About As I Found It: My Mother's House

Sometimes I envy my baby-boomer friends for having lost their parents quickly. Mine have left this life piecemeal, starting with my father’s two-year death from cancer and continuing with my mother’s decade-long slide into dementia, which I can chart precisely from the date of my father’s departure in 2001. Over ten years later, when my mother could no longer live alone and I had to empty her creaky New England house on my own, the heaps of paperwork on her desk and other available surfaces told the tale. Starting with her latest bills, cards, and notes to self, I peeled away the layers, and at the very bottom found myself back at 2001. Her life, in an emotional sense and as an existence she could successfully manage, had ended when my father died.

The task of clearing out and selling my mother’s house took two years. I spent almost half that time living there so I could sift day after day through an environment created by decades of outright hoarding and the Yankee habit of saving many things from past generations. The house contained thousands of cardboard boxes, often one inside the other and stacked up against the walls. Some of what my mother left behind appeared to be neatly ordered, but in ways that would have made sense only to her, which were no longer possible for her to explain. Much of it had been heavily annotated in her tiny handwriting—she was obsessive-compulsive, a behavior that dementia cured.

The task was the saddest, most solitary thing I have ever done. As a way of mitigating my grief, and extracting something positive and meaningful from the experience, I took pictures. At first I photographed the gorged interiors, broadly and closely, and then each room as it was emptied of its life. The project was really the first extended documentary photography I have done during a career in which my personal work has always tilted toward pictorialism. In the vastness of what my mother had squirreled away were hundreds of cardboard "trays" (often boxes she had cut the tops off with a matte knife) in which she had organized groups of related items, most of which had outlived their usefulness. I also began to photograph these arrangements, by the light of an attic window. Toward the end of my clearing out the house, these subjects took over the project.

Although the images are documentary in nature, they are probably my most personal work. The work is certainly more about my own life and family than any I’ve ever done. I think it connects, though, to the experience of people who have dealt with the decline of parents in present-day America, and, indirectly, to the way dementia destroys identity and history. The work is also a study, if by implication, of an obsessive-compulsive mind, and more generally of the hoarding behavior that seems epidemic in our society. Yet I don’t want viewers to come to these pictures with too much information or too many preconceptions. I want viewers to be able to “read” their contents in detail, for what might be gleaned about my mother’s life and personality.