I photographed my two sons for 30 years with a 1950’s Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera and color film. I did not plan to do this; at the time I started, I was feeling somewhat adrift. Actually, I think it is good to feel a little lost once in a while. It allows unexpected things to happen and it forces us to look both inward and outward in a deeper way. That is how I felt when I began making the photographs for “Personal History” although it did not have that title for many years.
Ben in Shadow, 1987
Ben With Hose
I have always had an interest in history, even when I was young, and I loved reading biographies and learning how people lived. I studied history in college along with education. But just before graduate school, I took my first photography classes and learned to work in the darkroom.
I had many opportunities to combine my interests in history and portraiture when I was invited to photograph people who were interviewed during projects about their lives. I did street photography and considered the historical and cultural aspects of what I was doing. I also started learning history of photography and how to identify early photographic processes.
Ben, Lake L’Homme Dieu, Minnesota
Ben With Hula Hoop #1, 1992
In October of 1987, my husband, Harry and I moved to Portland, Oregon with our son Ben who had just turned one year old. I knew one person who lived across town. My camera was broken and in the repair shop. After so many years working with black and white film and spending hours in my darkroom, I suddenly had no darkroom, and I was home with my son, feeling somewhat lost. That state of mind is a time of vulnerability, but it can also create the possibility of trying something new. And that is what happened.
When I took my first exposed rolls to the camera shop for processing, I asked for small prints instead of contact sheets. That November, one of my first results was “Ben in Shadow.” Looking at my little prints, I felt I had found something special, something unique. I thought about how everything we do becomes a platform on which to build the next thing
A 1950’s Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera from a thrift shop sat on a shelf in our house. I decided to see if film was still available. I went to a camera store and learned Kodak still made 620 film for this camera, so I bought 10 rolls. The clerk told me I needed 620 spools for winding the film in the camera and produced some for me from behind the counter
Ben, New Zealand, 1994
Sam on Changing Table
Sam and ben at sink
Color was new for me, but that was not all that was new. Instead of the rectangle, I now had a larger negative that was square which meant square prints. I was photographing my little boy with this slow clunky camera. Instead of looking straight ahead, I was looking down into a tiny viewfinder, where everything was reversed.
Sam, Painted Hills, Oregon
Ben and Sam at the Dining Room Table, 1998
After every exposure I advanced the film with the round knob on the side until I saw the next number in the small red window. I used roll fill with spools instead of film canisters, with the spools returned to me so I could keep shooting. Winding the film at the end of the roll and reloading the camera took time.I had small prints instead of contact sheets. And people did not understand what I was doing.
In September, 1993, Sam was born, and he became part of the photographs, adding new insights and experiences.
While contemplating form and light, I encountered a new approach of looking and thinking about photographs, particularly that special essence of feeling tone with emotion and intimacy. I learned to accept the flaws and imperfections in the imagery and consider them part of my creative process. I also realized the photographs were not about motherhood, but about my sons who we watch mature from an early age to becoming young men. The images are personal yet universal. After all, we have all been exploring our world in one way or another.
Ben Playing Piano
Ben, Mt. Hood Oregon
“Personal History” contains some unique elements. Not long ago, I decided to write Haikus about my photographs. The Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry based on nature with a strict structural form. The book opens with one of my poems.
Ben, High School Graduation, 2005
Also, I had the idea of asking Ben and Sam, who are now both married, to each write an essay about their experience and feelings of being photographed by me for so many years. Usually when people are in photographs they don’t have a voice, so I wanted to give that voice to them. These essays add another special layer to the book and to the story.