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Mother as mirror
"I am so grateful for this photo taken of me. I'm collapsed on the floor, ready to have a nervous breakdown, because there's so much pressure on me to get this book done. My mom is sitting next to me in her geisha costume, she's laughing, she's having so much fun."
-Judy Olausen
Photographs courtesy of Judy Olausen

by Norma Smith Olson

"It was never going to be a book," Olausen said of the collection of photographs she staged with her mother in the central role of a 1950s housewife.

Mother as Coffee Table.
Mother as Doormat.
Mother as Road Kill.
Mother's Little Helpers.
Mother with Thorns and Turkey.

"When I was on TV, twice a day, people would ask, 'How could you do that to your mother?' People would believe that I strangled her and threw her on the ground," Olausen recalled. "Of course, it's all smoke and mirrors."

One of Olausen's goals was to show younger women what life was like for her mother's generation. So she spent hours scouring for props and locations for the nearly 50 photographs that reflect the Eisenhower era of the '50s, when many women were expected to be happy homemakers-"eager to please, ready to serve."

The "Ike" pin her mother wears in "Mother as Enabler" (the photograph on this issue's cover), cost a "fortune" and is one of Olausen's favorite props. "I had to find the picture of Lawrence Welk, the ashtray, the house, the drapes.

"These pictures are really a deconstruction of the American Dream for women at that time. [They mirror] how difficult and how wonderful their life really was," Olausen said. "I wanted to talk about the lack of appreciation and respect for women's work during that time."

But Olausen did not want to do an angry book. "Somehow these pictures just came to me," she said. "They were funny and outrageous."

Serious work

Olausen's intended career path as an architect took a detour when she, by chance, took a photography class at the University of Minnesota. After college, while working as a photographer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, she built her own business by freelancing nights and weekends.

"I really wanted to be on my own," Olausen said. "So I left the Star and Trib and things were fantastic."

She had many clients, things were going great, her business was a success. And then all of a sudden, the phone stopped ringing.

The quiet gave her time to think, and ideas for the series of "Mother" pictures came to her.

"I just had to go for it," Olausen said "I started shooting them."

Sunday Afternoon Surprise.
Return to Sender.
Don't Look Back.
Mother as Enabler.

The "Mother" book project, which took Olausen more than four years to complete, started by accident. A client in New York had wanted to see her portfolio-primarily, serious black-and-white portrait work. However, she inadvertently included "Mother as Coffee Table" among her images.

The client was Advertising Age magazine. It requested that she send the four or five "mother" images she had done so far in the series and they ran an article in the magazine showcasing her work.

"It baffles me to this day. My life changed on a dime," Olausen said. The phone started ringing off the hook."

Within a week, she had an agent, a publisher and an advance to create the series of "mother" photographs.



"I worked with her, not because she was free, but because she had a rubber face, which I didn't realize," Olausen said. "In 'Mother on Valium,' I'd say, 'Mom, I want you to look kind of happy, but dopey, but sappy,' and she could nail it.

Today, Vivian is 91 and recently moved into senior housing.

"My mom is a wonderful mother," Olausen said. "She is funny, sweet, kind and she loved the attention [from the book]. She had a lot of fun. We became even closer."

Through working on the book project, she discovered things about her mother.

"My mother's really smart, but she always kind of acted like the dumb blonde, which I think was definitely part of that 50s thing, when women didn't show how smart they were," Olausen said. "But my mom is very bright. It was the greatest blessing to do this all together, to laugh, even fall more in love with her."

FFI: www.olausen.com

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