Thursday, February 9, 2012

Joey's Mom: An Introduction

I was scouring Flickr for images of real vintage interiors when I came across Joey Harrison's Flickr stream and the beautiful images he uploaded on behalf of his mom.

Joey's mom studied photography and worked diligently to perfect her craft. Most of the uploaded photos are from her marriage to Joey's dad, Jerry. I loved peering into her world as a newlywed and living a vintage life vicariously through her. Her photos are beautiful (especially her self-portraits) and the accompanying stories are enchanting.

Joey was kind enough to tell us more about his mom and his experience of uploading her photographs and sharing them with the world. Over the next several weeks, we're going to dive into Joey's mom's world and learn more about her life and talent. (Joey's mom likes to keep her anonymity, so we will refer to her as Joey's mom throughout the series.)

Tell us a little about yourself and your mom.

My mom grew up poor on a Michigan farm with her parents, a sister and three brothers. Various foster children boarded with the family over the years, and a girl slightly younger than my mother was adopted. My mom’s mom documented their life on the farm with her Brownie camera − not especially skillfully or artistically – but she no doubt influenced my mother’s later pursuit of photography.

The Depression left a lasting impact on my mother, forging lifelong habits of frugality and likely played a role in her tremendous personal ambition.

My mother married my father one year out of high school. Their only child − me − came at the end of their seven years together. My mom remarried a few years later and gave birth to two girls.

During the time my parents were married, my mom worked for the neighborhood doctor, who allowed her to set up a darkroom in his office. My father worked as a barber just a few doors down the street. Together, they had a second career developing property and renting apartments. During my mom’s second marriage, she created a small real estate empire piece by piece, doing as much of the work as she could and contracting what she couldn’t. She eventually owned around a dozen properties − single-family homes, duplexes, and some multi-unit buildings.

How did she learn photography and is she still an avid photographer?

My mother is mostly self-taught, though she did get assistance from helpful staffers at various photo stores in Grand Rapids. She also belonged to a serious photography club for about a year.

Once my sisters were born, her passion for photography took a back seat to child-rearing and managing her properties. She was extremely organized, efficient, and energetic. When I think back on those years, I remember her constantly on the move: meeting prospective tenants, making clothes for my sisters, cooking and cleaning, painting walls, gardening, dealing with contractors. The demands never let up, and neither did she.

During all that time she continued to take photographs of family activities. Darkroom work was reserved for once-yearly marathon sessions creating handmade Christmas cards. Her photographic ambitions were no longer artistic; she simply wanted to document her family and, later, her travels.

Did you grow up knowing she had a stash of amazing photographs and stories, or was this treasure trove a recent discovery?

She kept most of her black & white prints in a drawer in the basement. I was quite familiar with most of them and fascinated by the world they depicted because that world was the family I was born into but which disintegrated before my memories began. So I didn’t look at them as an outsider might; their great value to me was personal. Many years later I began to see how skilled and creative she was, and what a distinctive photographic style she had.

Was she immediately on board with the idea of posting her photos online along with stories?

Not at all. I had to coax and prod. She was very busy with her various activities and insecure enough to imagine that others would not be interested. As the months went by, the number of views and comments picked up rapidly, and as they did, her engagement with the project intensified.

Did you discover something new about your mom in the process of gathering her photographs and stories?

Yes, there were some stories I’d never heard, and I’m always happy to find these missing puzzle pieces. But I’m not sure any number of photos or stories would completely unravel the mystery of their marriage. It’s mysterious to me because it all took place before my memories kicked in. I was still an infant when my parents split.

Which is your favorite photo and story?

Picking a favorite photo is difficult. There are probably a dozen that I might call my favorite depending on which day you ask me. Today I’d say it’s the one below because it depicts the happy marriage that I want to believe in. It shows them collaborating (creating the photo) and having fun doing it. And it showcases my mom’s craft and artistry.

Is your own photography influenced by your mother’s?

Stylistically not so much. We have different eyes and different aims. But her interest in photography was hugely influential. When I first got serious about photography, I had no idea what I wanted to shoot or what I thought was a good photograph. I simply wanted to do what she had done: take photographs and assemble a body of work. She also passed along a visual gene, if such a thing exists. From the time I was a child, I was someone who looked at the world with wide, wondering eyes. It was all so very interesting − and still is. As I got a little older my critical skills began to develop. This thing is exceptionally interesting; this thing is not. And the things that struck me as interesting seemed worthy of preserving photographically.

Self Portrait

I am pleased to bring you more of Joey's mom's photography and her beautiful stories in the coming weeks! Stay tuned for "Joey's Mom Thursdays" each week. :)

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  1. Love this Jamie! So sweet - what a great series!

  2. Amazing story. The last two pics are my favorite, the self-portrait is just beautiful. Absolutely love the peek into her life.

  3. I am SO glad that you wrote about this! I have enjoyed following these photos on Flickr for a long time and Joey's Mom even gets involved and comments back to people. She's such a peach and such an inspiration!

  4. Wow! this is going to be a wonderful series! I look forward to hearing/seeing more about Joey's mom!
    My fav is probably the haircut with the bottle! :)so sweet!

  5. i'm so excited to see the rest of the series! amazing!

  6. stumbled onto your blog and just wanted to show some blog luv! def enjoyed this post!

  7. I love this, and can't wait to see more. I've been a fan of Joey's for some time, and have loved his mother's photographs. Bravo.

  8. So pleased to see this article from Joey and his Mum's photos, here. I do hope everyone will go to Flickr and see more but make sure you put some time aside; it's so easy to get drawn into the wonderful stories that accompany them. Mox

  9. What a great idea Mox, Joey and "Joey's Mom"!

    I'm looking forward to the 'column'. One thing struck me besides his mom's eye with a camera was how well she developed and printed those photographs. She was clearly talented with a camera and in a darkroom.

    cheers Jan


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