Being Mama: Claiborne Swanson Frank

This world-renowned portrait photographer, author and former right-hand-woman to Anna Wintour has embraced the chaos of motherhood.

photographer Claiborne Swanston Frank with sons

As the former assistant of a notoriously no-nonsense Vogue editor-in-chief, photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank was very much accustomed to meticulousness, precision and order. Her debut book, American Beauty, comprises 110 impeccably styled and shot women at the forefront of their fields, while her second anthology, Young Hollywood, features the perfectly posed likes of starlets Elisabeth Moss, Dakota Johnson and Amber Heard. 

Then Claiborne became a mother. 

“Motherhood transformed my world,” says the New Yorker, whose sons Hunter and Wilder are currently five and three. “In many ways, I was a child until I had my own children. My small reality of life and my own needs exploded with the birth of my first son. I suddenly felt a responsibility and purpose I had never known before.” 

With her new insight, Claiborne felt compelled to tell a modern story of motherhood and capture “this profound human experience”. “My hope was to take portraits of mothers and their children that captured love and joy, to try to stop time in a series of portraits – and show how this experience connects us all,” she says, noting that the process behind her resulting third book, released in April of last year, was vastly different to that of her former work.  

“It was very challenging… In every shoot, there were moments of peace, moments of chaos, and everything in-between. It all seemed out of my control; there was no way to make sure the dress was perfect, to choreograph the moment, to control or pose a child. It challenged my process and formula deeply.”  

Mother and Child portrays 70 iconic mothers with their children and uncovers what motherhood means to each subject – model and actress Patti Hansen, fashion designer Carolina Herrera and Moda Operandi founder Lauren Santo Domingo, to name a few. After leaving each of their photography sessions, Claiborne had no idea if she’d nailed the shot. Or if she even had anything useable. 

“Then I’d get home and go through it all and discover these incredible moments. I’ve realized that the most beautiful moment is never the curated moment. I was basically re-learning how to be a photographer. I was forced to be very present, and shoot in a freer and looser way, and to trust that the moment would appear and that I’d be able to capture it.  This creative evolution completely mirrored the evolution – and the growing pains – that I’d been experiencing as a mother.”

Claiborne and her similarly creative sisters – fashion designer Veronica Swanson Beard and author Alexis Swanson Traina – grew up riding horses on their parent’s Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley (where Alexis now has the role of creative director). After studying fashion and working as a fashion buyer and manager, Claiborne moved to New York in 2007. Ten months later she was engaged to James Frank, and working as Anna Wintour’s assistant at Vogue (a job that, as any fan of The Devil Wears Prada will know, ‘a million girls would kill for’).

In 2009 she left Anna’s side, started pursuing photography and relocated with her new husband to Los Angeles – home to the many muses of her second book, Young Hollywood. She’s since collaborated with fashion brands such as Estée Lauder, Ferragamo, Michael Kors and Clé de Peau Beauté, and contributes to various titled including Vanity Fair, Town and Country, Vogue and Harper’s BAZAAR, but amid the glamour and grit of carving out her career, was becoming a mother always at the back of her mind?  

“Yes… I always hoped that one day I would be a mother,” says Claiborne, recalling an ordinary Sunday when she’d realized her period was late and decided to take a pregnancy test. “I was over the moon. I remember feeling excited, grateful and terrified. It’s such a surreal feeling knowing within you is another life.”

Describing pregnancy as “a ride of emotions and waves of highs and lows”, Claiborne stubbornly dismissed her labor signs – contractions and all – and had to be forced into the car by James. Soon after arriving at hospital, she learned the terrifying news that Hunter’s heartbeat had dropped. 

“I remember thinking that Hunter’s safe and peaceful birth was the only thing that mattered. I realized I needed to put all of my energy on him and his birth and let go of all of my own fears and anxiety. It was my first profound moment of motherhood where I realized my love of this child was so much greater than my concern of myself or my own life. I moved from a space of fear to courage and determination as I visualized him and his safe arrival. After this revelation his heartbeat returned to a normal rate.” 

In the first days of Hunter’s life, she was taken by “how tiny, precious and fragile he was,” and struggled, as many new mothers do, with the loss of her independence and identity. “For me there was a clean line of my life before and after having my first son. My life was never again the same and my heart was broken wide open by a little boy and a love greater than I could have ever imagined.” On the birth of her second son she says, “I was determined to be present and to do whatever was needed of me to get Wilder here safely. It was a very long labor, but peaceful – and a easier birth.” 

Now back in Manhattan, living in an Upper East Side apartment with their boys and a dog called Blue, Claiborne and James juggle careers and parenting with the help of their nanny – “who is like a part of our family”. “James works very long hours so I like his time with the kids to be quality and focused more on joy and creating memories with them,” says Claiborne, whose work affords her more flexible hours. “I do a little of everything and like to be super hands-on and involved as much as I can in the mundane life of my children.” 

Right now she’s learning to stop babying her eldest, Hunter, while attempting to set limits with young Wilder. “He a pretty wilful toddler so we are working on that. Overall I want to try to help them and do whatever I can to give them the skills and tools they need in each developmental phase… obviously easier sad than done.” 

Motherhood on the whole, she says, has made her a better person.

“Being a parent forces you to look at your life and the morals and values you want to instil in your children. In raising them I find the most important thing is leading by your own example. We are our children’s greatest teachers it is our reasonability to educated and raise our children to be kind loving people. Motherhood has forced me to evolve as a human and has inspired in me the desire to be the very best version of myself. I am by far a more thoughtful, present, responsible, compassionate woman now.”