project
Contact: Courtney Reid-Eaton, 919.660.3664
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