Anne Geddes: The Queen of Baby Photography
Mention baby photography anywhere in the world, and Anne Geddes’ name is likely to surface. The Australian native who lives in New York City has created countless cute and elaborately staged photos of newborns and small children that have appeared worldwide in calendars, greeting cards, and books for over three decades.
“I love children’s books. Some of them are so beautiful and last for generations, and it’s an art form illustrating and writing a children’s book. Our girls were at that age when we would read them children’s books all the time.
“I gradually got into doing some work for myself after ten years of photographing babies and two-year-olds. It’s hard work, but it’s joyful work, and it isn’t easy. I used to do two portrait sittings a day, five days a week, and after eight or nine years, I was starting to think that I needed some creative time for myself where you’re not photographing for a client, where they’re not smiling or blah, blah.
“So, to keep my sanity, once a month, I spent a day creating something just for me, and one of the first two images I did was of babies in cabbages. There’s a black and white image of a baby called Joshua hanging from a hook [wrapped] in some fabric. It’s a beautiful black-and-white image. I remember looking at it in the dark room and thinking; I really love this. And I don’t have to worry about what anybody else thinks. And so, it sort of started, and it was in the storybook genre.
“Down in the Garden was so successful, but the greeting cards and calendars came before it. I started to do 10 or 12 images, and people would say, ‘You should do a calendar.’ The elaborate staging of a lot of it came from being creative in producing greeting cards where you know you must do Christmas themes, Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s and Father’s Day.
“Then it led into Down in the Garden, and as any author would tell you, when you’re producing your work, writing your book or your play or your musical score or me photographing this book, you have no concept of how people are going to react to it. I had always resented that.”
Geddes (born 1956), who considers herself a storyteller, set Down in the Garden as a children’s story because that’s where she was going with all these little characters. Her tiny baby models were photographed as fairies, gnomes, sunflowers, water lilies, field mice, ladybugs, and peas in a pod in this magical and fun-filled book.
One of the reasons for its success is the images. She’s had a little baby sitting on the studio floor kissing photos of the babies in the book, but an adult sense of humor also went through there. It was wide-reaching in terms of the way people responded to it.
Next, Oprah Winfrey invited her to her show, which was when she had a book club. Geddes had never watched Oprah’s show because she lived in New Zealand at the time, and it was a daytime show.
On the show, Oprah’s carried out two little newborn babies in bumblebee outfits and did the interview. At the end of the interview, she picked up Down in the Garden and said, “This is the best coffee table book I’ve seen this year.” The book then shot right up New York Times bestseller list and took Geddes by surprise.
“I think I got pocketed [after that] a little bit within that genre, and for years I couldn’t look at the book again because I knew that I was more than that, but I hadn’t produced anything to demonstrate that,” remembers Geddes. “Kel, [husband, marketing guru, and TV executive] said, ‘You’ve got to lead your audience.’
“I said I want to do the next book, something so simple and pure. The third book Pure was what I wanted to do. But he was correct in that ‘It’s too much of a change. You’ve got to meet them halfway,’ So, my second book contained some of my most simple and classic imagery and images from the Garden book. It had some nudity, so we launched it in Europe, where they don’t bat an eyelid for much of that.”
“Even here in New York, where I shoot, you go into a blank space on the day of a shoot or a setup date and create everything out of nothing,” Geddes says. “You just bring it all together and create that world, and then it gets dismantled, and you go away. That space is a sense of possibility in my mind, possibly because I’m a Virgo, because we like control.
“For the first ten years of my career, which took me from Sydney to Melbourne to Auckland in New Zealand, I did exclusively private portraiture of families, especially children. I love little kids, as they always have this sense of promise. They’re like an open book, and the more I photographed younger and younger children, the more I wondered how beautiful they were and how exquisite a newborn baby is because of everything they represent. They are us at the very beginning of our lives. Nothing good or bad has happened to them; they’re just pure.
“There’s no meanness, there’s guileless, there are little babies, and it’s only what we instill in them as they’re growing older that they become different people. My work is about promise and the Miracle of New Life.”
Babies Are Not Suitable Subjects?
