I have to admit: When I first laid eyes on Paul Graham’s “Mother,” published by Mack books in September, I was kind of underwhelmed. It’s a very quiet book full of photographs of Graham’s mother, over and over again. It didn’t immediately grab my attention, notwithstanding my long admiration for Graham’s work. I stashed it in my office desk drawer and forgot about it for a while. But then a few things happened that made me look at it again.
At the beginning of October, I took a vacation and was lucky enough to spend some of it with my mother and sister. I don’t see my family nearly enough. Like so many others, we’re spread out — Texas, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia. It’s not easy for all of us to get together often. During the vacation, we passed much of the time just being in each other’s company. Night after night, I’d share the couch with my mom. I always sat to her left. I’d repeatedly glance over and see her relaxing, talking, laughing. In some ways, it reminded me of the photos I had seen in Graham’s book.
When I returned to work, I pulled “Mother” out of my drawer and started looking again. Seeing the photos that Graham made of his mother, I was instantly drawn back to my recent visit with my own. The book made so much more sense to me now. From my newfound perspective, Graham’s book looks like a loving meditation on his own mom. The photos are soft, delicate, quiet and, ultimately, reflective. Paging through, I felt an affinity for how Graham seems to feel about his mother.
As I grow older, I often find myself reflecting on the journey of my life. Without a doubt, my mother is one of the most important characters in the nostalgic movie that runs through my head. She has given everything to me and my siblings and would continue to do so ad infinitum.
I don’t know Graham personally, but I imagine that his mother must have played a similar role in his life. For me, at least, Graham’s book is deeply emotional — played out with lyrical images that, taken as a whole, create a meditative portrait. The photos are deceptively simple. Not only do they perform the surface function of showing us a portrait, but they also acknowledge time’s passing and what it means for Graham, his mother and the viewer, too.
As the news release accompanying the book says: “Mortality and the slow unraveling of late old age is the principal subject here, but there is also a duality at the core of these images: as we teeter between life and death, child and parent reverse roles — the watched-over becomes the watcher, the created becomes the creator.”
Tomorrow is a holiday here in the United States called Thanksgiving. It’s traditionally a time of the year when families get together to give thanks for the things they have. I won’t be able to see my mother this year (luckily, I will be spending it with my in-laws), but I sure am thankful for her and for Graham’s book, too, which reminds me how important mothers are in our lives.
You can find out more information about “Mother” (2019) by Paul Graham, published by Mack, here.
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