Photography and my mom

I spy with my little eye

The relationship I understand the least in my life is the one I have with my mother. Like many mother-son relationships it’s complicated. At a distance I know she is the most generous and giving person that deserves better than I can treat her. In close proximity, her generosity and kindness, filtered through my psyche, metastasize into overbearing martyrdom and micromanagement that I have no tolerance for.

My mom came to live with my family when we had our first child. She cooked dinner every night and the preparation took hours. I have dietary restrictions, love to eat her cooking, and everything she cooks makes me sick. So, each night I would eat much more than I should, get sick and be unable to sleep for indigestion. I let her know she didn’t need to cook dinner every night but she saw me eating with such gusto — a home cooked meal was rather rare with my wife and I being so busy. So I ate more, slept less and got more sick the longer she stayed. This was not her fault, it was something I should have been able to control with a grain of discipline and yet — I resented her. She was doing something generous and I felt ungrateful, trapped and unbearably vexed. During her visit this scenario became a pattern: my mom performs a good act with poor consequences which left me with a slow burning self loathing that occasionally frothed over into me snapping at her.

It is in this context that we started taking photographs together. When my children were born I became more and more interested in photography. My mom, who has always carried around her Nikon super-zoom, epitomized the proud grandparent that recorded the same 2 images of her grand children 1000 times over. The zoomed in full face shot and then the backed up full-body shot.

“Look how cute he is.” as she shows me a picture she just took.” — “I know, I’m looking at him right now”

There is nothing wrong with taking photos like this. However, after seeing thousands of the same photos from her I was really eager to get her to do something new. I will mention that I’m no expert, I’m merely an amateur in the most extreme sense of the word. Our styles are also different. While I enjoy technology and experimenting with it (which has lead me to do mind-numbingly boring things like shoot multiple photos of a dark room slowly stepping up the ISO and then painstakingly examine the consequences of each step up — noise) my mom was uninterested. Her philosophy when it came to photos was simple: point at something cute and record it. My philosophy, for better or worse, was to create sharp, high pixel photos that followed the rule-of-thirds.

When she was visiting most recently I got her interested in some free online photography courses. To my excitement, I soon found her photographing water flowing out of our kitchen sink spigot — high shutter freezing each droplet, slow shutter capturing the hazy glow of motion. We started taking long walks and discussed cropping, aperture, shutter speed,depth of field, leading lines and all the other grist of a high school photography course.

On these walks my mom never stopped to take photos of her own, instead she would only take photos of things I did. I was annoyed she was doing this — it felt like she was competing with me. This was exacerbated when I checked out the photos in-camera and noticed her lens creeping into the edge of my photos or her popping into the frame and “ruining” my photo.

A few days later when I exported the photos to my desktop and looked through them I laughed and I realized she had turned some otherwise mediocre photos into ones I will always cherish.

My wife and daughter with my mom taking a picture of their backs and, presumably, me.
My mom and I taking a picture of a vine and dumpster.

These photos are special because they tell a story about my mother and I that I can’t put into words. The story is one filled with humor, kindness, and lack of intention. It’s about learning, and observing, about being the photographer and the subject and it is how I think of her summed up in pixels.

I also learned a great deal about what I value in a photo. I can spend countless hours on white-balance, exposure, focus but at the end, it comes second to the heart of a good photo — the story. It’s not as if the technical aspects are unimportant, it’s just easy to forget where those details (that’s what they are at the end of the day — details) fall in the hierarchy of what amounts to a good photo.

I won’t say that photography has fixed the relationship I have with my mom or that it’s been revelatory. Instead it’s hinted at something I’ve known all along; that a soul as kind and generous as hers is as rare a good photo. And when those two can come together, it’s a serendipitous thing.

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