‘Mum’s the star of every photo’

When artists find in­spi­ra­tion in a muse, it’s usu­ally a wife or a lover – but for pho­tog­ra­pher Matthew Finn it’s al­ways been his mother. He tells Camilla Palmer why he felt the need to ex­press his love for her

The Guardian - Family - - Family -

Asked what made him start tak­ing pho­to­graphs of his mother, Jean, Matthew Finn laughs. “Why? Be­cause she was there! I was about 16 in 1987. I’d just be­come se­ri­ously in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy and needed peo­ple – things – to take pic­tures of,” he says. The re­sults of his early ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with light­ing and com­po­si­tion evolved into an on­go­ing 30-year re­la­tion­ship be­tween his mother and the cam­era.

What is ar­rest­ing is that there is no sense of want­ing to cap­ture Jean at a cer­tain time, to pre­serve her at her most youth­ful or beau­ti­ful. “In the his­tory of art and lit­er­a­ture, it’s al­ways men pho­tograph­ing, film­ing, paint­ing or writ­ing about their muse, which is usu­ally a woman, wife or lover. It’s very rare that it’s a sib­ling or a son to his mother or fa­ther,” says Finn. “This has been an act of love for me – and, I think, her.”

The pic­tures are an ex­tra­or­di­nary record of a bond be­tween mother and son. They show the in­tensely mun­dane, the day-to-day rou­tine of a woman go­ing about her do­mes­tic life. Jean, in rub­ber gloves, an­swers the telephone. A Box­ing Day feast – “al­ways a ham, with pick­led onions” – is laid out on the ta­ble. Another shows her gaz­ing out of the kitchen win­dow, smoke ten­drilling from one of her long men­thol cig­a­rettes. The pic­tures rep­re­sent a tiny pro­por­tion of the thou­sands that Finn, now an award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher, has taken over the years, most in black and white, most taken on film, and all de­vel­oped and printed by him.

“Ini­tially, it came from this idea of hav­ing a sub­ject and then af­ter a while it be­came rou­tine,” he says. “Af­ter I left home, I’d go back – to ask for money, to get a good meal, to get my wash­ing done,” he laughs. “But I’d al­ways have a cam­era and al­ways made pho­to­graphs of my mother. But I prob­a­bly didn’t re­alise then why I was do­ing it or why it was sig­nif­i­cant.”

Finn’s up­bring­ing in Leeds in the 70s and 80s was a mix­ture of fierce con­ven­tion­al­ity and the star­tlingly un­usual. Af­ter she had her son in 1971, Jean, one of four sis­ters, set up home with her brother, Des­mond, who was nine years older than her. Finn says that Jean had trav­elled to Manch­ester when he was tiny to “give him away” to another fam­ily. “She couldn’t go through with it, so she came home to Des­mond. He was a gen­er­ous and loving man and put his fam­ily first.” They lived to­gether – with a very tra­di­tional di­vi­sion of do­mes­tic roles – un­til Des­mond’s death in 2014. Finn oc­ca­sion­ally saw his fa­ther, Fred, but never “knew” him. “My un­cle was the fa­ther fig­ure in my house. He was my sur­ro­gate fa­ther.”

De­spite his fa­ther fea­tur­ing so lit­tle in his life phys­i­cally, Finn says his death in 1994, when Finn was 23, was a “wa­ter­shed” mo­ment. It was then that his mother re­vealed that he had been mar­ried to sev­eral women at the same time and had fam­i­lies dot­ted around Leeds. “The night be­fore the funeral, she told me – cig­a­rette in hand – that I would meet lots of half-broth­ers and sis­ters at the funeral. It was quite a shock, but I was the only one who hadn’t known about any of this. I was the youngest of his many chil­dren.”

Af­ter the funeral, Finn re­mem­bers a night of drunk­en­ness with his new­found half-sib­lings. “I ended up sleep­ing on the set­tee at my half-brother’s fam­ily home and then leaf­ing through the photo al­bums. There was my fa­ther, in his car, and another child and another part­ner. My mother – and I – had been erad­i­cated. This was a par­al­lel life of fam­ily do­mes­tic­ity be­ing played out with some­one else.”

