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Baby Photographer Anne Geddes Talks About How Her Book Can Help Fight Child Abuse

Describing Anne Geddes as a baby photographer is like saying Sidney Crosby plays a bit of hockey.

Geddes is the baby photographer.

In just 10 years, she' s sold close to 18 million glossy books crammed with hyper-cute baby photos of tots in clay pots and tykes swaddled in cabbage leaves. Babies appear on Anne Geddes greeting cards and calendars. She's sold zillions of these, too. And we haven't even mentioned the baby-themed Anne Geddes toys, bags, and accessories, or the soft, huggable plush toys and "collectible fairy mugs."

But that's not news. What is news is that "I now realize why I'm doing it after all these years," Geddes tells me on the phone from her home in New Zealand. "Photography is about the spirit. And I wanted to communicate the spirit of the child, and how these images could help prevent child abuse.

"I'm now turning 50 and, looking back, I realize my own upbringing was less that perfect. My father was violent to me as a child. It wasn't a question of him rampaging through the house. It wasn't that extreme. My abuse wasn't sexual abuse. It was emotional abuse, which is just as bad as sexual abuse. My father was very, very strict."

This damning revelation is missing from A Labor of Love, Geddes's just-published 320-page "autobiography," where she describes her father only as "demeaning" and their relations "strained." Otherwise, Labor - the reason behind her promotional trip to Toronto Nov. 9 - is chattily upbeat.

It also could be billed as her greatest hits package of 25 years worth of photographing babies. Labor shows babies dressed up like Van Gogh sunflowers, babies as peas in their pods, babies as woodland fairies, worms, snails, pansies and hydrangeas - the very sort of shots that led to her breakthrough book, Down in the Garden in 1996. Hey, there are even babies that look sort of like ... real wrinkly babies.

Born and raised along with four sisters on their parents' vast cattle ranch in north Queensland, Australia, Geddes grew up "quite wild and adventurous as a child," he writes in Labor. First married at 21 - "I was too young and emotionally immature," she explains - she met Kel Geddes, then a TV executive, who's now her business manager. After living in Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne, the couple settled in Auckland in the late '80s where they had two daughters, Stephanie and Kelly, and she opened a modest photographic practice.

"I started the way most portrait photographers started," she tells me. "But I thought, 'If I'm going to do portraiture of children, I'm going to do it my way.' I wanted to contain the spirit of kids. But kids under five have no concept of themselves."

In finding her subjects' inner cabbage leaf, Geddes found the cornerstone of a multi-million dollar empire complete with its Anne Geddes Platinum Visa Card. When Celine Dion wanted to share her newfound maternal bliss, she teamed with Geddes in 2004 for Miracle, the Quebec chanteuse's first concept album, which spun off a 60-page Miracle book and a DVD on the making of the book.

Geddes has also earned lots of flack along the way. Her babies are "unreal," complained the Australian Early Childhood Association some years back. "They're object-like (and) no trouble. That's not really childhood."

No, it's not. If anything, Geddes's babies represent a sort of neo-Victorian Never-Never Land refuge from her own time when the words "child" and "photography" usually occur in a horrifying story about child pornography.

With Geddes, a baby is safe and doesn't need a toy. Because it is the toy. Toys can't hear or see the awful stuff, you see.

Anne Geddes will be signing copies

of A Labor of Love Friday, Nov. 9 at Indigo (55 Bloor St. W.) from 7 to 8: 30 p.m.