We all use photography to capture moments with loved ones. From artists to amateurs, we constantly document the lives of our friends and family, from the new-born to ageing generations. Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art.” This quote from Susan Sontag’s 1977 book On Photography reminds us of the medium’s relationship to time. In essence photography is about appearance and disappearance, the visible and the invisible. We use it to slice out time and freeze it – split seconds, forever cherished as monument and memory.
Many have theorised about photography’s connection to mutability and mortality – how it reminds us of the passing of time and the perishability of all things. Roland Barthes considered photography’s enigmatic relationship to the past in a beautiful passage from his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980): “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”
Photography is a particularly powerful medium for artists creating work about parents and relatives in the later stages of life. These images are about love and often ultimately death – this is not something we can shy away from – but it doesn’t mean the work is necessarily morbid or sentimental in tone.
“It is a love story, and maybe it’s slightly unusual that I visually show two people’s departure from the world. But documentary photography is about telling a story, an everyday story of the lives of ordinary people,” says Paddy Summerfield, who photographed his ageing parents over a ten-year period at their home in Oxford. “Time changes the meaning of photographs. I set out to show that event of change in the story itself – of my mother’s loss of the world my father’s loss of his 60-year marriage, and finally my loss of them both.”
Summerfield’s Mother and Father series was shot mainly at the family house where he also lived, and on holidays to the Welsh coast. “I would be desperately going to the window photographing thousands of rolls of films obsessively, thinking, this might be the last time I see my parents,” he says. “It was about wanting to hold onto something that was disappearing.”
He admits that he primarily made the work for himself, “to make a memory”, but that it was also created out of admiration for his father, and simply to “give value” to the lives of two people that he loved, in a departure from his previous work. “All my pictures were about myself, my personal angst, my own isolation, my own fragmented self, my loss of love, my abandonment,” he says. “But with this series I’m more of a documentary photographer, I’ve grown up a bit. I’m looking at a world outside me.”
Sadly his mother, who had Alzheimer’s, was too ill to respond to the series, and his father tended to be busy gardening and caring for his mother, and so paid little attention to him shooting. This sense of separation was translated physically in the series, which was a conscious decision for Summerfield, who shot mainly from the windows overlooking the back garden. “The distancing is about respecting their time together, and not intruding; observing,” he explains. “The features aren’t distinguishable, they’re not my parents, they’re everyone’s in that way.”
This universal quality is part of the reason the series has seen such acclaim. We find familiarity in the scenes, in details that conjure up scents, textures, and sounds. “People are visibly moved by the pictures, but of course it’s their loss, not my loss,” he says. “People say ‘oh I wish I’d taken pictures of my parents’ – it’s really touched them in some way. Others who have parents with Alzheimer’s can hardly bear to turn the pages.”
Summerfield has found a delicate aesthetic to communicate a sense of transience – this liminal or in-between phase – particularly in terms of his mother’s illness. “It’s understated because I deal with the big things – death, love – but it’s all hidden,” he says, going on to describe subtleties of light, religious symbolism, visual metaphors in the changing seasons, how his mother used to say ‘life doesn’t look the same anymore’, and the wilderness that became of the garden. “You feel there’s something more outside of the frame, that’s not really been recorded which you have to fill in. I’m not really coming in close to show the distress,” he continues.
Photographer Lydia Goldblatt in her series Still Here, similarly captures her parents in the later stages of life, over a three-year period, but unlike Summerfield she shot fewer images, and includes extreme close-ups in the book. She speaks frankly about how her father’s illness informed the work, and in turn how her process affected her relationship with him.
“He had dementia, but he was a month off 94 when he died, so he was ageing, and he had various physical issues, but he didn’t have a ravaging disease like cancer. That’s part of what makes the work as gentle as it is,” she says. “He was going from someone who had been extremely lucid, to varying states of being conscious. So there were points at which I had discussions with him about it and then as the work went on it became more about a quieter communication between us.”
