I photographed, audio- and videotaped my mother, Bertha Alyce, from the day I loaded my first roll of film in my camera in 1973 until she died in 1991, always trying to make things better between us. But it was after she died that I learned the most about her from letters between my parents before they married in 1934.
In one of these letters she described a girlfriend she particularly respected because she was in law school and clerking for a judge. Ah ha! Could it be that Mother’s ever-present anger was in part caused by her frustration at not having a career? Her mind was a steel trap and she would have been more than capable of succeeding in a business career. Instead she was a wife and mother, who lived in Daddy’s shadow.
Why didn’t she pursue a career? She was an only child of wealthy southern parents. Looking at her situation one would imagine she could do or have anything she wanted. Those letters described her college years at a New York finishing school, going to concerts, operas, museums, and speaking French fluently. But once she decided to marry my father she went with him to football and baseball games, horse races, business and charity events. I know now that she lost herself as soon as she married, taking on the persona of the wife she imagined she must be.
Through the years when I showed Mother the pictures I made of her we talked and laughed about them, but I didn’t exhibit them because they all looked angry to me, not like successful art pieces. But about a year after her death these same photographs no longer looked angry to me. I had begun to miss her. I had begun to understand that her anger had its origins in all she had not been able to do because she was a woman.
There is feminist content inherent in my photographs and video of Bertha Alyce because Mother’s story explores the ways in which she was a woman limited by the social expectations of her time, a woman who would have wanted to do more than she thought she could. My early work, in the 1970s, was very much informed by feminism. I photographed not only my mother but many women of her community, and the pictures are about those women as products of their time, a time before feminism changed the ways we think about women’s lives and abilities. I took those pictures because I was questioning who I wanted to be, or could be. To do that I needed to ask these women about their values and the ways they had sacrificed their lives to their husbands and children.
I worked for ten years after my mother’s death with the tapes and images of her as well as with the material things she left. The result is a traveling exhibit, a book, Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed, (University of New Mexico Press, 2003), and this videotape, which is included in every book.
As a portrait photographer, Gay Block began in 1973 with portraits of her own affluent Jewish community in Houston. Later work includes girls at summer camp, retired Jews of Miami's South Beach, and grocery employees in Texas. Her landmark work with writer Malka Drucker, RESCUERS: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust, both a book and traveling exhibit, has been seen in over 50 venues in the US and abroad, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), NY, in 1992. Each of her projects has included a film or video component in addition to the photographs. Block’s photographs are in many museums and private collections including MoMA, San Francisco MoMA, and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Block’s most recent completed work, a visual autobiography of her mother, can be seen in three unique formats: the book from University of New Mexico Press, Bertha Alyce: Mother exposed; an award-winning 24-minute video, included with every book and already seen in over 25 film festivals; and a traveling exhibition.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Gay Block." (Viewed on June 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/feminism/block-gay>.