Capturing Memories: A Photographer's Images of His Aging Parents

Timothy White is chronicling his mother and father in their final chapter of life

By Suzanne Gerber
Originally Posted On June 18, 2013

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Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.

Cornstock / Thinkstock Images

Timothy White” and “celebrity portrait photographer” are synonymous. For three decades, White, 56, has been one of the pre-eminent chroniclers of Hollywood and the music industry. He has shot virtually every contemporary star (including Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles) for movie posters and magazine and record covers.

But his most passionate photographic work focuses on two people you’ve never heard of: Joseph and Mary White, his 93-year-old parents. Culling from hundreds of images of them, White has begun the labor of love that will be his sixth book, as yet untitled. He exclusively shared with Next Avenue these photographs, taken over the past several years in or near their home in Fort Lee, N.J.

Why are you taking these photographs of your parents?
 
I’ve always photographed my parents, but now that they’ve gotten so old, it feels like a chapter of my life is about to close, and I want to be sure to read it fully. Photographing my parents in their everyday lives is about them, my relationship with them, my self, aging, and caring about them in a different way. It’s important to me to document this. It feels like something I was destined to do.
 
What kind of cameras are you shooting with?
 
I use everything from an 8-x-10 view camera on film, with a cloth over my head, to my iPhone to everything in between. It’s never about the camera, though; it’s about your point of view. I shot a lot over the past five to seven years, and that’s looking a little “dark” to me, but also beautiful. I don’t want this book to only show that. There’s a lot of joy, too.
 
What is it about photography that fascinates you?
 
Photography captures only a fraction of a second, but it freezes time and it lasts forever. Many, many years ago I realized I wanted, and needed for my own sense of history, to create a record of time. I have files of snapshots, organized by the year, dating back to the mid-’70s.
 
My earliest interest in photography came from our family photos. We had shoeboxes full of old black-and-white snapshots, and I used to look at them a lot. My fascination wasn’t just who was in them; it was more about the aesthetic and how cool the objects themselves were. I think my strong interest in that era came from those photographs: my love of cars and the element of design and composition of that period. When my parents go, the only thing I want are those family snapshots.

What was life like growing up?
 
Mom was a housewife. Dad was a civilian accountant for the Coast Guard on Governors Island, and for 30 years he commuted from our home in New Jersey. Our family was very close. I have two sisters, five and seven years older. They both live in New Jersey and have three kids. One’s a teacher, the other works at a museum. Only one knows about this project.
 
My father’s parents died when he was a teenager, and his only sister died as an infant, so he had no relatives of his own when he met Mother, who came from a large, close-knit Italian family. They took my father in, and he embraced that. My grandmother’s house was classic 1950s Italian: a lot of relatives hanging around, eating and playing pinochle — it was like a Scorsese film.
 
But as I got older, I became very independent. I got a little spoiled by the freedom and was a cocky teenager. My mother and I were combative, but I had a very special father-son relationship. I went out West to study landscape architecture at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. I liked the warmth and the wide open spaces — and it was far from Fort Lee — but it was culturally void, so after a year, I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design. 
 
For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who did what they wanted to, not what their parents wanted them to do. Two of the most important things I learned there were to be a decisive editor, and that snapshot art — and photography itself — was truly a fine art aesthetic. That validated and corroborated my feelings about those old family snapshots. I learned to think compositionally, technically, aesthetically and intellectually.
 
How much did you see your parents after you left home?
 
Once my career took off, I started traveling around the world doing these big-budget Hollywood-style shoots. This was in the ’80s and ’90s, when the stars’ publicists had “taken over” Hollywood and were running the show. My career played along with it, in terms of my approach, fees and creative control. For 25 years, my life was this speeding, flaming ball.
 
For much of this time, I removed myself from the family, mostly just spending Christmas with them. I was off doing my own thing and was OK with it, but sometimes my Catholic guilt would kick in. Over the past six or seven years, I began spending more time with them, and in the last three or four years I started to see my photos of them as a body of work.
 
What is your parents’ life like now?
 
They’re both 93 and really strong, and they could live another 10 years. They both have dementia, though, and lately they’ve had medical issues: Mom fell three times, Dad recently had pneumonia, and he’s in and out of lucidity.
 
Seven years ago, he suffered a heart attack while driving and got into an accident. Before that, we didn't know he had heart disease. He was too frail for the quadruple bypass operation he needed, so the doctors told us to take three or four weeks and get him stronger. That’s when things changed. I started going there much more regularly. I took him for walks and helped get him healthy. And he made it through the surgery fine.
 
My parents live in the same three-floor house and won’t leave it. They get around with canes. They’ve finally agreed to let someone live in with them to help with cooking, bathing and the laundry, which is in the basement.
 
Does your care-giving shape how you photograph them?

I’ve noticed both my parents’ lifelong character traits are coming to the fore, and I try to capture those emotions in the images. My mother is a tough woman; she’s angry and nervous and fighting her decline tooth and nail. But my father, who’s Irish, is a wonderfully impish, very content man who accepts everything. He’s always been funny. Dad’s favorite line when I ask him how he’s doing is, “I’ll live.”
 
I still travel a lot for work, but when I’m in New York I try to get out there every few days. I take them to church and the cemetery to visit relatives. I love to take care of my father. I groom him and trim his hair: eyebrows, ears, nose — he’s like a Chia pet — and shave him. I dress him; he calls me his valet. We pick a matching pocket square, match his socks, pick a hat. I know I’ll give him his last haircut, and that makes me cry.
 
What effect has this project had on you personally?
 
I live more day-to-day because of them. It’s a cliché how quickly life goes by, but I’m more aware of that than ever. I’ve always been excited to live in each moment, and now I’m trying to really live it. I think just like everybody else, as much as I savored life’s moments, I wish I had savored them even more. All of a sudden, I’m more aware of my age and how much time I have left. I think: I only have 25 summers left, or only so much work.
 
I’m also more aware of endings. I don’t think I realized this my whole life, how much my parents mean to me. I’ve become more compassionate and accepting. I appreciate them and the time I have with them. And because I’m putting it down on paper, I’ll always have it.
 
Suzanne Gerber is the Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue.

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