I’ve lost count of how many times I have been asked, “So, what made you want to be a photographer?” My answer was often a sarcastic quip. Most frequently I would claim that my mother was the worst photographer I’d ever met, and her lack of skill motivated me to become the opposite. It wasn’t true, but it got a laugh and seemed to set people at ease. Frequently I would find myself in front of a class room of high school students or amateur photographers relating a different antidote. This one was about the first time I developed my own film when I was a teen. That narrative was accurate but it wasn’t the whole story. My love for photography was much deeper. The following is both an introduction to those that don’t know me, a refresher for friends and clients alike, and a tribute to the woman that made it all possible.
Most of my childhood was photographed with neurotic precision. My mother, unlike myself, was motivated not by the creative need, but by an overwhelming necessity for thrift. In addition to the 55 + rolls of 35 mm film she developed each year, my mother manufactured all of the clothing worn by her five children between birth and the age of 12, painted and refinished most of the furniture in our home (all of which was second hand from local thrift stores), and decorated enough wedding cakes to feed more people then Christ at the miracle of the loves and fishes. There are many more skill sets I could mention, but like everything thing else, she did it all as a simple labor of love.
Of the many projects she has done, it’s her photographs that will be her greatest legacy. Too many of the images are blurry, out of focus, damaged by time, or aging due to corrosive chemistry. None would be worthy of hanging in an art gallery, but all are carefully cataloged, labeled, and dated. As a body of work they detail every holiday, school play, vacation, family get together, and personal triumph for nearly 50 years.
It was this very legacy that hung over me on my first day of college. I thought when I started art school that I had something to prove. I vainly imagined that my passion for photography and my skill as an artist would lead me to a glamorous career with a six figure income and most importantly the knowledge that I had avoided the all too common pitfalls that riddled my mother’s images. My work would be more then “happy snaps”. Art critics would look at my images and use words like “compelling” and “transcendent” as they lauded my talents in the pages of every major publication. Ironically it wasn’t the magazine covers that really made career. It was the portraits of my own children that defined me as an artist.
It took me over a decade before I understood why I became a photographer. Like all great truths, the answer was always simple and always in front of me. Today when I am asked why I chose a life behind a lens I say; “My mother taught me that all of us have infinite worth, each person is beautiful, and everyone deserves to be loved, and I believe her.”
Maybe that’s the secret my mother was trying to teach me all along. I didn’t learn aperture, shutter speed or ISO from my mother. Instead I learned the value of my artistic medium.
This blog is dedicated to my mother and every mother who has ever wanted to give their child the whole world. Thanks for being my inspiration.
Top Photo: (From left) Irene Jones and her sisters Terice Lehman and Kateelynn DuPape. Ages 5 yrs, 18 mo., and 4 yrs. respectively. All Photos provided by Phyllis DuPape.