The cover photo of Leigh Webber's photography book project, The First 52 Weeks, makes it clear that this is not your average mommy blogger project (no offense to mommy bloggers).
To call it raw would be going too far — after all, the subject is Webber's own happy, healthy baby boy — so we'll stick with daring. The image is a close-up of Webber's son's mouth twisted down in unhappiness, with that special mix of drool and what could be breastmilk or formula running down his chin. It's foamy in spots, and there's a lot of it. The photo conjures up a muddled response of both ewws and awws, but it also displays a complexity that is unusual amid the endless stream of blogs and websites devoted to everything mommy, family, and baby-related.
The reason for that is a simple one. Despite the highly personal nature of The First 52 Weeks, which pairs a photograph with a short journal entry for each week of baby Seamus' first year of life, Webber approached the project as an artistic opportunity more than anything else. "I was sort of looking at it as more fine art, or documentary photography," she says. "To me, the most important thing was the pictures, since that's what I do."
A professional photographer who specializes in weddings and children, Webber undertook her studies at Savannah College of Art and Design and moved to San Francisco after graduating. This was when the photography world was making the switch from film to digital, and her first job out of school was as an assistant working with an $80,000 digital camera.
After several years in San Francisco and lots of traveling, Webber was ready to move back to the South. Having spent a couple of summers in Charleston during her college years, she was familiar with the city's creative scene and decided it would be a great place to continue to pursue her passion for photography. Webber is about as dedicated as they come: When she was going into labor with Seamus, she says, "I was more concerned about bringing the right camera equipment to the hospital than a change of clothes!"
So if you're wondering whether this means that The First 52 Weeks begins right at the beginning, the answer is yes. Week One's photo is in the hospital, with a tiny Seamus using a healthy set of lungs to belt out his disapproval as he lies on a blanket, sporting an umbilical clamp and a little hat for warmth. The ensuing pictures capture a variety of everyday events in the life of Seamus — lying on a cushion with the family dog, balling up his body as dad tries to dip his feet in the ocean, or, in another great mouth close-up, sticking his tongue out to explore his lips. It's a refreshingly honest collection of baby pictures. "There's my role as an artist and my role as a mother, and I found myself, when I was photographing him, stepping out of that mother role," Webber says. "It allowed me to see him a little differently, a little more objectively."
This is a rare quality in baby photography, since so often the photos are taken either by parents, family portrait artists, or by commercial photographers out to milk every last drop of cuteness from their little subjects. It's Webber's ability to embrace this combo role of mother-artist that allows the aforementioned drooly picture to grace the cover of the book. Adorable? Maybe not. But it is definitely interesting, real, and utterly unique.
To "step it up," Webber says, she hired the local firm Stitch Design Co. to do the graphic design for The First 52 Weeks. The result is a bold, cheery palette of red and white that matches the vibrant colors of Webber's images, but doesn't overwhelm the cozy subject matter.
Now that Webber's project is public, as both a website and a self-published book, the focus has shifted. "It wasn't until I started showing it to other people that I realized, hey, maybe it would be better outside the fine art photography world, as more of a gift book," Webber says. "It was actually the girls at Stitch who told me, you know this would be a great gift for, say, the new mom, or the grandmother who doesn't live nearby, so she could follow along week by week."
Which has presented a sort of happy challenge: Webber now has to figure out how she can feasibly replicate this project for other families who want a week-by-week record of their children. Going to someone's house for a year, knowing that she'd need at least one great shot each week, is a daunting prospect and probably not a realistic one. "I think this would be tough to do with somebody else's child, because these are very intimate moments, and also sort of everyday moments." Plus, Webber continues, "There were things I could do when photographing [Seamus] that I couldn't do to someone else's child, things like pulling the pacifier out because I knew that that might get a face out of him."