By June Saunders
They say that Rembrandt painted the spirits of his subjects as well as their bodies; indeed the souls of his subjects seem to gaze out at the viewer. In her book Mommie, acclaimed photographer Arlene Gottfried has captured the souls of her subjects too, and they look out at us with love, pride, pain, and poignancy. To peruse the pages of Gottfried’s book is to feel an indelible connection with her mother and grandmother as we watch them trod the path of the end of life, coping bravely with the decline of health, mobility, vision, and posture.
Born in 1896, Gottfried’s grandmother Minnie immigrated to the United States from Odessa, Russia. Grandmother Minnie lived on the upper floors of an apartment building on the Lower East Side of New York. There were no elevators or toilets. Residents had to go all the way downstairs and stand in line to use a bathroom. An expert seamstress, Minnie studied English, married a jewelry maker, and moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn.
Full of spirit until her death at age 104 in the year 2000, “Bubbie” (“Grandmother”) smiles perkily for the camera as she bends over a wheelchair or gamely makes her way from the kitchen with a hospitable cup of coffee or tea for a visitor. We see her enjoying the outdoors, as she did on a daily basis for all the years of her life.
We also witness the journey of Gottfried’s mother, Lillian, from health and smiles through stages of diabetes as it takes her sight, hampers her mobility, and leaves her with a face full of pain as she goes through the last months of her life. We feel and see in her reflective gaze a woman who was, as Gottfried describes her, “a very strong but quiet, silent, leader.”
Gottfried’s mother graduated from college, an unusual feat for most women of the time. Gottfried’s father was Max Gottfried, an immigrant who had come from Poland as an infant, who owned a hardware store in Coney Island, where Gottfried grew up, and who died at the age of 66. Upon becoming a wife and a mother, Gottfried’s mother put her own career on hold.
Gottfried says that both her grandmother and her mother were “without a doubt strong and independent women,” which contributed to how hard it was and how “very sad emotionally” it was for Gottfried to watch them deteriorate. Gottfried said her motivation in photographing them was to capture and hold onto the dwindling moments she would have with them. Although, of course, Gottfried said she knew she could not hold onto them, she says she sometimes still feels their presences, especially that of her mother, “as if I am going to call her.”
Mommie is a hard-hitting story of love, as beauty, mobility, sight, comfort, health, and the things of youth deteriorate and the older women’s lives become more and more dominated by the decline of their bodies. Gottfried herself is uncompromising with her camera, relentlessly capturing the reality of the women’s lives, without masks or sugar-coating, in an act of raw, unflinching love.
Gottfried’s sister Karen is featured in many of the photos, her face at times transformed with sympathy as their mother’s condition deteriorates. We see the infinite patience and love of the caregiver as she stretches, relaxes after grocery shopping, laughs, or drops a kiss on her mother’s head. We see her blowing her nose into a handkerchief as tears overwhelm her toward the end.
Both sisters participated in caregiving by taking their mother to the doctor’s, shopping, returning books on tape to the library (as their mother’s vision deteriorated) and doing other caregiving tasks. Yet Gottfried, who studied photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology and whose work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Fortune, Life, and The Independent and who has exhibited at the Leica Gallery in New York and Tokyo and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., among others, took caregiving to its literal meaning: she used her camera to show how much she cared about her loved ones and made us care about them too.
The pages of the book Mommie speak eloquently of three generations of women who, quite simply, loved one another. We see several images of Mommie and Bubbie giving one another their characteristic goodbye–an on-the-lips, devoted kiss. We are introduced to a fourth generation at the end of the book when Arlene’s sister has a baby, the familiar caregiver’s expression of patience and concern with the needs of another written on her face as she nurtures her infant child.
The first image of the book says it all, with a big-flowered plastic shower curtain flanked by a faded nightgown and surrounded by yellow tiles of bygone decor. A tube of moisturizer lies squashed in the foreground, as does a soap dish, a brush, and several combs–simple accompaniments to the femininity of Mommie.
In Mommie, readers should be prepared to see women in great vulnerability, with little dressing up of the realities of aging. Yet in the honesty of its portraits, Mommie both exudes and evokes tenderness and compassion. Gottfried confesses that she felt some trepidation in releasing the book because of how intimate a portrait it is; however, the response to making the women of her family, including herself, vulnerable to viewers’ minds and hearts has been very positive.
Perhaps that is because these women’s story is our story. We witness such scenes ourselves as our parents and grandparents age. We will one day be the one looking in the mirror at a face altered by time and illness, like her mother; we will one day be the person who used to be adept with our hands, as her grandmother was, who can barely put on our own stockings any more, if at all.
In a way, Arlene Gottfried has shown us a universal portrait of the rigors and ravages of aging. While it is a portrait of suffering, Mommie is also a portrait of love, from the sprightly expressions on the elderly women’s faces to the tears and sympathy of sister Karen, to the tenderness of the eyes of the person behind the camera who cared enough to capture the women as they were.
Mommie is a memorial, a homily, and homage significant to anyone who has ever loved a grandmother, mother, sister, or who is in decline. Indeed, we are not looking at pictures of strangers. When we look at the images in Mommie, we are seeing ourselves.