When Claire Yaffa showed
her photographs to Cornell Capa, he said, "You take pretty pictures,
Yaffa, but what do you really want to say?" Yaffa thought long
and hard about the question. She had always been interested in the problem
of child abuse, so in 1979 she contacted Dr. Vincent Fontana, Medical
Director of the New York Foundling Hospital. At the hospital she began
to photograph young mothers and their children and watched as many of
them changed from abusive to loving parents.
In one image a young woman sits, head in hands, next to a crib where
her child lies sleeping. The sad story is told in the image. Ten years
later the photographs resulted in a small exhibition at the International
Center for Photography in New York and were published in a monograph
called Reaching Out. Mayor Mario Cuomo commended Yaffa for the "poignant
exhibition that reminds us once again that a picture is worth a thousand
words," and Cornell Capa acknowledged Yaffa's passion and
commitment in photographing the difficulties of mothers and their children.
"Her lens and heart fused," he said, "and the images
reflect the emotions and frustrations she witnessed."
"Photography is a wonderful thing in my life," Yaffa says,
"and I have been privileged to know a lot of people in the world
of photography." She studied with Philippe Halsman and took a
workshop with W. Eugene Smith. She also formed a lifelong friendship
with Lisette Model with whom she studied at the New School in New York.
"Model said to me once, `Dear, don't ever take a photograph
unless it hits you in the pit of your stomach.' These people had
a wonderful professionalism and love of the medium and I had a great
respect for their talents. To be in their presence was inspiring."
Yaffa had been a model and an actress and had married at age 19. She
returned to school, graduated from Sara Lawrence, and worked as a research
technician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering until her first son was born
in 1966. It was at that time she discovered photography. Working with
a friend, who was preparing photographs in his laboratory for the Museum
of Modern Art, Yaffa decided to become a photographer and began to build
a business--starting out by taking pictures of her own son, then photographing
her friends' children.
Her work became more serious in nature when she began to address the
topics of child abuse, homelessness, and children with AIDS. It was
the photographer Barbara Morgan who pointed out to Yaffa that her subjects
were very easy to sensationalize. It was easier to portray suffering
and man's inhumanity than to celebrate life and show the survivors,
the people who, despite adversity, can come through. Yaffa realized
that what she was saying was don't choose things that are sensational.
"Even though I move toward subjects that disturb me," she
says, "I try to emphasize their humanity. I was not prepared to
like these women who would burn or hit a child. But, after spending
so much time with them and learning about their lives, what had been
done to them, and how they were trying to change, I tried through my
photography to show them as the people they were. They were not the
monsters I had expected them to look like. Some of them I couldn't
like and some couldn't change, but I felt it was important to
portray them as people. It is my hope the images of mothers and children
in these photographs will make a difference in how we respond to the
problems of child abuse and that we can view them as human beings who
are in need of our help, compassion, and understanding. I remember taking
a picture of a woman named Sharon and her son and she said, `You
know I never liked him until I saw the photograph you took of him.'
Because she saw him only as a burden, she didn't really look at
Yaffa's photography is saying, "Hey, pay attention--look
here--we have to do something to help these people." For a year
she went to the homeless shelters in Westchester County and she recalled
a young woman there named Dianne, who she photographed after her family
was burned out of their home. Dianne had rescued flowers from the garbage
and she had them in a tin can on her windowsill. Her little girl was
eating peas out of a can and she told the child that she must eat from
a dish. Even in the shelter this woman maintained a kind of dignity.
The key picture in the series shows a 6-year-old girl with one of two
pigeons she had rescued from a parking lot. She is in a hotel for the
homeless and when Yaffa asked her what she would do with the pigeons
when they were healthy, the child answered she would release them so
they could find their way home again. Finding Their Way Home Again became
the title for Yaffa's photographic essay and exhibition at the
Bridge Gallery in White Plains, New York, this past March. In the exhibition,
children and adults share their lodgings and in one photograph a man
lies in a bed numbered 2, his arms behind his head, a sign over his
head reading, "Look to this Day."
The series of children with AIDS began in 1990 at the Incarnation Children's
Center in New York. The monograph "A Dying Child is Born: The
Story of Tracy," marks the 13 month life span of a child born
prematurely with the AIDS virus, her mother having left the hospital
and abandoning her after giving birth. An exhibition of the Children
with AIDS is currently touring the US and Europe. Yaffa is now preparing
a publication titled A Dying Child Reborn. A result of her 10 year study,
the photographs in the book emphasize the changes and needs of these
children as they reach their teen-age years.
Yaffa's compassionate eye looks squarely at the needs and problems
of our society. Some of her most powerful images document Westchester
County survivors and rescuers of the Holocaust. "These people
are now dying and I wanted to tell their story," she says. Remembering
Together, is a moving piece that was exhibited in the Bridge Gallery
in White Plains in 1992.
Since 1988 Yaffa has been a stringer for the New York Times and has
also worked for the Associated Press. "I love the newspaper work
because you never know who you are going to run up against or who you
are going to be called to photograph. One story was of a man living
in Westchester who was a former member of Heaven's Gate in California.
He had been inaccessible and was not sure he wanted to be photographed.
We met in a diner and by the time our meeting was over, he had invited
me home to meet his wife and child. He was a former priest and we built
a trust and he allowed me to take my photographs. I have photographed
everything from Kykuit, the Rockerfeller estate in Westchester with
its underground gallery containing hundreds of paintings, Chinese ceramics
and sculpture, to the memorial last June celebrating the life of Betty
Shabazz on the anniversary of her death. Most memorable was the day
I covered a murder for the Associated Press in Greenberg near White
Plains. It was snowing and sleeting and I was hiding out in a house
across the street from the crime scene. I had slipped and fallen and
it was then that I realized that I would do anything for a picture."
Yaffa works in black and white and started out shooting square format,
first with a Rolleiflex camera, then a Hasselblad. The Nikon FM2 became
her first 35mm and she now uses a Leica M6. "What was my children's
playroom has become my darkroom and I process all my own film,"
she says. "I could be down there forever --it is so safe (except
for the chemicals, maybe) and when I walk in there, I feel I am home."
In 1988 Yaffa took her first pictures for her book Light and Shadow,
published by Aperture. "Light and Shadow is a celebration of life
and its fragility," says Yaffa. "These photographs were
a gift and they existed for just a moment. Then they were gone. I saw
them and many times I said, `Oh, my God...'" The
images, abstractions of flower stems and parts of the figure as well
as landscapes, are defined by light and shadow and have been selected
by the Camera Obscura Gallery in Colorado for Yaffa's second exhibition
at the gallery.
With a beautiful foreword by Gordon Parks and poetry by Jeffery Beam,
the imagery contains none of Yaffa's photojournalistic work, but
portrays rather her closeness to nature and to life with its abstractions,
poignancy, and poetry. Photographer Duane Michals wrote on the jacket
of the book, "Claire has evolved toward one of the great timeless
photographic traditions, the study of form, light, and their sensual
interplay--the most profound ingredients of all photography."