I started my blog tradition of photography-centered movie reviews with the intention to discuss the photographic aspect of certain iconic films. But so far those reviews have focused on something else rather neglected: the role of photography and photographers in society. (See my posts on Everlasting Moments, in which photography empowers a woman in an abusive relationship, and The Bridges of Madison County, about a photographer whose job is to discover beauty but also deprives him of social ties).
Stepmom (1998, with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon) is about the opposite: the power of photography to create relationships yet also to make people vulnerable to an invented reality. Isabel, the new girlfriend of divorced dad Luke, tries hard to connect with his kids, but they reject her. Maybe because their mom sabotages those attempts. Or maybe it’s Isabel’s high-pressure job as a fashion photographer that makes her distracted and impatient and she only has a vision of a false reality.
Isabel is skilled as a creator of the imaginary. The most obvious way, as a fashion photographer, is by concocting scenes & situations with the help of photoshop. Moreover, her work is in the the fairy-tales style, championed by Annie Leibovitz and Eugenio Recuenco, which merges the world of high fashion with popular fairy-tale dreams. But Isabel’s photography also spills over in real life: to help her stepdaughter Anna get rid of a pestering admirer at school, she provides her with a fake – a professional model to pose as her pretend boyfriend – who turns out to be the only person with the power to shame the bully with his superior cool factor.
Is this a condemnation of the uniquely deceptive role of photography in society? I don’t think so. The movie’s allusion to fairy tales itself points out that forms of artistic distortion of reality have been part of every culture since time immemorial. In fact, Jackie (the mom) is skilled in creating worlds with words, too. She is a former book publisher who left her job to become a full-time storyteller to her kids. And while Isabel is straightforward and even naive in her word communication, it is Jackie who nicely yet surreptitiously influences Ben and Anna in their relationship with her rival. And all at the same time, she is successful in keeping her ultimate secret, her illness, from everyone.
And gradually, each becomes more like the other. Career-ambitious Isabelle, who didn’t like the Rapunzel picture her boss chose from the fairy tale session because it was too passive, comes down to earth and sacrifices her career for the kids just like their own mom had done. That would be the film’s argument that photography and real family life don’t mix.
The decisive moment in negotiating their rivalry comes with Jackie’s realization that, with her cancer, she will be just a memory for Ben and Anna. Instead of fearing that Isabel will replace her, Jackie enlists her collaboration to create that memory, with photography. Psychology studies show that when we have a picture of a past moment in our lives, we tend to remember those events as the picture itself and tend to forget the details that weren’t captured in the picture. It’s telling that Jackie makes a keepsake magician’s cape for Ben and a quilt for Anna, in which she incorporates pictures taken by Isabel.
In the end, the big-family legacy is immortalized in a group picture, in that final scene, Jackie beckons Isabel to set up the remote shutter trigger of her camera and join with everyone else for a common portrait. Instead of being in a position of power, behind the camera, Isabel the photographer finds real life for herself by gaining a family. Which, ironically, happens if you are in the family picture.