"Mavis in the Backseat" by Cynthia Henebry, inkjet print, 2013. (Collection of the artist © Cynthia Henebry)
The girl in the photograph looks at the viewer with a penetrating, unflinching gaze. She's 6 or 7, but somehow seems older. She projects strength and resiliency, but also vulnerability and uncertainty.
That's how the photographer, Cynthia Henebry, sees it. The girl's name is Mavis, and something about her and her brothers caught Henebry's attention when she noticed them three years ago at the Richmond school her sons have attended. She arranged to photograph them. "I worked with them maybe 15 times," she says. "That was the first photograph I made of them."
You might have seen "Mavis in the Backseat" in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "Fusion: Art of the 21st Century" exhibition, where it's been displayed for the past year and a half. (Here's curator John Ravenal talking about the photograph.) Now it's reaching a new audience as one of the works selected by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery for exhibition from March 12 to Jan. 8, 2017, through the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The 43 pieces in the juried exhibition were chosen from more than 2,500 entries. Henebry's "Mavis," one of seven that were shortlisted for prizes announced this morning, took second place. The first prize winner, Amy Sherald of Baltimore, receives $25,000 and a commission to create a portrait for the museum's permanent collection. After its run in the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition will travel across the country for 27 months, appearing in Tacoma, Washington; Corpus Christi, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri.
Dorothy Moss, director of the competition and associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, calls Henebry's photograph "a wonderful and compelling portrait of childhood. It’s not the childhood we might think of; it’s more of a complex version."
What stood out about this piece and those of the other finalists, she says, is the intimate relationship between an artist and a subject. "The jury was looking for artists who were connected enough and collaborating enough with their subject to move beyond creating an art object and creating an emotional and psychological experience for the viewer."
During our interview, Henebry talks eloquently about that relationship. "There's a whole backstory to her life and my life until that moment, and the photograph is how they intersect." A portrait, she says, is often as much about the person taking it as it is about the subject. The fact that she was drawn to children between the ages of about 7 and 9 for her photos reflects something about her own experiences at that age, a time when her parents separated and later divorced. Henebry, who spent her early years in Richmond and attended Fox Elementary School, moved to Washington, D.C., with her mother and stepfather, returning here for weekend visits with her dad.
"You see the picture and it does capture something of that person, but it’s not the whole truth of them," Henebry says. "The authority and ownership that I take when I choose to take that picture — it would be a completely different picture if someone else took it. It creates this image that is somewhere between the two of us."
The backseat of the car, she notes, is a space where a child is not in control. "One of the things my work is about is children in their home environments and how they negotiate the world."
Her method of photography also comes into play. Henebry uses a large-format camera, the kind where a drop cloth is used.
"I really need her permission to make the picture," she says. "It’s a slow process. It’s a dance between what the subject wants and what I want. The children are young and active, but there’s something about the presence of the camera. When we’d go to make the picture, things would get very still and pretty quiet."
Henebry, who moved back to Richmond with her husband in 2002, studied Eastern religion at Bates College in Maine, but also also took classes in poetry and Latin American history and spent a semester in India. Before deciding to pursue photography full-time, she practiced acupuncture for 10 years. In 2014, she earned a master of fine arts in photography and film at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is now an adjunct instructor. She enjoys working with students: "I love helping them figure out what is the most important thing they need to express."
She says she's thrilled to have her work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery.
"It’s quite moving for me," she says. "It was very moving for me when my photograph got into the Virginia Museum – because that’s the one I used to go to with my mother." Henebry's mother, who passed away a few years ago, was always taking pictures, she recalls. In later years, her mother's favorite place to go was the National Portrait Gallery.
"The picture speaks for me very much about my childhood and the entirety of my life," Henebry says. "To have it be in these two places where I grew up is really great."
She's unsure what's next in her artistic life. In addition to the VMFA and National Portrait Gallery, she's had worked shown at Page Bond Gallery and Sweet Briar College (her mom's alma mater), and recently had a piece in 1708 Gallery's Cabin Fever auction. Her photographs have also appeared in The New York Times (of Richmond author and professional mechanic Matthew Crawford) and Real Simple magazine, among other publications.
"My life right now is very focused on my family," says Henebry, who doesn't feel a great need for exposure to further her career. "For me, the work happens when it needs to happen." She views creativity broadly, and it may not always be expressed in photography. It might be by writing, for instance. Through life experiences, "we'll see what comes next with what needs to be expressed."
Still, she's enjoying the moment. "This particular picture has really taken on a life of its own. My reaction when I heard was, 'I’m so happy for the picture.' It feels somewhat independent of me," she says. "A student that I didn’t know emailed me the other day and said, 'I was so moved by your picture, it made me call my mom.' It doesn’t get any better than that."
In a bit of twist on the "Mavis" photograph, Cynthia Henebry's son, River Schoeneman, took this picture of her from the back of their car. (Photo courtesy Cynthia Henebry)