My maternal grandmother smoked too many cigarettes, hated wearing dentures, and was usually found sitting at her kitchen table. She had a larger-than-life personality suited to a sitcom. She loved me fiercely. Because my mom was a single mother who both worked and went to school to give me and my sister a better life, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. It was there that I fell in love with photographs and came to understand how important they are to a family’s history and legacy.
Ours was a blue-collar family. We lived paycheck to paycheck, but we always valued photos and managed to find the money to buy them—really big packages, in fact—from the strip mall photo studios we used for family portraits. Framed 8x10 photos were all over my grandmother’s house, along with drawers full of snapshots and pictures. If I heard her say it once, I heard her say it a million times: “If the house is on fire, we have to grab all those family pictures!” With a childish naivety, I viewed those mediocre pictures in their cheap frames with a sense of wonder. Little did I know how her words and actions would help shape me into the person I am.
My love and appreciation for printed photographs is rooted in these experiences. And it wasn’t just my grandmother who prized family photos. My mom would waltz my sister and me down to the portrait studio every year to sit for awkward family pictures. And every time, she was talked into buying the big portrait package.
"I had three million excuses that kept me safely on the other side of the lens and protected me from the anxiety and scrutiny I would inflict on myself as soon as the shutter clicked. I knew this had to stop."Mary Fisk-Taylor
By 1992 all those Chesterfield Kings my grandmother smoked had taken their toll, and she succumbed to lung cancer. It absolutely broke me. And it wasn’t until after her death that I realized, with deep regret, that this woman who so meticulously documented the lives of her family had never in her life had a good photo made of herself. There was always some reason why it wasn’t the right time for her to get a portrait made. And now I have only a precious handful of pictures of my grandmother. It’s embarrassing to admit how much like her I was in this regard until recently.
For many years I reused one of my first professional headshots for everything, and I did it because I didn’t want the disappointment of being photographed and not liking what I saw. One day my daughter told me she needed a picture of me, her dad, and brother along with a shoe box for some school project. I got all of the items together and handed them to my sweet child, who looked me in the face and said, “Geez, Mom, do you have any pictures besides ones from high school?!” My wise little angel said it was ridiculous that a professional photographer had such an old picture of herself and that what she really wanted was a family photo. I knew she was right. I was doing everything I told my clients not to do. Much like my grandmother, I always had a reason it wasn’t the right time to have my photo taken: I was waiting until I lost more weight, had a tan, got my hair cut. I had three million excuses that kept me safely on the other side of the lens and protected me from the anxiety and scrutiny I would inflict on myself as soon as the shutter clicked.
"I know how my grandmother felt, but I also know it’s important that we put our insecurities aside."Mary Fisk-Taylor
I knew this had to stop. I knew one day my kids would be sitting at their own kitchen tables wishing they had portraits to share with their own families just as I had done with my grandmother. Remembering how deeply that affected me, I couldn’t believe I was doing it to my own kids. I was ashamed of myself for taking that away from them. I know how my grandmother felt, but I also know it’s important that we put our insecurities aside and think about who we’re doing this for.
Our family’s visual history is something my children and future generations will cherish. They won’t dwell on the physical flaws I see in myself but will be grateful for the memories.
Mary Fisk-Taylor is the co-owner of Hayes & Fisk Photography in Richmond, Virginia.