Mother & Father: A Portrait of Loss

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In this week’s installment of the FullBleed series, renowned fine-art photographer Paddy Summerfield reveals the experience of documenting his mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s and his father’s unrelenting dedication to caring for her. The poignant photoessay, entitled Mother & Father, is a testament to the strength of a couple spending their final days together and a son wholly committed to remembering them through his work. Throughout the short documentary, Summerfield speaks about the experience of working on such a deeply personal and painful project, and why he persevered.
Living and working in Oxford his entire life, Paddy Summerfield is renowned for his evocative series of black and white images, all shot on 35mm film, which co-opt the traditional genre of documentary photography to realise a more personal and inward looking vision.

Summerfield came to prominence in the seventies, when his photo series capturing everyday life in Oxford, recently published as a photobook The Oxford Pictures 1968-78,  was exhibited widely. Documenting Oxford University students during their summer terms, the images reflected Summerfield’s own insecurities and fears as he entered adulthood. Despite his work being shown in galleries such as the ICA, the Barbican and the Serpentine during the late 60s, he fell into obscurity until recently.
Award-winning director Richard Butchins and FullBleed founder Jude Edginton present a moving document of the personal narratives that weave through Mother & Father. Having lived with his parents for most of his life, the photoessay provided Summerfield with a means to hold on to them during their final years: first, his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s and then the death of his father in close succession. “I wanted to hold onto something that was slowly slipping away. Everyday I would obsessively go to the windows of the house and record my parents, making a huge collection”, he recounts.

© Paddy Summerfield
The outcome of over a decade’s work, from 1997 to 2007, Summerfield describes how he took “thousands upon thousands of pictures” of his parents in the manicured gardens of their house in Oxford for the project, later edited down into his resultant photobook, which also includes images of the couple on holiday in North Wales. Following Summerfield as he moves throughout that same house, Butchins and Edginton are given an insight into his experience of working on the project.
“Mother and Father is Paddy’s homage to his parents, it’s a very moving story of their love and loss. His mother had Alzheimer’s and his father became her carer. The project is set in a huge house and garden in Oxford where Paddy turned the camera on them for 20 years till their death. I found Paddy in the same house, it was a great experience to hear his story and we were able to use the house as our location for filming. He has used his parents personal life to tell a universal story that means something to everyone,” observes Edginton.
© Paddy Summerfield
Stills from the project are interspersed throughout the project. “My father exasperated, walking past my mother. My mother not connected, isolated, and it’s a painful picture for me to look at,” says Summerfield in reference to one particular image. With many of the photographs taken at a distance, the faces of his parents obscured, Summerfield reveals how this was a deliberate choice, intended to render the stills relatable for other families struggling through a similar experience.
“There has always been abandonment and loss in my work. My pictures are all about that and nothing else,” observes Summerfield. Indeed, the documentary is permeated by a sense of sadness about the loss of his parents, but also, an unyielding desire to remember. And Edginton and Butchins succeed at providing an unprecedented insight into the complexities behind the making of such a profoundly intimate body of work.
To learn more about Paddy Summerfield and his work, watch the complete documentary on FullBleed.TV. For more FullBleed films, sign up to FullBleed’s channel and keep an eye on BJP’s Twitter and Facebook for new releases.
© Paddy Summerfield
© Paddy Summerfield