Behind the Camera: My Mom

· Reading Time: 13 minutes

Welcome back to another installment of Behind the Camera, which is a monthly feature here.  In this feature I usually tackle a question that has come up about my photography in the previous days.  I’m going to go about this one in a little bit of a different way this month.  Since October 18th, my mind has really not been on photography at all.  I’ve just been going through the motions during the second half of the month.  When it came time to think about what to write here, I just couldn’t formulate any thoughts that I was excited about sharing.  In the end, I just decided to talk about what I’ve been going through and how it relates to my photography.

Elizabeth C. Kiser 1947-2018

It is with a heavy heart that I share with you that my Mother, Elizabeth Kiser passed away suddenly on the afternoon of October 17th.  She was not found until shortly after midnight.  I am still processing this as we were very close, and typically I would not put this out there as I am about to do.  Honestly, I have no idea where this entry is going to go, but I think that I need to do it in order to get myself back on track with my photography.  You see, I owe a lot to my Mother when it comes to my photography, as well as many other aspects in my life.  In short, without her assistance and support, I would have never been able to achieve a lot of what I have accomplished over the years.

At every stage of my photographic endeavors, my Mom was there with funding assistance and an unwavering support.  When I wanted to get a digital camera to make sharing images on the web easier back in 2002, she purchased a Sony FD-200 digital point and shoot for me as a gift.  It was clunky, and saved files to a 3.5″ floppy disk or a 128mb memory stick.  It did start me down a long road of photography.  I bought my next camera which was another Sony, but a much higher powered one called the F-828 which was a “prosumer” camera.  It was this camera that allowed me to start creating the images that I had learned that I wanted to create.

Of course Mom was there every step of the way and wanted prints of everything that I shot.  This was the typical Mother thing where all of your art projects ended up on the refrigerator door.  I lost track of the refrigerators that she bought over the years to hang my work up.  I’m kidding of course, but she did have a growing collection of 8×10″ prints which I framed using Walmart frames.  For close to three years I honed my abilities as a photographer and started to make waves in the internet world with my images and tutorials.  Mom paid very close attention and was always very interested in what I was up to with my camera; so when the time came to think about upgrading she was a natural person to talk with.

I let her know that I had reached the limit of what the Sony could do.  I was having lots of noise issues and chromatic aberrations which the camera was known for.  In order for me to create the images that I was wanting, I was going to need a DSLR camera.  Seems simple enough right?  Well, I was going to have to revamp my entire kit to switch over to a DSLR, and since I was going to be shooting in RAW, I was going to need a new computer.

Camera body, a couple of lenses, a new computer, a printer, filters, bag, tripod, etc… carry the five….Holy cow, I was looking at thousands of dollars to get what I considered a workable kit.  I talked to her for hours one afternoon and shared with her what I was needing, and started asking how I was going to afford such an investment when I wasn’t really making any money with photography…at least not on the level where I could justify that kind of expense.  After I babbled on for a while she simply stated make a list of what you need and send me an email.

I set to work putting that list together with the help of B&H Photo and Dell Computers.  I think that the ending figure came to just shy of 10 grand.  I prioritized what I would need first and send the list.  Without blinking, she said order it and it would be covered.  I wasn’t expecting that, but there it was.  I had a complete Canon DSLR kit with everything that I was going to need on the way in time for an Alaska trip I was planning.  I had just enough time to figure out how to work the camera before flying across the country with it.

Boat Launch

By this time, her walls were filled with 8×10 images that I had shot over the years and I was figuring that there was no way she would want more, but she did.  In fact, she started to like my sunrise pictures and started telling me that she was going to buy some of my new images as I added to my collection.  I felt really bad selling her images shot, processed, and printed with equipment that she had bought but she would have it no other way.  She got a hefty discount, and basically just paid for framing, and occasionally I was able to make these prints gifts to her.  Regardless she kept adding to her collection.

What made this so amazing was she was living in assisted living at the time and had an efficiency apartment with two main rooms.  She had prints on the walls that were 17×26″ which were then matted and framed.  It was crowded, but it did look good and she got a lot of compliments on her collection from everyone that came into her room.

When 2011 rolled in and I had gotten burned out with photography, she was fine with me selling everything off and using the money to start another passion that was about to be developed.  I found a buyer for every last bit of my equipment who came with a pickup truck and took it all from the spirit level on top of the camera to the ONE HUNDRED POUND printer I had been using for so long.  Even though I was out of photography, she still displayed my work proudly in her apartment and would talk to me occasionally about my photography, all the while still supporting my new passion of cycling.

For those that don’t know, Mom had Multiple Sclerosis which is why she was in assisted living.  She was diagnosed in 2003, and by ’05 she was in the bed more than anywhere else which prompted her to move out of her house and into an independent living facility.  I found this out when I called her house and there was no answer.  I called the cell phone and she said that she hadn’t switched over the phone yet.  She liked to do things on her own.  By ’07 she realized that she was needing more care than her current situation would provide, so she let me help her get into an assisted living facility.  She would remain here for the rest of her life.

With MS, she would go through ups and downs and at times be very active, while others be completely bed ridden.  She made the suggestion that I participate in the Bike MS, Tour to Tanglewood which benefited the NMSS of NC which she leaned on so heavily in the early years of her diagnosis.  It was the least that I could do to do that, and it became a yearly thing for me to participate in.  It turned into a great idea as I was able to raise many thousands of dollars for the NMSS and brought a lot of awareness to folks.  In 2013, she was feeling pretty good and actually worked the Linking Lives Tent which coordinated with the ones suffering from MS with the riders that were riding for them.  She was also in training to do one of the MS walks on her own.  Her goal was to do it unassisted, but she did have to use a walker to walk a bit over a mile.  This was huge since a few years before she was pretty much a prisoner of her bed or a power chair.