Geddes won a competition with Agfa to go to Photokina in Germany and went with Kel. Afterward, they went to London with 30 prints as examples of her work to meet various publishers before Down in the Garden.
“We went to one place to see whether people get what we were doing or not,” says Geddes. “I had a huge hurdle as well because of the subject matter. When I first proposed doing a calendar, one of the publishers said there were so many baby calendars. And I went to look and couldn’t find any. This concept of the baby is so cute and funny. Calendars [people think] are everywhere, but they aren’t.
“We went to another publisher who said to me, ‘If I can give you some advice, just photographing babies is never going to work for you.’ And then the next meeting we went to was Athena [British fine art printer], who got the whole thing, and I remember sitting in the boardroom outside London, and they had spread all my photos on their boardroom table and said, this is fantastic we want the worldwide rights to all of this. [They did not hand over all their work as they wanted it spread out amongst different publishers.]
“Another publisher said, ‘You need to broaden your portfolio. Babies are just never going to work. You need to have some adults, animals, and…Even the art and gallery market don’t think it’s cool to have imagery of babies. They don’t think babies are a viable project.
“I won a competition for the annual New Zealand Institute of Professional Photographers print competition in the portrait section. I nearly got Champion print, but I didn’t. At the time, the head of Kodak in New Zealand came up to me and said, ‘Thank God you didn’t win. How could we have a baby on the boardroom wall at Kodak?’
“Other photographers, men, would ask me what kind of work I did. And I’m like, ‘I photograph babies.’ I wish there was another way to say it that sounds different, but it’s what I do, right? And they would invariably say, ‘I used to do that when I was first starting out,’ with the implication that then they went on to something more important like landscapes or fashion. I was always puzzled by that attitude, but now I’m used to it.”
Photographing a Baby Session
Geddes was shooting a series of twelve Signs of the Zodiac. She put a notice on Facebook saying: “Anne is shooting in New York City. If you’re pregnant and your baby is due around this time or if your baby will be six-to-seven months old at that time…”
Six-to-seven-month-old babies sit confidently, but they can’t crawl and get out of the set.
When photographing babies, it is important to understand that everything must revolve around them. To have one baby in an image, Geddes would have three newborns at the studio because babies have no respect for photographers, and if a baby doesn’t want to do something, that’s just fine.
“By the time I’m shooting in the studio, 90% of the work has already been done. The styling and setting up the lighting is already done,” says the baby photographer. “You have to be very simple when you’re dealing with babies. You don’t try to do too much with the baby.
“You just do one thing, and then you do another thing. When parents leave, they say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t think it would be like this. I thought it would be chaotic’ and so on. All I can say is if you’re in a studio and it’s chaotic, and babies are crying everywhere, you haven’t been very professional.
“Babies are the ultimate ego in the room, so 90% of the arrangements must already be done. You have to make sure that wherever the babies are, it is very comfortable for them, and it’s not intimidating. You don’t take very long and just keep pushing and pushing. Sometimes it’s just a few minutes, and you’ve got what you want. That’s in the planning before the imagery. I don’t do my own Photoshop and work with somebody who does that.
“You can put so much work into a set, and people look at it and go, ‘Oh look, that baby’s so cute, and you feel like saying there are six months of work that went into everything behind the scenes.”
Some calendar shoots involve travel. When Geddes was in New Zealand, she had to travel to the US to photograph African American babies because, at the time, it was almost impossible to find a single African American baby in New Zealand.
The first calendar shoot was in 1992. She has almost stopped shooting new calendars since 2015. The last few have not been new images, but she is planning to shoot a new calendar this year.
Calendars Are No Longer Financially Viable
Producing and photographing a calendar is expensive, costing $200,000 to $300,000 on average. It depends on how much propping is involved. The Signs of the Zodiac had hand-painted backgrounds, which were very intricate.
“It’s a different world now,” explains the award-winning photographer. “In the past, there were enough calendar sales to warrant doing something like that, plus books and greeting cards.