He re­calls how, the next morn­ing, it be­came bizarrely clear that his half­brother’s mother – one of his fa­ther’s other part­ners – had no idea who he was. “She wasn’t very com­pli­men­tary to my fa­ther or his other women – maybe even my mother. I just de­cided there was no point in say­ing any­thing. I don’t think my mother and I ever spoke about it, ei­ther.” That mute­ness in it­self isn’t so strange, he says. “We’re a close fam­ily, but we don’t talk about

prob­lems – we don’t dwell on things. We’re not phys­i­cal – we never hugged or kissed at all. I don’t think that was lack of emo­tion. We were all like that.”

Finn thinks his fa­ther’s death was piv­otal for another rea­son. “The pic­tures of my mother – the on­go­ing cre­ation of our own kind of fam­ily al­bum – be­came a way for us to com­mu­ni­cate with­out ac­tu­ally talk­ing. It was an im­me­di­ate way for us to show our love for each other, by com­mit­ting to that bond. Through the cam­era, I could tell her I ‘got’ her – that I un­der­stood her and why she’d cho­sen her life.”

He shows me one of his favourite pic­tures – a filmic scene in which Jean stands, up­right and glam­orous in a coat, ready for a night out with Fred, who would pop back into her life when it suited him, says Finn. She is not look­ing at the cam­era, be­ing held from a van­tage point on a sofa. You can feel her an­tic­i­pa­tion. “It’s poignant, be­cause, in­vari­ably, he’d not show up. She’d wait. And wait. Even­tu­ally she’d go up­stairs and get changed. That must have been hu­mil­i­at­ing.”

He won­ders if his mother ac­tively chose their path, cast­ing off Fred’s lies and be­trayal for a life with her brother, or whether she was the one re­jected. “I’ll prob­a­bly never know the an­swer – and I’m not sure whether I want to.”

The shot en­cap­su­lates how Finn has cap­tured Jean through­out the decades – re­portage style with lit­tle plan­ning. “At the start, my mother knew noth­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy, but she very quickly be­came aware of her best side, the light qual­ity and what I was try­ing to do,” he says. “Most images are spon­ta­neous. If the light was good, I might have asked her to hold a pose for a sec­ond. Noth­ing was pre­med­i­tated. She’s the star of every sin­gle photo.”

Some photos show noth­ing but the rem­nants of life in the house – an empty room, a ma­rooned vac­uum cleaner – be­cause Jean no longer lives there, Des­mond has died and the house is sold. The last pic­ture shows her fac­ing the cam­era, shoul­ders slumped, lost in thought.

Af­ter her brother’s death, Jean’s health de­te­ri­o­rated and she was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia. Now 80, she needs 24-hour care and is in a nurs­ing home in Leeds, which Finn vis­its with his wife and their six-year-old son, Se­bas­tian. He takes his cam­era and con­tin­ues to cap­ture his mother on film, al­though his sub­ject no longer knows who he – or any­one else – is.

How does he feel about shar­ing her with the pub­lic gaze? “We made a de­ci­sion that, hav­ing made such a large body of work to­gether, it would be silly for it to waste away un­der my bed,” he says. “It is hard, but the sep­a­ra­tion be­tween pho­tog­ra­pher and sub­ject has al­ready hap­pened, through the cru­elty of her ill­ness. Ninety per cent of the work was done be­fore her di­ag­no­sis – I want the qual­ity of the pho­tog­ra­phy and the col­lab­o­ra­tive process to be at the fore­front of the work. This is not about a woman with de­men­tia. This is about my mother.”

This has been an act of love for me – and, I think, her

A se­lec­tion of Matthew Finn’s pho­to­graphs of his mum, from his ex­hi­bi­tion Mother, ‘I’ve lived a good life’

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