By the end of 2013, I was getting a little burned out with cycling haven ridden 13,000 miles in a couple of years time.  I wanted to get back into photography, and was really regretting my decision to sell all of my equipment before.  I refused to talk to my Mom about this because I knew what her answer would be, and I didn’t want to accept any more money from her since apparently I was having a really hard time committing to my passions.  My wife, Toni, got involved and wanted me to be happy and knew that I would only get back into photography if I could do it on my own terms.  She went behind my back and brokered deal with Mom that ultimately lead to a conversation on the phone.  It was a long one where I played the stubborn and proud son that wasn’t going to accept any more money.  She played the part of the stubborn and proud Mom who insisted that she needed new wall art in her apartment and didn’t like anything other than my pictures.  We went back and forth with Toni pushing me to cave in.  I refused to cave in….

After effects of a rather large UPS delivery
My new camera, a 5D Mk3
Everything all put together in the bag

So three days later, B&H delivered my new gear to the tune of $14,000.  Did I mention that I refused to accept any more money?  Well, I was grounded and sent to my room until UPS came.  Once again, I was back in business thanks to my Mom.  I went at things much slower than I had before and did it for me rather than to try and make a business for myself.  She was supportive of that plan, and still made me make prints for her…which she insisted on buying from me.  I don’t know how she manged to get all of these prints on her walls since I was now printing everything for her at 13×19″ which was my favorite size.

By the end of 2014, I was just not happy with my photography anymore.  I didn’t like it was going and I was feeling very guilty for the money that Mom had spent on my gear.  She wasn’t concerned and supported me putting more of my time and energy back into cycling once again.  This time I left the photography gear in the closet and would go back to it occasionally for a picture here and there.  It wasn’t until 2016, that I found the missing piece to my happiness in photography.  I ended up with Lightroom after a computer crash forced me to invest in a new computer.  I learned how to control the color replication to the printer which had always been a problem.  This springboarded me right back into photography once again.  Mom was thrilled and tried really hard to understand color management while I was explaining my breakthrough to her.  She never figured it out, but was excited for me, and the prospect of new pictures.

The funny thing was, I was slowly starting to wear her down with my old rusty cars and she was starting to appreciate what I saw in them.  She even had me make her a print of an old pickup which turned out really nice and she really liked it.  I could never get her to fully commit to a black and white image, but she did like a few of them that I did.  She absolutely adored anything dealing with sunrises or sunsets, and had started to like the waterfalls that I did as well.

Looking back, I would get an email after every blog post that I did, and I could count on it like clockwork.  Based on what I had shot I could pretty much tell what the email would say.  I could always expect trips to the Blue Ridge Parkway to result in “I want everything that you shot” to show up.  If I did waterfalls, she would send “I’m glad you got to go out and shoot your moving water, I found a lot of them really relaxing to look at.”  If I had shot barns that day, it would go a little something like this: “I didn’t see anything I had to have from this one, but they turned out great.”  The old cars were always a toss up though.  It would go like this: “I just love your titles on these, but they are not my cup of tea,” or like this: “I’m starting to see the personality in these cars and I can relate based on how I am feeling right now.”

My last two treks didn’t have any emails.  The first one, she was really busy doing things to get my Grandfather’s house ready to sell and I didn’t really expect her to sit down to read the entry until she got to a point she could breathe.  I was really looking forward to what she thought of the old mill that I had shot.  I was expecting this to fall in the category of “I want the color one, but I’m just not a fan of black and white.”  I knew that she would really like the colors that I captured with the reds and blues.  She also was developing a like for the long exposure shots I was doing.  I’ll never know what she thought of this shot, but I know she saw it at least.

Old Mill of Guilford

The trek that I took next was on the morning of the 16th.  I am pretty sure that she never saw this one at all.  I didn’t get a chance to process the images and do the web end of it until late that night after work.  She left her apartment early in the morning for an appointment and died later that afternoon while still away from home.  I can say with some amount of confidence that this set of pictures would have hit home with her.  She would probably say that she still didn’t care for the old rusty hunks of junk, but the Ramblers were something that sparked memories for her.  My Grandfather had a convertible Rambler when she was growing up, and I’m sure that would have made at least one of these images something that would make her list of “one day, I’m going to have that on my wall.”

Ramble On

It really makes me sad that I’ve lost my biggest cheerleader, and that she will never know just how far I might go in photography.  I do know that I owe it to her to take it as far as I possibly can.  I remember clearly years ago telling her that I couldn’t necessarily believe her rave reviews of my photography since she used to be proud of the scribbles that I drew in elementary school.  She was my Mom, she was supposed to like whatever I did.  I would shrug her opinions off many times and search for validation from people I didn’t know.  Somehow, I felt that those opinions carried more weight.  I feel guilty about dismissing her opinions through the years though.  She had earned the right to have a voice in my photography because without her, I would have probably never even had the chance to see what I could do with a camera.

Life is precious, and the world has lost a wonderful woman.  I have lost my Mother, my biggest cheerleader and supporter of everything that I have done, even the stupid things.  I’m going to miss you Mom, and I promise to continue down the path that you have so graciously paved for me on several occasions.  I’m going to miss you, and I love you.

Thanks for joining me on this emotional ride.  This is about as “Behind the Camera” as we can get.  I will get back on track as soon as my creativity comes back.  For now, my heart is broken and I am having a real hard time tapping into my artistic side.  There are a lot of things on the horizon though. We have workshops starting up in a month and a new website that is currently trying to be launched.  I’m hoping by the next installment of Behind the Camera, I am back to some semblance of normality once again.