“My father works the garden, tends the land, and cares for my mother, who is trapped in her illness. And here I am, photographing them, from the house windows and in the garden. I photograph them through the seasons, time and time again; there is a mystery and melancholy in these distant figures.”
As Sean O’Hagen discusses in The Guardian - "Mother and Father is an act of remembrance, deeply personal and acutely observational. It is also a reminder of the power of a certain kind of photographic attentiveness that has become increasingly hard to find in an age of manipulated image-making. Paddy Summerfield’s black-and-white images, taken in the expansive, well-tended garden of his parents’ house in Oxford and on a family holiday in north Wales, span the years 1997 to 2007. During that time, he tells us: “I recorded my mother’s loss of the world, my father’s loss of his wife and, eventually, my loss of them both.”
I began to photograph my own parents, about four years ago now, after my father suffered a paralysis induced by a spinal embolism. He had survived cancer, several years previously, and now, at this moment, close again to death, I wished that I had taken more photographs of him in this interval.
Photographs weren’t ever part of the fabric of my daily family life growing up. My mother and father tell me that they have never even ever, in their entire lives, taken a photograph. Think about that for a moment - never ever taken a photograph.
Perhaps over the years, I thought that someone at a party must have thrust a camera in their hands and they pressed the shutter release after prompting or guidance but they tell me not. Yet, I’m strangely proud of this – and have, myself, never intervened to force a camera into their hands – but there are of course drawbacks to this.
There are only two photographs in existence of me as a toddler, for example, and none of these with any other members of my family. There aren’t any group photos of our family and none of me between the ages of one to eight. So, I was never photographed much as a young child and perhaps this is why I hate to be photographed now.
My eldest sister, when in her teens, began to take photographs, firstly with an instamatic camera and then a Polaroid camera and she took up the arduous role of documenting this family of mine. In her images I’m an older child found smiling with a semi-afro and flares, pictured in a house that was knocked down and demolished twenty years ago now and I see Prince my long dead dog in my sister’s photos too and become glassy-eyed for a time gone forever as I flip through the plastic wallets with adhesive covers that keep in place times gone by.
In truth, I haven’t seen any of these images for years now. Or my mother’s archive of images that she keeps secured in a carrier bag; black and white ‘professional’ photos of weddings, mainly, and images from ‘home’. I’m a photographer but to my shame I haven’t chosen to save these photographs from its carrier bag archive. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because none of the memories found within are mine?
When my love of photography began I grasped the baton of documentation from my sister and turned the camera, like she had, on my family. Not out of any need to document or preserve them, really, but instead to try out new cameras and techniques. They were my models and muses. Yet, when my father came out of hospital, four years ago, I began to take images of them for the same reasons that we all take photographs. To make sense of and find meaning and above keep alive something that I feared would soon be gone.
Someone once said that there was a list of photographic subjects that one must never do and somewhere near the top of this list was never photograph your parents.
Perhaps Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh had ‘pissed in the well’ and tainted the subject matter somehow? Yet, obviously Paddy Summerfield, had, as well as Larry Sultan, Phil Toledano, Max Kandhola and many, many more that I haven’t had the time to Google. They have all photographed their parents in deeply poignant and moving ways, capturing the universality of love and loss in equal measure.
Yet, our relationships with our parents are never known. We truly never know them and they, our parents, never truly know us. We are strangers bound together by an unconditional love for each other, without sometimes knowing why; within the inevitable see-saw like balancing act of power that sees the child become the parent and parent the child.
And so here I am, photographing my parents.
As I look through the viewfinder I imagine myself ten years from that moment, glassy-eyed, looking down at a photograph that is still yet to be taken and as I press the shutter release I’m sad. I’m sad as I know that I cannot keep this moment alive. That as much as I try I cannot find meaning in the fact that they will leave me; that they will be gone and I wonder to myself whether it would be better to live this moment now rather than record it?
But I take the photograph.