THE UNWINDING: My Family In Slow Decline, 1980-1990
Project info

In the years after an indifferent college career, I waited tables and taught myself photography by practicing on my friends and family. I carried my Minolta and a 28mm lens back home to Detroit for holidays and occasional weekends.

The pictures I made of my family had an immediate frisson for me, a wallop way beyond the virtues of their composition. After years away from the house on Newport street, I returned with a heightened awareness of the layers of subtext in every situation, and I snapped away at it from every angle, and some of my images hinted at the ghosts and passions running beneath the everyday dramas I beheld.

I began practicing my pictures of my mother and the family in 1982, just as their downward trajectory began slowly but certainly spiraling. My father’s career had fizzled out, and he paced the house each day waiting for his heart to explode; my youngest brother, still in high school, was already an alcoholic; our middle brother was restless and bitter, somehow, and inclined to operatic denunciations of us all, apropos of nothing. My mother's lungs were a cinder, from 40 years of smoking, and she gasped for breath. And I was, in that tarnished company, some version of a “golden child”: the first born, the fruit of our best hopes, and who got away before it all went to shit. So I stood before them while they writhed and withered, shouting at each other, limping through worn-out rooms, and I made photographs for my own edification, and they let me.

Why did they let me? If another wide-angle camera could somehow have been affixed to a high corner of the kitchen, it would have shown me there, too, part of the scene, the one making pictures of those hapless players, arrogant, omniscient, defended by luck. They allowed that without a word, and I carried on for eight years.

I photographed my mother's long, torturous demise, until New Year's Eve, 1990. I chose not to photograph her imminent death, but to be a son and companion in those final months.