What is there to say about Paul Graham’s Mother?


Recently, I’ve had this very strong vein of negativity running through me, and I don’t like it.

Mother is a lovely book. Graham’s love of and for his mum is palpable in these photographs. She’s 88, 89 years old (at time of publication, she was 90… he began the series when she was 88) in the photographs, and looks it. She naps in all but one of the photographs; the focus shifts slightly, her floral tops and cardigans change pattern, color; for the most part, there is just picture after picture of an elderly woman napping.

Proper reviewers talk about love, family, the slow march of time and inevitability of decline. Allow me to quote from Sean O’Hagan’s typically excellent review in The Guardian:

Mother is, indeed, a deeply moving book, not least for its simplicity: 14 portraits, all but one of which are studies of Graham’s elderly mother, Dorothy, as she dozes in an armchair in an English retirement home. (The exception, in which she looks straight at the camera as if suddenly alert to its presence, appears like an almost accusatory jolt in the middle of the sequence.) There is no accompanying text, but the portraits speak quietly and heartbreakingly of intimate but universal subjects: unconditional love, familial duty and tenderness, the slow, inexorable passing of time, the silence that falls on and around the very old.

Others slowly come around after spending time with their own mothers. (See, for example, Kenneth Dickerman in the Washington Post.) I get it. Graham is a great photographer, one of the masters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and Mother is unquestionably his most deeply personal work to date. One would be hard pressed to find a more personal work, really.

So… what is there to say about Graham’s Mother?

Well… Graham’s mother is not my mother. Graham’s mother is his mother.

This is an unpopular and misguided and incorrect view to take, but still. Here I am. I guess I just don’t get what Graham’s loving portraits of his sleeping mother have to do with me. Sure, Graham is my mother’s age, and so his mother is my grandmothers’ age, and they passed away well before their 90th birthday. Maybe I’ll feel differently in 20 years; God, I hope I feel/act/am different in 20 years! I’m much different now, at over 40 than I was at barely 20, and I hope Mom is still alive, napping or otherwise, in 20 years (though she still won’t be 90 by then…).

As portraiture, it’s strange. They’re beautiful, well composed portraits, for sure. But that’s not what Mother is about. Mother is about Graham’s love for his dear old mum. It’s a meditation on advancing age (and therefore impending, necessary, unavoidable death). It’s a reminder to spend time with, loving gaze at, our parents and loved ones, but if you need an autographed Paul Graham photobook to remind you of that, well, you have bigger problems than even me.

But, really, my mom is still more or less invincible and everlasting, as far as my child brain understands and can comprehend. I mean, I understand that she won’t live forever (neither will I), but at the same time, I can’t see her getting older, fading away, sleeping/napping even more than she has my entire life, and don’t turn my gaze/attention, or even camera towards her often enough, so I need all the reminders I can get, I guess.

I don’t know. $50 for a photobook though? I don’t know.

I’m a big Paul Graham fan. I found a first edition copy of his A1 The Great North Road for $7 in Kansas City (“unboxing” coming eventually). I have an errata editions version of Beyond Caring and first editions of Does Yellow Run Forever and The Whiteness of the Whale. And while I’ll buy the next book he comes out with, probably, blindly and without hesitation, I’m not quite convinced by Mother. It’s just so different than all of his other stuff, really: from A1 all the way through Yellow, his focus was on politics and class, on the British and American societies and cultures. Mother is something else entirely, I think, and I’m sure someone could put it right in line with everything that came before, but I’m not sure I’d be convinced.


Mother is available all over (at time of writing). The photographs are great, no question, but I’d recommend any of his other books first, especially the retrospective Whiteness of the Whale, which covers his late 00s and early 10s series, and offers the best bang for your bucks, as far as I’m concerned.

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  1. It feels really thin. I kind of like all the blank pages, they give cadence and breathing room, but there’s also a lot of “you just didn’t have much content here, did ya?” going on.

    My parents are both dead, an while I do see what you see in these photos, Paul’s love for mum, I have to say I am really glad to not have an equivalent set of photos of my parents. I don’t think either of them would have liked me to do this to them, not one bit.

    I have a book of my Dad, but its his things, and some words about things he taught me, not actual photos of the old man he became. It’s what worked for me and for him.

    1. My parents would likewise have no desire to appear in a book of this type, and it does seem somewhat exploitative. I wonder if she knew about or approved of the project, even. I presume she did, that Graham sought his mother’s permission, if not blessing. I don’t have many pictures of my dad, and probably fewer of my mom, and the ones I do have are from when they were younger than I am now, so I’m in little or no position to make a book about them. Should I one day be in a position to do so, via their collections or whatever, I’d hope to have their participation, for sure.