The Last Best Bit of Him. Capturing my Father Before He’s Gone. By Greg Turner

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The Last Best Bit of Him. Capturing my Father Before He’s Gone.

By Greg Turner

Hi Steve,

As ever thanks for all the effort you put into your website. I check it pretty much every day and enjoy the contributions from so many talented photographers as well as your own insights and thoughts. It’s something I look forward to at the end of the day.

Lately my photographic journey has been going through a ‘purple patch’ and I’ve been trying to find an answer to the question ‘what kind of photographer am I?’ Most likely this is just a mid-life crisis but there’s a lot from my childhood that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to understand and come to terms with and so now I find myself doing that through the medium of photography. Some might think that pretentious. I don’t care. They’re my demons I’ll exercise them any way I like!

One of the things I did over Christmas in pursuit of finding an answer to that question was put together a website. The process of ‘curation’ was fascinating and insightful in itself and it was precisely that process that I hoped would lead me to insight. If I am going to select what I show, I should be able to say why I am showing this and in doing that, come up with an answer to my question.

I named the site ‘Tears in Rain’, the line comes from the film Blade Runner (which has been my favourite film since way before it was cool to say that!) and references the idea of memories being ‘lost, like tears in rain’. I don’t want the memories to be lost; I want them to be captured after all, that is the essence of photography. And since the film and the book on which it’s based, deals with the notion of what it means to be human, I find myself coming up with my answer.

I’m just an amateur photographer, motivated to understand the world and the people who live in it a little better through the medium of photography. The website address is www.tearsinrain.co.uk

Which brings me to the project I really wanted to share with you and one that has had the most profound impact on me personally.

My father was always my inspiration for my interests in life; my hobbies and pursuits all come from him (I get my work ethic and intellectual drive from my mother). It was he who introduced me to photography for example.

About eight years ago he got quite ill and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. As a consequence of this, he had a small blood clot cause a minor stroke of some sort, which in turn resulted in part of his brain tissue dying, the area around the frontal lobe. The consequence of this has been a slow but very noticeable decline in his cognitive ability, empathy and behaviour. He’s formally diagnosed with ‘frontal lobe dementia’ and the condition is progressive. It took a long time to diagnose and for many years we struggled with the subtle but difficult shift in his behaviour. Now that subtlety has long since passed and being with him is a lot like being with a young child.

So as we all watch him fade, and as we struggle to manage his behaviour, it occurred to me that I really needed to both capture the essence of who he is/was now before it’s gone and also, in the process, reconnect with him in some way. So we arranged a photo shoot and these are the pictures I wanted to share. I don’t think the individual pictures need much commentary. For those that are interested (and I see no problem with that), they were taken with a Sony A7s and either the 35mm Sony Zeiss f/1.4 ZA (the B&W image shot at f/1.4) or the Sony Carl Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZA with the LA-EA4 adapter (the colour versions, shot at f/5.6 and with off camera flash). There are other images and these at a larger size under the ‘Projects’ folder on the website. The project is called ‘Dad’.

Rememberance

The Creeping Darkness

The Man In-Front of You

This was also my first attempt to shoot with a flash, either on or off camera, though for this shoot I went off camera with a single light source shot through an umbrella. I think the results, good or otherwise as they are, are more good fortune and luck than anything else. But I am very pleased with the results not least because the process of looking and thinking engages us with the subject and it’s been a long time since I properly did that with my father.

Best regards

Greg

34 Comments

  1. Great portraits. Yes I agree with a previous post about (perhaps) the excess of white shirt but they all obviously convey your Fathers character to you. I am trying to convince all and sundry at the moment of the idea of photographing the older generation. We (I’m 70) will be gone before too long and as you say in your post memories are lost with time. My Mothers most treasured possession after the death of my Father was a small portrait of him she kept in a locket. Not a prize winning snap but priceless to her. Photograph your elders before they go.

  2. Nice shots and tribute to dad before he fades away. Soon coming up on the first anniversary of my father’s passing. This story brought back feelings I thought were gone.

  3. Great shots and thank you for the inspiration. My grandmothers turning 90 next week and this has inspired me to get more photos of her. I’ve so caught up the last few years photographing my toddler than I’ve not thought of photographing my parents (except when they are playing with my daughter) and older family members. I’m not ranking one above another but thank you for reminding me to not forgot to capture some precious moments with them.

  4. This makes so much sense, Greg! It is one of the greatest projects anyone could take on.
    In the face of an older person, the lines reflect a lot of what kind of person he/she is and what kind of life he/she had. IMO especially the first shot shows your father as a very interesting man – the kind of person with whom I really would like to exchange thoughts and ideas… This is such a masterly performed portrait!

  5. There is enough fill light in the first photo to appreciate the tone and form. The middle image can be removed. It adds very little. The third photo is striking but competes with the bleached white shirt for attention. His ruddy red face is enough and perhaps a square crop would be stronger. Filming with one light is difficult and a rear fill or halo would add volume. Less is more, less is more.

    • Martin – much as I appreciate all the other warm comments and kind words, you’ve taken the time to critique the work objectively. That’s not an easy thing to do with this subject matter given it’s sensitivity and personal nature. So I applaud and thank you for doing that. This helps me a great deal because I want to take more and for those to be better portraits. You’re comments support that.

      Since this was my first attempt at any kind of added light (artificial or reflected natural), I was limited both in technique and equipment. My aim is to be able to work with a second light, to do just as you suggest, but that will also require some practise.

      I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the first picture, which was done without any additional artifical light, but was supported by a reflector, seems to work so well. I’ve had a lot more practise with available light.

      At first the middle picture was my favourite but shortly after I processed them (there was very little processing needed to be honest), the first and third became my preference but for very different reasons. My father’s colouring is very distinctive; I used to think that it was a consequence of his heart condition, but researching this shows that not to be true; it’s not direcetly associated with high blood pressure. Still it was important to show that from an honestly perspective. I’ll try the square crop but acknolwedge your points about competition between his face and the shirt. Interestingly, the original idea I had was to try and play with his form just a little; I wanted the very black background to seem like it was enveloping him to some degree. It was a creative idea to try and graphically represent his condition, the idea that the blackness is slowly taking over but that for the moment, the person he is, is still visible. This is why I dressed him in a black jacket and white shirt, because it enabled part of his form to meld into the black background. I’m not sure whether I was trying to be too clever, perhaps so.

      Thanks again for beng brave enough to critique the work and for doing it sensitively.

  6. An awesome project, culminating in great pictures. You are one of very few I think, who will never have to say ‘if only ….’ I applaud you.

  7. Thanks for your post, the pics of your father made me inquisitive about him, what type of job he had, were he came from, and so on. Many thanks again for your post, I hope you put a short bio of him on your website, David

  8. Greg wonderful purpose and feel to your photography. I said goodbye to my father this week so certainly appreciate your thoughts.

  9. Very nice work, especially the first picture. BW portraiture seems to highlight more personality than color does.

  10. Simply beautiful.
    The way you used the light works very well with your father as does the simple composition.
    The third one is my favorite.
    Be glad you made these photo’s.
    Your connection with him is visible.

    • Having read your blog about these photo’s, I can understand the discomfort of your family.
      But to me these are very personal portraits, real and honest, and yes, painful, but also poetic and with dignity and mutual love.

      Very comforting.

  11. Greg, you wrote “… the process of looking and thinking engages us with the subject and it’s been a long time since I properly did that with my father”. Your story and fine captures made me wish I could once again do the same. Well done.

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