“It’s not financially worthwhile for me to create 12 new images because of the internet and people’s expectations that you go Google something and it’s there on a screen for nothing. It’s not possible for me to put that sort of investment and time into creating 12 beautiful new images when within 24 hours, they’re up on the internet for free. If people had to pay ten dollars to download an image, not just one of mine, off the internet, they’d be furious because they’d think it’s their entitlement.
“I have ideas for images I would love to do, but it’s not financially viable unless I do campaigns. There’s no financial viability to a calendar these days. I just can’t do it.”
Portraits of Premature Babies
In 1993, Geddes photographed a 2.2 lb. premature baby in big hands at the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at the Women’s Hospital in Auckland, New Zealand. She is now 30 and a photographer herself.
“It was interesting finding Jack, the gentleman who eventually ended up using his hands in the image. This was before social media, and I had people faxing their hands’ outlines to the studio because I did a radio interview saying, ‘I’m looking for someone with big hands for a shot.’
“I photographed in several NICU units to demonstrate babies’ strength, fragility, and resilience in these neonatal intensive care units and the people who care for them. I’ve always said if I weren’t in this career, I would love to have had a job working in NICU units. They’re so dedicated, and many just spend their whole careers in one of them.
“For me to be able to do that image which was the very first one in 1993, a lot of people had to approve before it even happened, so lots of meetings and an awful lot of trust because those NICU units are exceptional.”
March of Dimes, Child Abuse and Meningococcal Disease
“Ever since the very first calendars, we’ve been raising awareness of Child Abuse Prevention, and that has been our main effort as far as my work is concerned,” Geddes says. “I’m an ambassador for March of Dimes, and I take photographs for them every couple of years for their campaigns because of my association with photographing in neonatal intensive care units.
“March of Dimes is very much involved in the health of pregnant women and premature babies, so it was a natural fit.
“You couldn’t even mention child abuse on television [in the past]. These days it’s very much front of mind around the world that children should be believed when they talk about things like that, so you know it’s a different world today than it was back then, but a lot of work went into leading up to the way it is today.”
Geddes is also a Global Ambassador for the Awareness of Meningococcal Disease.
Joy Series During the Pandemic
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we couldn’t do anything,” Geddes says. “I couldn’t bring babies to the studio. Our oldest daughter Stephanie is 38, Kelly is 36, and both are photographers.
“Stephanie said to me, ‘You should do something.’
“I could see other artists reaching out on social media. These days it is easy to share your work or opinions. So, I came up with this concept of doing a Joy Series, which you can see on my Instagram feed which I’m not doing anymore.
“I posted a message saying, ‘We’re all stuck at home, same as everyone else, and I’m thinking of starting a Joy Series. If you’d like to be a part of this, send me a photo of your baby who brings you joy. All I need is their first name, age, and country you’re from.’
“I started posting them, and hundreds and hundreds of messages were coming in daily. I got responses from 89 countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and India. I opened these files, and there’d be these beautiful babies with lovely messages like ‘I’m sending you my heart, and you know she has made the lockdown so much better for us because we can rejoice with her.’
“Everybody loves their babies, or 99.9% of people do. Babies make us want to be better for them. What drives me in my work is that we should protect, nurture and love our children. I wasn’t necessarily from a child where that happened, so I’m very motivated by that as well.
“It was over 18 months I posted hundreds of photos to my Instagram stories, and then I had a main one that went on to the feed.”
DALL-E, Instagram and Cellphones
Geddes says she’s wary of the rise of AI image generators that can create amazingly photorealistic images with nothing but a text prompt.
“I think DALL-E is a brand-new conversation, and I wouldn’t want to comment on it now apart from saying that original creativity will always rise above that,” says Geddes. “What worries me is the copyright aspect of it. This has only happened in the last few months, so I’m nervous like many artists are, but I’m interested to see how it plays out.
“You can’t say to DALL-E, ‘Create a beautiful Ansel Adams landscape.’ It’s got to come from some right person, and maybe it will turn around the fact that original creativity in all its forms may become even more valuable because people are desensitized, aren’t they?
“There are images all over Instagram, people scrolling—a kid on the subway, and everyone else is scrolling, scrolling and scrolling. True art is putting an image there that would stop them from scrolling. If they see an image that makes them stop scrolling and think about something, that’s the goal of a true creative.
