91 Years

Years is a series of my grandmother Phyllis Skinner. I began the series on a whim in 2017 with the first iteration being 89 Years. Now, each year I have with her from then on, I’m replicating the same photographs by memory. I’ve completed 89, 90 and recently 91. The photographs are taken on her birthday, February 20th. The series is captured on film.

I’ve assigned my grandmother a few projects of her own to be included in this series. Those being poetry, personal stories and knowledge the rest of my family may not know of. I believe this addition to the photographs will help depict who she is, how she thinks, and what history she’s lived through. I’ve only gotten a glimpse into her results so far and I have high hopes.

When I began the series, I was over at her house enjoying some one-on-one time after we celebrated her birthday. We had family over at my parent’s home for a nice lunch and gathering. Turning 89 is an incredible feat so we tried to have as much family visit as we could manage. After the gathering, I brought her home and on a whim I asked her to pose for me. At first she was reluctant saying no one wants to see my old face. This was all in humor and I edged her on which she then agreed with a polite and happy smile.

The portrait became a much larger shoot. We were enjoying ourselves and I decided to take a tour around her house. I wanted to document her in different parts of her home and a few spots outside. I asked her what parts of her home she had great memories and sentiment towards. This led to her children’s bedrooms, the dining room, her bedroom, an outside patio, amongst others.

The photograph you see above is the legacy photo of the series. I wanted to capture her in her room, with an item she heavily cherishes. I posed her with her Bible in hand. The lighting was perfect and the weather was beautiful. I believe the time of day was around 5 p.m. I only took one photo per idea and would move on to the next.

My camera and film choice were what I had on hand. Especially being this shoot was impromptu. The camera body was a Voigtlander Bessa R2A. The lens was a Voigtlander 50/1.5 Nokton. The film was a roll of Kodak Portra 400. A very Lovely combination if you’re curious.

I finished the series and looked forward to the results when I developed the images. I was attending the University of Florida at that time and was to leave for Sacramento to see a friend a the week after the shoot. I decided to send the film to a lab for development so I could make sure I could see the scans before my departure. I was excited. If you’re curious about which lab, I chose Indie Film Lab located in Montgomery, Alabama. (pay for me for the shoutout Indie Film Lab. Haha)

The day of my departure I happened to receive an email with a link to my scans. I clicked the link and was amazed with the results. I’m sure part of this was due to the personal attachment but the other was objective. The photos were good. I was and am, truly happy about this accomplishment.

I passed through security at the Jacksonville International Airport, found my gate, sat down and published a few of the photos on the Negative Feedback Facebook page. I checked the post 20 or so minutes later and I was surprised by the feedback — fitting really. My post had 100+ likes with dozens of comments. This was new to me. Normally, a few friends like my work and the Instagram algorithms get a few random likes from people and of course, a few by bots.

Okay, so I was excited. My plane was about to depart, I read a few of the comments, replied, felt great — then I saw a comment by George Muncey, the founder of Negative Feedback. He asked me to send him a direct message. I did so then boarded the plane for Sacramento and flew off. When I arrived, I checked my messages and George responded asking if he could feature the legacy photo in the second Negative Feedback Zine. I said yes and emailed him the full resolution image.

Now ecstatic, I looked back at the comments. There were a few people cherishing their own grandmothers and sharing memories. Another person said he wants to capture his own grandmother now. Then I saw what I never expected. One of my favorite photographers liked the post. His name is Ryan Muirhead, a phenomenal film photographer, based — at the time — out of Portland, Oregon. He was and still is my number one influence in terms of how he approaches a human subject. Theres a level of intimacy and a lovely genuine nature to his method. I learned that in order to create a true emotional photograph, the subject needs to be intimate with me as well. There needs to be a level of connectivity so we can work together for beautiful results. I believe photography can be a powerful tool. There is a major responsibility to use the means properly and a respect that should be paid. I’ll write another post specifically about this belief of mine.

So, this was the second shoot that I used this approach for. The first shoot was a series entitled Coping that I created with my friend Lauren. I may end up sharing that too. If not, you can view the series on my website: www.justintompkins.com. Okay, back to Mr. Muirhead. Seeing him liking my post was a defining moment of clarification that I’m being true to myself, my intentions and my belief with photography.

Anyways, I’m not sure how this post became this long nor where it led. I tend to write how my mind thinks and let that internal dialogue take me wherever it goes. I’ll share a few more of the photos in this post. If you’d like to see more, the rest of the photos from the series can be seen on my website. I now have three iterations, 89, 90 and recently 91. The photos you will see now are from 91.

For more visit my website. Thanks.



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Justin Tompkins

I’m an American art director, world builder and future thinker. Following curiosity, ideas and discussion. Let’s create a better future together.