Ashley Markle, Picnic, June 2020, from the series Weekends with My Mother and Her Lover
In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic enveloped New York City, the photographer Ashley Markle got in a rental car and drove to Stow, Ohio, where she lugged her camera equipment and bags inside her mother and stepfather’s house, dropping them on the floor of her temporary bedroom. Looking around, she felt drained; she drove the eight hours from New York alone. That night, she slept in a narrow twin bed. “I felt like I was thrown back into my teenage body,” she told me in a conversation over Zoom. “Those same fights that I used to have with my mom started happening again. I was reverting back into this younger version of myself that I had tried so desperately to escape.”
Markle’s parents divorced when she was four years old. Her mother, Michele, was her only constant parental figure in those early years, and as a result, the two are very close. Her current stepfather, John, came into the picture when Markle was in high school, but Markle always relied most heavily on her mother. “For a large portion of my life, it was just me and my mom,” she recalled. “We leaned on each other a lot.” In recent years, Markle has come to recognize the unique “intensity” (and “sometimes the burden”) of being an only child.
Markle lived in Ohio through December 2020, and over the course of those ten months, she created a compelling (and occasionally suggestive) series called Weekends with My Mother and Her Lover. The project came about in response to a prompt from an online class hosted by New York’s International Center of Photography. Every week, Markle needed to present new work, and as the days in Ohio dragged into weeks, she started casting about for new subjects. It didn’t take long before her eyes fell on her housemates.
For their initial collaboration, Markle arranged her mother and stepfather in their side yard and photographed them through a misty garage window. That image would become Glimpse of Intimacy, the first photo in the series. Right away, Markle realized that the photo conjured something, but she “wasn’t sure yet what that feeling was”—its meaning stayed slippery in her mind. Everything clicked when Markle started taking a more “psychological” approach to the project. She started thinking about how individual experiences—her own, her mother’s, her stepfather’s—informed and shaped their one-on-one and combined relationships.
Many of the photographs in the series include all three people in the frame, while others feature them in pairs. For an outsider thumbing through Markle’s photographs, it’s clear that they nudge at dynamics between the two partners as well as their relationships with their adult child. In one photograph, Unaccompanied Attention, Markle stands in the yard holding a white sheet in front of her body. Her figure is tiny and off-center; we’re looking down from an upstairs window. Two sets of hands—dark, veined—rest on the sill. “That image is my childhood,” she explained. “Me playing by myself, and my mom (or my parents) watching me. I’ve always been watched. I always felt like I was under a microscope.” Markle’s series is intensely personal, with the complexities of her relationships with her parents as its focus.
Communication is another thread running through Markle’s work. Unspoken dynamics reveal themselves while other connections remain opaque. As a viewer, it’s easy to imagine that Markle holds the power in these situations: some of the photographs are tacitly, if not explicitly, sensual in nature. When asked if her parents were conscious of the themes in her work, Markle paused to consider the question. She didn’t directly approach them about creating photographs with implicitly sexual themes, she said, but the message hasn’t escaped them. In Offering, her mother’s face confronts voluptuous vegetables held by John. “I never brought it up to them, but my mom was recently going through the photos, and she told John she wanted to put that one in the dining room. He didn’t want to—he said, ‘It’s too sexual!’” At certain moments during their shoots, Markle could feel John’s discomfort, but he went along with it, and she would adjust her approach in order to mitigate his unease. “I think he knew the project would be good,” she observed. And, she said, smiling a little, “he also wanted to make me happy.”
While many families are seemingly allergic to discussing sex openly, Markle felt that approaching the topic would be a key part of her series. “I’ve never really understood why it’s so taboo,” she commented. “Because families are literally created through sex! So I felt that it was an important thing to show and explore when it comes to family work.”
For their part, Markle and her mother have always had an open dialogue around sex. As such, Weekends with My Mother and Her Lover was a concrete way for Markle to excavate their tight relationship. I asked if the project tightened their bond. She shifted from side to side, thinking. “I can’t say that it really brought us closer, because we were already so close,” she responded slowly. “But I think it brought up some of the intricacies of our relationship that I didn’t really understand but I knew were there. It brought them to life.”
Read more from our series “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography.