Personal History: Facing Loss, a Photographer Creates a Tribute to Life and Memory


© Russell Hart

Russell Hart wasn’t surprised by the collections he found in his mother’s home as he prepared it for sale. “She had a hard time letting go of things,” he says. “She saw practical value in some, sentimental value in others.”

The things she collected were neatly organized; some were annotated. They were packed into boxes, stacked in cabinets, placed in trays she made herself. There were buttons, zippers, dolls, pieces of cloth, unidentified keys, spools of thread, and so much more.

With his mother in a care facility, Hart worked for the better part of a year at her home in Hingham, Massachusetts, where she’d lived for almost 40 years—“a big old house filled with my parents’ stuff and stuff inherited from a big Yankee family over decades.”

The work, he says, “was probably the loneliest and most emotionally difficult thing I’ve had to do. I needed to have some sort of creative response, and the most creative thing I do is photography.”

Hart set up a camera on a copy stand near an attic window and shot HDR images to deal with the light’s contrast range. “I chose black and white because the objects I was photographing were so disparate, with so many different colors and elements. I didn’t want color to be another element, and I didn’t want the eye to be led by color.”

He made an effort to find a home for everything. “I recycled what I could,” he says. “I donated to charities, some things went to auction, some to a swap shop. Some ended up with historical societies and collections.”

he hundreds of images he made are, he says, “a portrait of my mother’s mind as an organizational space. The objects have an emotional life. They’re about the past, and memory, and her loss of memory to Alzheimer’s.”

Russell Hart’s mother died last April.

Tech Talk: Russell Hart took this seven-frame HDR image with his Sony Alpha A900 fitted to a Polaroid MP-4 copy stand; the lens was a Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA SSM II. Settings for the main image were 1/2 second, f/22, ISO 160, aperture priority, and Multi-segment metering. He used Photoshop for the HDR processing and black-and-white conversion, DxO OpticsPro for perspective control, and Nik Viveza 2 to adjust shadows and highlights.

You can find a selection of Russell Hart’s images, including those in the collection As I Found It: My Mother’s House, in the Galleries section of his website,