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Pregnant Pause : Photographer Who Specializes in Mothers-To-Be Understands the Craving to Document This Special Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What first-time mother doesn’t have a snapshot of herself at the stage in her pregnancy when she has forgotten what her feet look like?

In this archetypal picture she stands sideways, grinning demonically as she demonstrates how unbelievably big this baby is.

“See!” she seems to say, “I can barely touch my fingers in front of my extruded navel.” It is clear that she regards her girth as evidence of the extraordinary virtues of her unsprung offspring.

Joanna Keller understands the craving of mothers-to-be to document this extraordinary time in their lives.

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A professional photographer who lives and works in Park LaBrea, Keller makes her living shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs. But last year a pregnant friend asked Keller to take pictures of her in the final weeks of her pregnancy. Keller has been photographing pregnant women ever since.

Keller’s mothers-to-be (she’s photographed several in recent months) look as serene as Renaissance Madonnas.

Photographed in their homes, they sometimes sit in rocking chairs, light streaming through windows behind them, a shawl or blanket draped over their bare shoulders and around their distended bellies. Sometimes they glance wistfully over at a bassinet already crowded with stuffed animals. Overhead is the mobile modern parents trust will stimulate their unborn paragon all the way to Stanford or Yale.

When her clients are willing, Keller photographs them in the nude. Swollen breasts and curving midsections form voluptuous landscapes. One of Keller’s clients, a massage therapist, has a butterfly tattoo on her lower abdomen that seems to hover over her unseen but very present unborn child as if the baby were a flower.

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Cynthia Kipnis, 35, was photographed shortly before daughter Heidi was born Nov. 15. Kipnis recalled that she and Keller contrived to wait until the very last moment “until I was the biggest.” Keller had taken her wedding photos, Kipnis said. She wanted prenatal photos because, “I thought my body was really beautiful with the baby in the womb.” The result is photographs she regards as “the epitome of motherhood.”

The Mt. Olympus resident didn’t feel at all self-conscious about posing nude, she said, adding she would do it again only if she were pregnant.

Kipnis pointed out that Keller’s photos are only the most formal ones taken before the baby was born. She also has a videotape of the sonogram made during her amniocentesis. (The sonogram allows women to compare their offspring even before they are born. Overheard recently: One pregnant teen-ager, with sonogram in hand, saying to another, “My fetus is cuter than your fetus.”)

Keller became a professional photographer after her 22-year marriage ended in 1977.

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As a child in local schools she had loved art--until junior high school. “Then one of my teachers said something awful about something I was really proud of, and that was the end of art.”

She went to UCLA, planning to major in theater arts, then dropped out to get married. “I did things like heading the PTA bazaar and writing the PTA newsletter,” she said of that phase of her life. “I made lunch.”

She first began taking photographs in an advertising art course. “I loved the camera,” she said. “Suddenly I didn’t have to be able to draw something to capture it.”

Inevitably, photographing mothers-to-be reminds Keller of her own childbearing. Keller has two daughters, Lauren, 30, and Julie, 26.

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Pregnancy and birth have undergone a revolution since Keller’s daughters were born during the obstetrical Dark Ages, as she calls it.

In the past, people didn’t routinely know the gender of their children until after they were born. One hoped one’s baby would look good in yellow (most didn’t) because that was the color of choice during prenatal shopping. Black and white was for bachelors. Lavender unsettled your in-laws.

Back then, before amniocentesis, older mothers-to-be worried for a long time before most could be reassured that their offspring were just fine, thank you, with the median number of toes and noses and no flaw more tragic than Uncle Charlie’s unfortunate chin.

The major involvement of fathers in the birth process ended nine months before the baby was born.

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Keller, who charges about $300 for a portfolio, thinks her pregnancy photographs are a sign of the times.

In this era of the deferred and oh-so-wanted baby, parents-to-be don’t leave much about pregnancy and child rearing to chance. If they have the money, they don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance on infant-related matters that were once handled strictly by amateurs. Twenty years ago, who ever heard of having a home professionally child-proofed? If a new mother overlooked some domestic hazard, her own mother would look at her as if she were Jack the Ripper and say: “You want to leave this poison under the sink where the baby can get it?” This service was free.

In those days there were football coaches, hockey coaches, even soccer coaches, but no lactation coaches.

Keller notes that today’s pregnant women are often in great shape and proud of their fecund bodies. She said she loves helping them celebrate their pregnancies. So far, her clients have found her through word of mouth, but she plans to distribute flyers to birth centers and other places where pregnant women congregate.

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Keller stops time just before a woman’s life is changed forever.

And photos are nicer mementos of that time than stretch marks.


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