PDN Photo of the Day

Making Peace with Her Mother’s House

In 2009, Sarah C. Butler’s mother’s health began to deteriorate, and she decided to visit her in the crumbling Maine farmhouse where she had moved late in life. Writes Butler in her new book Frozen in Time, published this month by Glitterati Incorporated, “I knew I had to show up, and the only way I knew how was with my camera.” Over the next six years Butler returned again and again to document the elegant dusty rooms, the changing seasons on the land that sloped down to the Cape, and her mother’s rotating collection of chickens. But the images added up to more than a description of a place. As Vicki Goldberg writes in the book’s foreword, “The story they tell unrolls a psychological narrative and a highly unusual one at that, not about the resident of the house but about the way the photographs changed the photographer.” Butler writes that when she began, photographing the house was exercise in “collecting evidence,” finding proof in the bare rooms and unwashed dishes that her mother was not up to the challenge of the house, a failure that reflected Butler’s childhood feelings of abandonment after her parents’ divorce. But as the collection of images grew, Butler began to see the house differently, appreciating the way light moved through the rooms and finding beauty in their “emptiness and stark simplicity.” And as her view of the house changed, her relationship with her mother also shifted. “During my visits, she told me stories, which led to understanding, then compassion and respect; I recognized her strength,” writes Butler. By the time her mother died, in 2015, the two had become collaborators on the project, and she writes, “These photographs have turned out to be evidence, not of her failure, but of the artist she made of me.”

Butler and Goldberg discuss the book on January 11 at the New York Public Library, in a conversation moderated by Alison Morely, who wrote the book’s afterword. Read our story about how Butler got the book published in the Digital Edition of our February issue.

Related Stories:
History, Work and Beauty on a North Carolina Farm
Rosamond Purcell’s Crumbling, Poetic World
Two-Minute Interview: Maggie Steber on Making a Life-Changing Portrait of her Mother

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