Sitting with my Mother

Even before the start, my mother guided me toward photography.

While on a vacation for her birthday in 2014, she asked if I wanted a camera, then split the cost of one with me. Oh, I hemmed and hawed about that cost—and creating ultimately more landfill fodder—but that’s how I started making pictures. My mom shoved me into it.

And long before that—in fact, 20 years before—my mother put my first camera in my hands. It was a Nikon, all manual controls of course, probably from the mid-80s. For several years I loaded film, shot a lot of sunsets through trees, and felt pretty artistic. But I could never get past the basics of exposure, which meant doom. On old(er) film cameras, there’s no Auto; no coddling, no footholds. You did the work, or your pictures looked like garbage. Many of my pictures from that time went in the garbage, and the camera I sold on eBay in 2013. It was neat, but not relevant to poems, and not pretty enough for a shelf.

My mother, however, built a black and white darkroom in our basement. For several years—before a life-changing knee injury made it near impossible for her to walk the stairs—she shot and developed regularly. I wish I’d followed her in there, though who knows how shooting pictures as well would’ve pulled me away from my poems. I wouldn’t trade anything against my journey with those.

She sold it all in the mid-oughts, to a RISD student. If she’d held onto it just 10 more years, I’m sure she could’ve sold it for three or four times as much.

It’s interesting my mother brought that camera with on that 2014 vacation. Over the last decade, she’s fallen out some with photography (instead mastering needlepoint). Though she always has her phone with her, I think she’s most comfortable with an SLR—the form, the controls, and viewfinder feel right, in a way a phone feels too foreign. But she doesn’t use either much anymore—the heart wants what the heart wants. Her heart isn’t in learning Photoshop.

Recently, she’s been cooking again, a lot. It’s great to see her so excited. Making things and sharing them.

Sitting with my mother

The last few months, when I’ve made the journey to Mass. to RI, I bring my little studio. I sit with my mother, the portrait sitter, and we shoot.

We set up in her basement, or living room, or bedroom, and talk about the normal things, with a few lights, a tripod, and my SLR. I keep the process the same with her as anyone—three segments, culling and discussing them as we go—but we keep more outtakes than most clients want. She turns 70 this year. All quality time with family is precious, but this time especially. She’s still here, I’m still here, and we’re making a record of ourselves. For me, for the grandkids, for anyone who loves her. And I get to practice.

I like to think every portrait shoot I walk into now, she’s there with me. Laughing, pointing her professorial finger, reminding me what’s important.

Barbara Rubinstein

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The author

I bring 11 years as a professional writer and designer, as well as my feminism, ecological philosophies, and editorial aesthetic to photography. When no one's looking, I bring my sense of humor, too.

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