Artists drawing or painting their mother has become iconic in art history—from Whistler through Freud, Cezanne, Hockney, Ingres, Gauguin or Durer, whose brutally honest portraits of his mother insisted that ‘Even the smallest wrinkles and veins must not be ignored’. Paul Graham’s first major body of work since 2014’s Does Yellow Run Forever? contains portraits of his elderly mother sitting in her chair in a retirement community in England.
Graham’s camera hardly moves, with his mother asleep, eyes closed, in almost every image. Our palette is the gentle tones of old age—a flowered blouse, a pink or lavender cardigan—the light comes from a single daylight window, soft, natural and constant. With little attempt to photographically ‘entertain’ us, we begin to notice subtle shifts of carefully chosen focus, from one eye to another, to a loose thread on a button or a stray wisp of hair. Frozen in time, the fraying of life is expressed through modest details. Powerful emotional resonance arrives through tender observation.
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.