I first learned that my mother kept her childhood photos in our basement when I found the box containing them myself. I had been curios for years, till that point her childhood surroundings had existed only in my imagination. For me the box felt like a treasure, for my mom the box was something to repress. When I opened the box I felt confused, first of all I could not find her – she existed only as a shadow. Secondly the pictures in front of me did not match my expectation. How come the pictures look so beautiful when I know her childhood was inflicted by trauma? I guess that watching a photo is like passing by a crowd of people, picking up interesting words from a conversation you’re not participating in and filling in the blanks of the rest of the content yourself. A photograph can not be used as evidence. We trust the camera to tell us the truth, and it does in some way tell the truth – the truth of a moment.
As a child, my grandmother used to show me her childhood photos. She kept them in a dusty photo album whose pages had turned yellow years prior. The album contained the only photo there is of my grandmothers brother Yngve who died in his twenties. He is sitting on a bed, his face is halfway hidden behind a sharp shadow and the sun makes the skin on his shoulder his only visible feature. Two years ago she gave me the picture since the picture itself doesn’t mean anything to her. Her memories of Yngves appearance is vague, but she remembers him. According to my grandmother, a photograph can not be used as a tool to remember. That thought was foreign to me since I grew up being constantly watched and documented trough the lens of a camera. I remember thinking that it must be a strength to not depended on a camera when it comes to memories.
There are other ways to remember. Mary Kellys Post partum document is an exhibition I wish I could have seen in person. Sadly it took place years before I was born. When the exhibition first was shown at the ICA in London in 1976, the work provoked tabloid outrage. When the viewer entered the gallery space they where met by used diaper linings, stained plastic sheeting, feeding charts and much more. Every piece was preciously framed and hanged on the walls. Her work is a six year documentation exploring the mother-child relationship. On the stained material you can read her diary – scrappy notes showcasing everything from her sons speech developments to her own thoughts, colored by her melancholy and anguish from watching him grow up.
The behavior of mothers who carefully catalogue their children’s childhood in shape of drawings, hair and teeth etc can come across as compulsive. Since I left home, my childhood drawings have left their original place in my desk and have now become a few of the front pieces in my moms art collection. Framed drawings carefully covering the ugly marks on the wallpaper which originates from my old posters (I am glad my old drawings have more than one purpose). In her closet she has a box containing my milk teeth. I remember loosing my first tooth, I was at my grandmothers place and my mom missed the event she had been anticipating for months. My mother’s need to save these physical objects from our childhood becomes more than a collection of memories – they work as proof of our childhood, that my sister and I were infants and then children. That at one point she was the midpoint of our life and that we shared that time together.
Just like my mother, Kelly is gathering and exhibiting these object as a proof of her existence as a mother. The objects hanging on the wall used to belong to her child, but it is a portrait of herself and her motherhood. Looking at Kelly’s work throughout the years generates different perspectives of course. It is impossible to analyze her work without mentioning her feministic intentions – her work shows the invisible daily experience of women engaged in domestic labour.
My mother gave me her permission to process her archive and work with it for my final semester. I do the opposite to Kelly – I exhibit my mothers archive. Also, I am processing and exhibiting something I did not witness, but at the same time it concerns mesince my mother’s upbringing affected me as well.
When I first held the physical photographs from my mother’s childhood, my expectations were confronted by reality. Now I wanted to edit the photos to make them match my expectations. I watched closely how my reflection moved one the glossy negatives when I held them in my hand. Then I slowly watched my reflection disappear while the negatives popped up on the computer screen instead. The computer was flattening them out, leaving no fingerprints or reflections. The process consisted of me scanning her negatives, editing them and then printing them digitally. I was physically holding them in my hands again, but now in my version.
What made me interested in Kelly’s work was not the feministic intensions but the unusual way of building and exhibiting an archive. Kelly’s presence is materialized on the stained diapers linings. Next to her son’s documented developments her handwriting appears and uncover her thoughts and agony about him growing up. These notes could have appeared differently, they would fit in a diary or under a photo in an album. The fact that they are written and visible on the material itself contextualizes her presence. I want my mother’s photos to be visibly edited. Separated from the moment the photo was taken, I reveal my presence trough the act of digital manipulation in the postproduction instead.
Often my process starts before I take a photograph. The picture itself already exists in my mind, it’s looping in my head, reminding me over and over again about the scenario I want to capture. Sometimes my process consists of so much waiting – waiting to take the photo, taking the photo and then wait again to develop the film. So much is happening before I even know if the picture is good or not. The analogue technique suits me since I find that the waiting is a big part of my process. It is in the waiting the picture is created.
I waited so long for my mother’s childhood photos. In the waiting, the photos of her childhood already existed in my head. I have memories of my mom pointing at a house through the car window, telling me that she grew up in there. The house I once got a glimpse of filled out the blanks, became a fragment of her story. Seeing my mother’s photos hanging on the gallery walls created an emotional distance between me and the work itself. My head felt clear, my own childhood cohesive. The waiting part is over and I can move on.
Working with photography is forgiving since it is reproducible. It gives me freedom to play with the material in different ways without fear of loosing the original version. Now, even if I look at the original photos, I perceive them differently. In some way, the changes I made are terminal.
Processing my mother’s archive made me reflect about the moment the photos were taken and how little I needed it for my process. It reminded me about a photo I took in 2019. I was back at my mother’s home, I had been away from my family for a long time. My mother sits on the toilet, my sister uses a spoon to unlock the bathroom door because she wants to brush her teeth and hate waiting. Our dog comes along, jumps up in my mothers lap (my mother wants us out), and then there is me – taking a photo of it. That moment was messy, and I realized how much I missed them. My messy family. When I took that photo I had no idea that this was the last time everything felt normal. My sister lost her dog in an accident and when developing this film something went wrong. In case I lost the picture I decided to not look at it, I did not want to know. In my memory, the scene is still captured and very much alive. I remember it in colors and not in black and white. Nothing about this situation would fit in a still picture. I need this moment, but I don’t need the photograph itself.
Kelly, Mary. Post-Partum Document. University of California Press, 1999.