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Photographs, memories and mothers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — I have scant few photos of my mother.

She appears, briefly, in grainy home movies, scurrying away from the camera or shielding her face with her hands as if being attacked.

And there’s the obligatory portrait of her and my father holding me as a baby for the first official “look, we’re a family now” photo.

That’s pretty much it.

It’s the way she wanted it – hundreds of photos of her children, none of herself, if she could help it.

I suspect many mothers are similarly photo-phobic, some because they are camera-shy, most because we moms tend to let ourselves fade into the background to let the sun shine on our children.

We forget sometimes that we are more than just our kids’ moms. That we are beautiful even when we’re not cradling a baby or basking in the glow of a child’s success.

So God love photographer Lydia Phillips for choosing mothers as her visual project.

“For the last five years, I’ve done a lot of weddings and portraits, mostly unposed and using natural light,” said Phillips, who owns Mintwood Photo Co. in Albuquerque. “I was wanting to do something with more community interest. I had the idea in mind of an individual people group. I chose black-and-white to be more striking. My aunt actually gave me the idea of choosing mothers.”

Which, as Phillips found out, is easier said than done.

A sample of some of the 80 mothers photographed by Lydia Phillip for her Mothers of Albuquerque photo exhibit on display at the Hartford Square Cafe at 281 Gold SW. Clockwise from top left: Margaret Sanchez, Tonia Bird Bear, Emily C. Schuyler, Toviah HJ Carter, Satya Witt, Joslynn DeHerrera, Carole Curry and Alexandra Khudoleeva.

But done it was. For eight weeks, Phillips invited mothers of all ages, shapes and sizes to sit for a professional photo shoot at no cost to them. She used natural light, a shaded overhead and a white backdrop in the intimate, minimalist style of Richard Avedon. She persuaded neighbors to let her photograph them outside her garage. She spread the word on Facebook. She set up her studio at the Harwood Art Center and Escuela del Sol Montessori to entice mothers connected to those programs.

And, she chuckles, she often persuaded reluctant mothers to sit for the portraits by agreeing to take a few extra snaps of them with the kiddies.

“I used their children or grandchildren as bait,” she said.

In all, she photographed 80 mothers, their images captured in 11-by-14 black-and-white framed portraits now on display at the Hartford Square Cafe in Downtown Albuquerque, just in time for Mother’s Day.

“I’m grateful for the people who took a chance this year,” she said. “I would have liked more age diversity. It was hard to get anyone older to get in the picture.”

What was fascinating, she said, was how so many of the women didn’t think they were worth photographing alone, just them, without their child. That they were beautiful alone, just them, without their child.

“Some of them would say, `I don’t know what to do. I don’t have my kids with me,'” she said.

For these mothers, the umbilical cord is wrapped pretty tightly.

We honor our mothers Sunday – as we should every day – and to them I say this: Get in the photo and smile. Your children will thank you – then and years later.

But I am also mindful of those mothers who are now just them, without their child. We are mothers of children who died, but we are mothers nevertheless. We brought children into the world, but we never imagined seeing our children leave the world before us.

For those of us who have lost a child or grandchild, who miscarried or miss their own mothers, Mother’s Day is a tornado hurling emotions and reminders of what no longer is, who no longer is. The pain of losing a child never leaves you. It becomes a part of who you are, part of your bones.

But someday you find your footing again in a different place. Someday you realize you are still breathing. Someday the sun comes out again. You accept that you are still you but a different you. You speak the name of your lost child and you think a little less of the pain and a little more about the gift he or she was.

This Sunday marks my third Mother’s Day without my son. I have reached that stage where I can look through the hundreds of photographs I have of him and smile, though I am noticeably not in many of the shots, smiling or otherwise.

I wish I could go back and smile in a few of those photos along with him. I suspect my mother, who died when I was 13, might have wished something like that, too.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.

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