MY MOTHER IS NOW APPROACHING NINETY, and must thus be coaxed into being photographed. Good sport that she is, she can be cajoled into the occasional holiday snap here and there, but, by and large she regards sitting for the camera in the same way that she views all the other rigors and indignities of age, as a nuisance that must be endured. She has forgotten how beautiful she has been in every stage of her life, and mistakenly believes that we only want to see her as she once was, when, in reality, all we really want to do is…..see her.
As a consequence, I have taken to photographing objects that echo her presence, and, in some way, define her life as it is right now. She may, herself, be reluctant to pose, but the things she touches and uses regularly bear unmistakable elements of her, however subtle. We are long accustomed to the process of summoning the departed through contact with what they have left behind, be it jewelry, clothing, personal mementoes, or even other photographs. This was the essence of Annie Liebovitz’ amazing book Pilgrimage, her collection of images of the workday property, costumes, and physical spaces associated with Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and other essential Americans who left long before any of us living could encounter them through anything else but….things. But in the in case of our own long-living relatives still present, we can conjure their spirit in the items they use on a daily basis even as they themselves remain available to us. That affords us an amazing additional basis for comparison.
These are my mother’s casual slippers. She mostly uses them to walk out onto her rear deck for some sunshine and meditation. They are not fancy shoes in any sense. The uneven pattern of wear in them reflects the very real work required for her to move herself from one point to another, and so I wanted that to show. I also like the fact that they are not so very plain, that at least a little of the style and elegance which has always been a comfort to her continues to deliver that very human dividend. She could never wear Keds or clogs, even in the privacy of her own home. As Auntie Mame famously said, “life is a banquet, and most poor bastards are starving to death.” Mame and my mother would have found common ground on the basics of Living The Life Exuberant. So let the insides show a little fatigue. Outside, there is always room for a little glamour.
And so, in pursuit of photographs like this one, I want to spend every visit with her and my father finding all the things in the house that bespeak them, all the worn/fancy slippers that bear witness to lives that are a delicate high-wire act between the sparkle of their youth and the gravity of their final innings. That is a complicated thing to show visually, and I will need to call on every skill I possess to get it right. But that is certainly the essence of being a good photographer, and the happy/heartbreaking role of a good son.
ok…so you have me all teared up. I wish I had done more of exactly what you are proposing. Fortunately….I still have a lot of things to work with…but I could have done better, while mom and dad were still alive….I didn’t want to be invasive, but the things you are photographing…I could have…didn’t think to do it.
September 29, 2021 at 5:49 PM
I don’t think that, when it comes to how we deal with the aging and parting of loved ones, that there can be a single “correct” way to navigate, and I’m sure that whatever method you chose in your own life certainly was right for you. There are an infinite number of ways to remember someone, both with and without physical momentoes. In my own case, I have spent decades physically distant from my parents, making each of my occasional visits part homecoming and part detective story, as I try to gather as much information on them during our rare times together. Their daily objects fascinate me because they can speak for them when they find it harder to speak for themselves, and that narrative power seems to argue for their being preserved via pictures. That said, I want to reassure you that your own path is just as valuable as mine, and, as always, I appreciate your very kind sentiments.
September 29, 2021 at 10:14 PM