A more perfect union

Mary Motley Kalergis, a Charlottesville photographer who’s carved herself a fairly wonderful niche documenting the major milestones of American life, published With This Ring back in 1997. It got our attention again because the photos it contains were recently shown in Richmond at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And it’s well worth returning to.

There’s a big bank of collectively owned clichés—the soulmate ideal on one hand, the 50-years-of-bickering stereotype on the other—that could easily have invaded this collection of images and words about marriage. But Kalergis is truly exploring a topic here, and that lets her avoid the maudlin.

The couples in the photos look real, marked by life. They laze on couches, hold each other tenderly or pose with the children whose faces blend the married couples’ features. There are tacky clothes, pensive expressions and dated interiors. Their own words about their marriages, and lightly sketched background info, give context to their comments.

One source of the book’s luxurious depth is the fact that the interviews are somewhat tailored to the couples’ varying experiences. One couple talks exclusively about trying to have children, which is central to their life, a defining struggle. In the photo, the woman’s expression is a complex blend—confusion, hurt and an element of recoiling. His is guarded but somehow self-assured. It looks like an off shot, taken before they were totally composed. He says, “I cannot always understand her drive to be a mother, but this struggle has probably strengthened us as a couple.” She says, “There are times I get angry that Bob doesn’t feel the same way I do.”

The book is full of such multidimensional gaps between word and image, between husband and wife. The issues all come up—sexuality, disease, morals, divorce, death, gender roles, abuse. And the joys, too. It’s complicated and mysterious and yet it keeps being real and daily, like the car and tree outside the window of Gary and Candi Vessel’s house. They’re kissing. “We’re totally on each other’s side,” Gary says.

Though millions of small aesthetic decisions went into the making of this project, Kalergis never puts herself in front of her subjects. She has a laid-back style behind the lens, careful but not contrived, and she eschews the arresting strangeness of someone like Mary Ellen Mark. Her compositions are understated, letting the couples do the talking—as does a husband who proposed though he knew his lover had cancer: “The big things, like our careers, seem trivial,” he says, “and the small things, like tucking a blanket, seem important.”

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