Mother May I?

An attractive middle-aged woman, naked bar a pair of red high heels, poses as if for a porn shoot, her legs spread wide and a defiant look in her eyes. In another photograph, the woman is naked and laughing, entangled with a younger male lover.

Elsewhere, in furtive black-and-white shots, she is pictured having sex with various – mostly younger – men.

These are some of the more provocative photographs from Leigh Ledare's series Pretend You're Actually Alive – and, even without knowing their full context, they are not for the easily offended.
What shifts them from the provocative to the shocking is the single word in many of the captions: mum.

We may have grown used to photographers like Nan Goldin and Larry Clark mapping out their often hardcore personal lives. But Ledare, a soft-spoken American, has taken this to a new extreme, capturing the exhibitionist sexuality of his own mother.

The work, which was published in book form in 2008, comprises images of his mother Tina; his own adolescent diary entries; ads she placed in the Seattle Weekly for "a generous, wealthy husband (not someone else's) who wants his own private dancer"; plus moving descriptions of her troubled relationship with her sons and former husband; and, most intriguingly, ageing.

The obvious question is why did he – and she – do it?

When asked, Ledare can retreat into a mixture of conceptual art speak, as in

"the extremely open and intimate relationship I have with my mother ... was developed through the work. (It) comments on the confusion around these sexual boundaries … through imposing herself on me as a subject, she was asking me to be complicit in her sexualisation. I saw her sexuality as a means of antagonising her father and refuting expectations he had for how she should behave as a mother, daughter, and woman of her age."

A look at the arc of Tina Peterson's life explains things further. At 16, she appeared as a beautiful, precociously talented ballerina in Seventeen magazine.

Later, she danced at the Joffrey and the New York City Ballet before working briefly as a model. She then married, had two children, and – when the marriage failed – worked on and off as an exotic dancer.

Born in 1976, Leigh left home at 15 and attended Rhode Island School of Design. He was a skateboarder of some repute and worked as an assistant to Larry Clark, the controversial photographer and film-maker.

Clark, who in 1971 made the seminal confessional photobook Tulsa about his life as a heroin addict, and later the Harmony Korine-scripted film Kids, is clearly a huge influence on Ledare.

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