The Darkroom

I lost my mom a few months ago. A neighbor recently told me that she defines her life now as the before and after: when she had a mom and when she did not. I can relate.

Many of you are my photo clients, and I have seen you through a pregnancy belly shoot or two, perhaps seven or eight years of late summer or early fall portraits. Some of you know a little (or a lot) about my personal life and some of you just know me as the lady who showed up at your house with a camera.

What I’m sharing today is that my mom’s illness, and becoming a mother myself, has consumed most of the last 5 years of my life in ways that slowed me down as a photographer.

I am not apologizing, just saying.

Photography was once an easy and natural pairing to my work as a doula, then nurse, then midwife. Adding my own babies to that obviously complicated the schedule. But, many of you were gracious and stuck with me as clients, sometimes even letting me bring a little one on my back to simplify childcare. Then, COVID. I did at least a year of masked shoots, often outdoors and never being able to touch or rearrange newborns, hair, or props. What a weird time to try and capture intimate and authentic images.

Soon after my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I decided that it was time to scan my family’s photo archives. While scanning is an arduous task in almost all cases, it felt like a full time job for months as my dad’s photo collection is stupendously thorough. Not a single dance recital, soccer game, Christmas morning, or weekend getaway was missed. We didn’t count but I think we thumbed through over 20,000 physical photos to pare down to 3,000 or so gems to scan.

This project was so tender. I had a 4-week old newborn in my arms and a very sick mama with no hair snoozing in the corner chair while I opened box after box of memories. I had help from two very close aunts and my out-of-town-visiting sister, incredibly useful in organization as the photos weren’t always labeled or dated. As we poured over 40+ years of our time together, I could viscerally feel the toys I used to love as a kid, smell the meals we were served, and judge some of our fashion choices with an eye only hindsight can see.

While I was on parental leave with my daughter we climbed the full mountain of negatives, slides, 4x6s and Polaroids — we scanned it all! I never finished the goal project: a coffee table book I could give my mom for her last Christmas, her last Mother’s Day, or her last birthday. The deadline kept shifting because life kept me busy as a full-time midwife with two very small kids at home.

And yet, what a gift to review and remember those images together. Mom saw most of the pieces that will eventually, someday, become that book. The immediate value of all the scanning for my family was that we had an incredible collection of images to use for her wake and funeral photo boards, and it was so heartwarming to see people enjoy so many decades of her vibrant life.

Out of pure survival mode I have basically gone underground these past several months in regards to my media business. There are clients and small business subscriptions who have been abandoned. The weight of this summer and months leading up to it was crushing.

Coming out the other side of hospice, of funeral planning, and of picking up the pieces of our life without Rosebud, I am finding my camera again. I remember one year I logged over 50 client photo shoots, a stark comparison to this year of… perhaps zero?

What I can tell you is that I have never valued the power of family photography more. I have never been more grateful to my dad, a master candid photographer, or to our own family photographer Lisa Venticinque. Dad and Lisa have have given us tangible visions of our past to have, always. My son just got a kiddo camera for his 4th birthday, and seeing him learn photography at even a rudimentary level is a parenting thrill, especially since it’s something I share so fiercely with my dad.

I have also never felt more honored to witness people’s lives from behind a camera. Often, it isn’t just happy times but also the unthinkable: births that end stillborn, a pre-mastectomy boudoir shoot, or a 16 year old who peacefully passed away in a hospital bed surrounded in love. My mama’s last glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and one of her last smiles, was caught forever in a simple iPhone snapshot.

Even though I’ve been on unannounced hiatus, it’s exciting to see the longview — this is a skill and passion I share with other people. They too will be able to pin down their own fleeting moments, both the ordinary and the one-time-only, with photos I get to create.

Losing my mom was like being in a very, very dark room. Some days still are that way. But handling all those photos and continuing to love and remember her through what I see in them — that is like developing photos in a darkroom, watching the magic of photography freeze time before your very eyes.

This year has been a drought of creativity for me. At least in regards to my clients. But I’m sowing seeds for the next harvest, everybody. See you next season.

Photos by Tim Rumsey, George Rumsey, Emily Rumsey, Amy Frane-Gower, Wojtek Kraszkiewicz and Lisa Venticinque.

Layout: Allison Shulow

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