In a world before “blur” and “bokeh” and wide aperture were “the thing,” photographers took much more care to be thoughtful about the background of a portrait. After all, it can be a powerful tool in telling the rest of the story. The setting of the individual, the things he or she keeps around them, how they decorate their abode, or where they or the photographer chose to portray them can be just as informative as the expression of the individual. This is something I’m working on, and the concept was really hammered home to me while reading two books this past week, Our Mothers: Portraits by 72 Women Photographers edited by Viviane Esders, and The Life of a Photograph by Sam Abell.
My own mother passed away when I was a young girl, and I didn’t realize it when I picked up Our Mothers, but it may be what drew me in to it. Old photographs of her are what tell me more about the life she lived, since she cannot. I’m beginning to understand this is part of why I love photography, and it explains much of the importance I place on documenting life and having prints. Our Mothers has one portrait of each photographer’s mother, paired with her words to or about her mother. It gives you so much to think about, from your own family dynamic, your relationship with your mother or parents, and your own mortality, to the histories and cultures shown in the book. Its a feast for the eye and mind. It is full of great examples of how to do a portrait right, and how much more a portrait contains if one really takes the time to explore it. Fascinating and engrossing, I read it through in two short sittings. You may want to have some tissues handy.
I wanted to see if I could find these things represented by our own Everyday Beauty Mortal Muses pool, and it wasn’t too hard at all! You are all so talented.
A Mother’s Work by sassylittlelulu
In Abell’s book, so many of his shots are wonderfully explained in his own words, which are just as good as the photographs and add even more intrigue to the shots. I’m haunted by page 69. It shows, left to right, a little girl playing on a bed in the background, and then on the right, and older man, rugged and dirtied by the job of running a cattle station, as he smokes his pipe, and looks down in serious thought about the stresses of his days. As Abell tells it, the shoot that day was just supposed to be of the man, facing the horrors of an unstoppable bush fire. But right when Abell was about to take the shot, the granddaughter came in and began to play, and thus the photography became this juxtaposition of the blissful ignorance of youth, and the weathered and beaten realities of all that we see by the time we hit our later years in life. Had Abell been set up at f1.4, he may not have created the same impact from this serendipitous shot. I love what that says about photography being able to capture a moment in time that speaks for way more than that moment. I also appreciate what it says about sometimes just waiting for the right moment to take a shot. The virtue of patience in photography is so important, and Abell shares several of those times when he waited, and his patience was rewarded with an outstanding photograph.
And once again, how well you all get this.
joy in the midst of chaos by close to home
And that is just a short teaser, really. There is so much more to both of these books, and I encourage you to sit down with some time and some tea and really sink your teeth in to them. I found both at my tiny local library, and I notice that Our Mothers is very affordable on Amazon. Both have inspired me to the point of restlessness this week.