I photograph my Mom in the rural place where we both grew up. I do this to craft a representation of the rural rooted in the formative connection between people and land that can unfold in country places. 

My family visited my maternal grandparents each weekend of my youth. Weather permitting, each visit began with a walk around the particular piece of rural New York land on which my grandparents had lived and worked since 1960. We walked slowly, as a group. The adults did most of the talking while my 3 siblings and I wandered close and listened some. We walked the same path each time. There was much to see and discuss. Nothing was too small to consider and begin to decode, each detail seemed ripe.

This ritual of walking, close looking, and conversation built my understanding of and connection to my home. Now, years later, when I go home, weather permitting, my Mom takes me around outside and shows me the living events—each strangeness, the tiny significances—that have caught her own eye. I relearn the place through her reporting and rebuild my understanding of it in dialogue with her. 

The photographs in this series come from this ritual. I started photographing my Mom at home in 2012 when I realized that not everyone relates to land this way; when I realized that many people have never engaged in the country act of walking the property line, alone or in a group, even once. This process—walking around, trying to get a sense of a constantly changing place through close looking, the relationship built between people and place through the constant revisiting—is a prominent feature of rural life as I have experienced it.  

I don’t live at home anymore and most of my life will probably be spent separate from the places that meant and mean so much to my immediate family. I don’t look out my window and see my grandfather’s peonies. I won’t know what it is like to live on the same hill for 50 or 70 years. 

I photograph this ritual as I realize that my Mom and I may be the last people in our family to enact it here. I photograph this ritual in the same way that someone tries to write down a family recipe before it’s too late and to underline the most important lessons I’ve learned through this practice—that nothing is nothing; that the middle of nowhere is always somewhere to someone; that the absence of human presence isn’t indicative of the absence of presence. 

Through a series of landscape and portrait photographs made at home, I foreground this looking, some of the wonders we have found, and share out an interpretation of the keystone of rural culture as I know it—that chain built between person and place, as a place works into and upon a body.

From my mother

Sarah asked me to write about this. I don’t like being photographed but I was happy to help my kid. It was good to spend time with her. I’m old and wrinkled so it's funny she wanted to take pictures of me. She said she likes that I am old. I always had to wear the same things, like a uniform and could never smile. Maybe it is useful to know that while Sarah photographed me for this my mother, her grandmother, died. Our small family became generationally smaller. It seems important to mention.

I’m not sure what she was looking for. We stayed mostly at home in the woods I know well. She took pictures of me and the plants. We spent a lot of time outside. Often it was hot or cold or buggy and she would ask me to stick my face in a tree or stop smiling or to relax my shoulders. I think we got along well. Sometimes making pictures didn’t go well and I felt bad because a good model should help make good pictures but Sarah would say it was just a bad day and not my fault. Sometimes she would come home but the rain or the wind would keep us inside. She wouldn’t let me photograph her.

I like some of the pictures we made. I want them to be at my funeral.