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Story Behind the Photo: Portrait of my Mom

December 27, 2009

I’ve been a photographer for a long while now. I try not to live with regrets but I have a restless soul, and with this plague comes regret by the tenfold. Lucky me!

One of my primary regrets is not turning the camera on the people closest to me. I should have begun photographing family members from the beginning, but for some reason I never did.

I look back to that day I got my first real camera, Nikon FM2, and 35mm lens, and what I could have done. I had an entire family of subject matter at arms length, but instead I chose to venture into the world after other more exotic subjects, many of which were totally unattainable.

I moved thousands of miles away from the rest of the clan, and still live this far away, but even so, I could have done a lot more over the years. So now, whenever I get the chance, I try to add to my archive of all things Milnor.

I have a photo of my dad in my kitchen here in California, which I’ll include, and many people have commented on this image. Pentax 6×7, Trix, great light, great location, and a rare moment when padre was okay with being photographed. It’s also a beautifully printed, warmtone, silver print. I wish I could say I printed it, but I didn’t. This was made during my 15 year, unexplainable lapse from darkroom printing. But, alas, I have it. And I actually have a second version of it, printed neutral. When I look at this image, it is a reminder of the importance of this work. This image is a reminder that the best, and most important images, for the most part, come from personal work. Padre is no longer with us, so there aren’t any new images and never will be. When you think of my dad you have to think of Burt Reynolds from the 1970’s. The mustache, the machismo, etc. I wouldn’t say he was easy to photograph, not by any stretch, but occasionally I could snap a picture or two.

Truly horrific iphone reproduction of a print that was made by hand.

My timing of trying to built a family archive could not have been better. Two days before pops died I managed to talk the parental units into driving with me into the Everglades in Florida, so that I could add to the archive. Those images are posed, somewhat forced, but are also the last images I have of him. And when I look at those images now I can see a few characteristics of my current style that might have come from that shoot.

So recently I was in Texas and lined up the family members, or those willing, and made some new snaps. The young Milnor members are easy. I can still push them around and make them do what I want, which is simply awesome. The older Milnors are hit and miss, so I get what I can.

Mom is far more relaxed about being photographed than padre ever was, so it’s easier to get pictures. She is the enigma who one minute is waxing poetic about the benefits of organic food and exercise, and then the next minute is eating a three pound block of fudge and wondering why she doesn’t feel so well. This kind of violent manhandling of basic logic makes for great pictures.

On this day, I think I shot one roll of 6×6, one roll of 6×9 and one roll of 35mm, and all three gave me completely different looks and feels.

I chose this one because of what a potential client said to me the other day, a client who turned out to be one of the most interesting potential clients I’ve ever met. “I’ve never seen a photographer put totally out of focus pictures on their site but somehow make it work.”

I have many in focus pictures of my mom, some of which I’ll post later, but I like this out of focus image a lot.

It’s like an inside joke. All the ingredients are like a secret language that only our family can read.

It’s starts with the hat, which is the same hat she has had, and worn, from the time I was a kid, so it’s at least 40 years old. It was the hat that everyone else wanted, but she kept it and kept us from getting our grubby hands on it. I think the hat emerged from Wyoming when they first began making trips to this wild land, back in the early 1970’s.

And the jacket she is wearing is actually a Native American poncho of some sort, that has also been around for a long while. It’s been draped over a railing or hanging from a wall in all the home bases we have seen over the years.

But perhaps the most important chapter of this little photo story is the red oak in the background. I think land has always been a key to our story, first Indiana, then Wyoming then Texas. Indiana was swampland, which is as AWESOME as it sounds, and the most memorable image I can think of, of our family from that time, was made near the swamp during a Christmas tree hunt. We are all bundled in layers, ski masks on, standing with mom and our prized tree as dad snapped the picture. I think later that day, in the truck on the way home, my brother got a piece of corn stuck in his nose. I remember my mom saying, “Your gonna get it stuck, your gonna get it stuck,” and my brother kept jamming it up his nose and then blowing it out. Suddenly, it wouldn’t come out. There was panic, screaming and lots of nose blowing. It eventually came out.
In Wyoming we lived nestled into the edge of the great pines, miles and miles of them, and at that time, the ONLY sound in that entire area was wind through these trees and other weather associated noises. I can remember sitting outside in the black of night, waiting for meteors to streak across the sky as the coyotes howled and laughed around us. I also remember almost burning down the entire area after setting off a “butterfly” some illegal firework we picked up from some creepy guy in a trailer just outside of Laramie. I think the following year that same trailer exploded, leaving a rusted out, blackened hulk for our viewing enjoyment. Being Wyoming, nobody bothered to have it removed or cleaned up. It might still be there.

And now, deep in the heart, we have these red oaks swaying.

So for me, this picture is really three pictures in one, and even though her face isn’t in focus, it doesn’t matter. I did shoot a second frame of this, it’s just a little wider, but I like this one better.

Someday down the road I’ll make a book of our history, our family and maybe this image will be a part of it.

And whenever I get a chance to go home, I’ll make sure to take the time, badger the right people, and try to continue to add to the archive. Next up are the brother and sister units who are more “difficult.”

But I know I must persevere because in many ways, this is the most important work I do.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Wissinger permalink
    December 28, 2009 7:37 pm

    I’ve been rediscovering some old, old photos of my family taken by me when I was in high school. My parents, both gone now, were younger then than I am now. These are photos of utterly mundane things and they’re all the better for that. Like you, Dan, I wonder why I didn’t take more photos like these. So I’m trying to make up for that lapse now, much to the great chagrin of my wife and kids. Someday they’ll appreciate it.

  2. December 29, 2009 3:20 am

    Oh man, my mom has VOLUMES of old images from the family archive including a dozen 80 slide Kodachrome trays that are so unbelievably good looking I can’t stand it.
    She also has albums from HER mother, which are still filled with perfect, black and white snaps. This is another hot topic, “Death of the American Photo Album,” which is another well documented issue.

  3. December 29, 2009 5:21 pm

    Those old pictures are the only thing that hold on to so many of my memories. As much as I would like to be able to pull up the past, I need a kick start sometimes. I remember the cardboard camera and film used to take many of those black and pictures. It was the first one I ever held in my hands. There were many after that but, none pictured as many good times as that one.

  4. June 13, 2010 11:12 pm

    The Death of the American Photo Album. So true. Also, moms make for great images, you can’t look at one image of your mama and not be overwhelmed with all sorts of memories and feelings.

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