Sunday, November 30, 2014

Stop Being Nice

Mum, June 2014.
Panasonic LX7, ISO 125, f2.3 @ 1/5sec
RAW converted to DNG in Lightroom, post processing to black & white in Silver Efex.
© 2014 Matt Brooker.
Since the diagnosis of Alzheimer's I've been photographing my mum a lot. I never really did before; birthdays and Christmas of course, but in general she wasn't keen, and in part she was just too familiar for me to think of her as "a subject." Now I feel an urgency to record her while she's still "in" there; conversely she's less attentive and either doesn't notice or doesn't mind being photographed anymore.

So far my approach is to photograph openly but discreetly; until Mum objects I'll continue making my record. Before I'd have been too afraid of risking upset, but now I feel compelled to save what I can from these dwindling days. Of course I wouldn't continue if I was distressing her - but so far I'm not, and I treasure what I've captured so far.

I think at one time I'd have felt pressure to make happy images, or to select for the most positive ones, but Mum's illness is not a happy business, and it feels more honest to try and balance the images according to what I see. Of course there are still good times, and those are in the mix, but much of Mum's life now seems to consist of a sort of "emptying out," both in terms of loss of memory and the discarding of once-cherished possessions that now lack significance.

By default, I'm shooting in colour, and mostly in 4:3 ratio, but when I saw this shot (which somehow had needed to be a square) it called out to be in black & white. The last couple of years, my black & white processing has become positively brutal; after decades of conservatively trying to carefully accommodate a full tonal range and not let the processing get in the way of the image, I've suddenly done a complete flip and now go for high contrast and high detail. These days I kick the shit out of my images; there's a wilful brutality and even deliberate ugliness to it that's completely liberating, like discovering punk in middle age.

I hadn't intended to shoot at such a slow shutter speed, but I was keeping the ISO down to get the best from the LX7's tiny sensor, and I underestimated the strength of the light. The result is better than anything I would have achieved intentionally; to me the odd merger of face and hand reflects the fragmentation my mum is experiencing as the Alzheimer's takes hold. I'd read interviews with photographers about photographing emotion, but it wasn't till I produced this that I began to have an inkling what they meant. For me, this photograph points the way to a new way of seeing, a new way of shooting. And that's what I always need; something new to try.

The older I get, the better and more confident I feel; the anxiety of youth lead me to waste far to much time and energy on trying to be "nice." Now I find I'm shucking a lot of that off; the way I shoot is becoming more assertive, the way I process is more brutal, my choice of subject matter far less accommodating of what I think others will approve of or understand. Whether this will produce anything good I can only find out by trying; at worst, I hope to be bad in more interesting ways.

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