“I think cell phones are more of a fleeting thought. People just take them and say, I’ll show you a picture of my baby, and they’ve got thousands and thousands of them. I’m not talking about that sort of imagery. I’m talking about telling your unique story, and it gets mixed up in that and watered down.”
Cameras and Gear
“One of my favorite books is Pure,” says the baby photographer. “That was the third one, which was very simple and shot on a Sinar [4×5 view camera] with a digital back. A lot of Miracle with Celine Dion was also shot on a Sinar.
“There’s an expectation when babies are in the studio that they’re running around, and it’s chaos and so on. The babies are generally asleep when I’m shooting on a Sinar camera. It’s just nice, quiet and simple [and no problem in using a big camera].
“I love the Sinar because you can change the perspective, and I know all of this can be done in Photoshop, but I love getting it right in the camera, which gives me tremendous satisfaction.
“Some of the images in Pure (book cover above) were a series of womb images photographed with a Hasselblad using a fisheye lens.
“Everybody thinks it’s cool these days to shoot on film like my two girls who are photographers, and they keep saying, ‘You should shoot on film, and I’m like, ‘Listen, I’ve shot on film for years, and years and years. I’m over it. I’ve moved on.’
“Nowadays, I shoot on a Fuji GFX 100, which is fabulous. Fuji has been great to me. They give me all the gear that I need.”
In the film days, she shot with Hasselblad and Mamiya RB67.
Starting in Photography
Geddes started in photography quite late and was 25 when she first seriously picked up a camera. She was raised on a cattle station [cattle ranch] in Queensland, Australia. There were no photography courses, so it was never presented to her in the early 60s.
“I always joked that when I first picked up a camera at 25, I was the first photographer I had met,” she says. “I was always fascinated with the concept of a still image but only have two or three images of myself as a child and none as a newborn. I was the middle of five girls, and cameras weren’t that prevalent in those days.
“When children come out of the womb today, they’re videoed. Every minute of their life is recorded, which is a beautiful thing, but I have no concept of how I sounded as a child and no videos.
“In my teens, I used to look at LIFE magazine when it was in its heyday, and I would stare at the images of people and the beautiful photojournalism. I know the concept of telling a story through imagery, and I still believe in the power of a still image over video.
“Kel and I moved to Hong Kong [his TV production job took him there] when I was 25 and got married there. I thought if I was going to do anything serious with photography, then now was the time because I had a new life, a new city that we were living in, and giving up my old job, which was in public relations. I started there in a tiny way photographing families in their backyards, and then we came back to Australia. I gradually found my way, unique story, and selling point.
“I remember the day I first walked into a photographic studio in Melbourne, Australia, where we were living at the time, and all the pieces fell into place because I realized that my work needed to have a very simple form and thrive on being able to control the lighting.”
As a teenager, Geddes aspired to be a sign writer.
“Yes, I always thought there was something creative [about me], and we lived way out in the country. On the weekends, our parents would take us to the nearest city, Townsville, which we thought was a big smoke…I mean, cars going by on the road, and everything was like, wow, this is so exciting because out in the country, you can hear a car coming from 10 miles away.
“We used to look at all of the signs that were outside. I just stared at them, and I thought this was like magic, like going to the circus. So, I thought to myself, you’re going to be a sign writer because it was a way of being creative. I always had that creative side, but no one ever steered me in a particular direction. Ultimately, it ended up being photography.”
Geddes has many untold stories of celebrities and the rich and famous, like when she was taken on a flight to North Africa to photograph the infant son of a King, which she cannot recount owing to privacy concerns. She was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004 for services to photography and the community, announced as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Birthday Honors List.
Geddes’ seven award-winning coffee table books and 31 years of continuous calendars have been published in over 84 countries and translated into 24 languages. However, she has no idea how many books and calendars have been sold. According to Amazon.com and quoted on Wikipedia, “she has sold more than 18 million books and 13 million calendars.” And this year, she is planning on shooting a brand new calendar concept for 2024.
You can see more of Anne Geddes’ work on her website, Instagram and Facebook.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.
Image credits: All photos by Anne Geddes