“The camera brought him here, it brought him back to a present, back to an engagement with me. And that was something I really didn’t expect from making the work,” she continues. “There was a point that I was very aware he was sort of slipping. You watch someone being fully present and then being somewhere else, and it’s fascinating and beautiful and strange and difficult. It speaks of things that exist beyond our everyday awareness, and I suppose that’s what I was trying to get at.”
Having grown up in the house and then living nearby, Goldblatt was still part of the household to an extent, and often felt she would already know where certain images would come from. “It was all about repetition, about being there and being immersed in the space – a kind of daily life. Things moving and shifting but things coming back to a stillness of time.”
She is careful to point out the risk of voyeurism, and allowing a balance between her role as both photographer and daughter. “If I’m looking at vulnerability with honesty, there has to be something about them being able to face the camera back, even if that’s not what either of my parents are doing – there’s a sense that either they can or that I’m bringing something else that’s necessary about image.”
She considers an example of a set of close up shots of her sleeping father’s face, where the editing process was critical. “There’s one that’s included that works because it has a kind of metaphorical identity, but there’s another one that doesn’t, which just tips it over the edge. I think it’s almost about it becoming too factual, if an image is too bare or too raw then it doesn’t work in the same way,” she says.
As part of the final few images Goldblatt chose to include one shot from after her father had died, entitled Oculus Closed, a close up shot turned 90 degrees to the right from the previous one. “Through that shift in the visual from active to passive you understand what’s happened, and that’s enough,” she says. “To not engage with this event when it happens just wouldn’t have made sense for me.”
The image is not shocking, violent or full of horror, but quiet and understated. Like Summerfield, Goldblatt steers away from the sentimental, morbid, or the “sensational” as she describes. Similarly, having created a book, editing was key and for her it was conceptual, including still life and abstract photography in the sequence alongside the portraits and close-up shots. “If anything the work is about time. And that relates both to our human experience of time and deeper, wider sense of time. Images of light, images of transience and the passing of seasons, delicacy, preciousness – all of these motifs are what those other images are about.”
Much of her previous work has been around transitional stages of life – adolescence, ageing and so on – but for Goldblatt it was a big leap to make work about her own parents. “Your relationships with your parents just don’t stay the same, and as you get older they shift, and you watch that happen and sometimes it’s amazing and sometimes it’s difficult for both parties,” she says, going on to describe the changing relationship between her parents and her mother’s role who, being 24 years younger, became that of her father’s carer.
“I photographed each parent in different ways, and it’s as much a reflection of them as it is a reflection of my relationship with them. Many of the photographs of my mother are more active and more playful territory, it’s more light and shade, and there’s a weight to the images of my dad that had to be there,” she says.
Aesthetic decisions that help to represent the worlds of the subjects are often what create such captivating and moving work. Sarker Protick, a photographer based in Bangladesh, produced a series of images of his grandparents at their apartment in Dhaka, with paired-back compositions showing them and their home beautifully bathed in washed-out light and faded colour.
“I was looking for the psychological space they were living in, not the physical realms they were limited by,” he says. “I started noticing a particular colour palette in my photographs. My grandma’s hair was something that had an effect in my mind. I was used to her dark hair for a long time, and slowly it turned white. It was beautiful. From that the colour white was very symbolic – of peace, old age, death, heaven, light. It is clean, and it is not loud.”
He describes how creating the series brought him closer to his grandparents, who were housebound due to illness, and how he still visits his grandfather since his grandmother’s death. The work does not sidestep sadness and frailty, and yet it is again a certain peacefulness and delicacy which renders these images so moving.
“I was sitting on my grandpa’s couch. The door was slightly open and I saw light coming through, washed out between the white door and white walls. All of a sudden it all started making sense. I could relate what I was seeing with what I felt,” he describes. “Here, life is silent, suspended. Everything is on a wait. A wait for something that I don’t completely understand.”
All three of these photographers attempt to find meaning in their situation through translating the physical and emotional spaces inhabited by their parents and grandparents into photographic images. Their highly intimate, truthful images speak volumes about a shared human experience, through addressing the vulnerability and the inevitable changes, whilst comprehending the loss and the love that remains.