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Russell Hart: As I Found It

A year-long photography project helped a photographer deal with losing his mother to dementia
Russell Hart: As I Found It
“Pleating” Pins, Size 16, Extra Fine

“Pleating” Pins, Size 16, Extra Fine

When my mother’s dementia became so severe that she could no longer stay in the rambling New England Victorian where she had lived for 40 years, most of that time with my father, it fell to me to empty and sell the creaky old manse. Once my mother was out, I essentially moved in and spent the better part of a year sifting through a dense environment created by decades of hoarding, deeply compounded by the Yankee habit of saving too much from past generations.

The house contained thousands of cardboard boxes, often several nested inside a larger one, stacked up in layers against the walls. In the attic, these stacks created a virtual maze.

Despite my mother’s ceaseless accumulation, a lot of what she left behind in her boxes was neatly ordered, though in ways that might have made sense only to her—a system she was no longer able to explain. Much of it had been heavily annotated, often on index cards or Post-it notes as old as their invention, in her tiny, precise handwriting.

She was obsessive-compulsive, a behavior that dementia cured.

Russell Hart: As I Found It
Fail To Block Hart Suicide. For all his adult life, my father carried in his wallet a newspaper clipping about his own father’s 1949 suicide, which happened when he was 22 years old. After my father died, my mother removed the clipping from his wallet and carefully placed it in an empty candy box, just as you see here. She put the candy’s cushioned insert on top of it, then on top of that enclosed a note explaining, presumably for future generations, the clipping’s history.

A Photography Project Is Born

The task was the most emotionally difficult thing I have ever done. As a way of mitigating my sadness and solitude, I took pictures. At first, I photographed the gorged interiors of the rooms, broadly and closely, and continued as each room was emptied of its life. In the vastness of what my mother had squirreled away were hundreds of cardboard “trays”—often boxes she had sliced the tops off with a utility knife—in which she had arranged groups of related items, most of which had outlived their usefulness. I also began to photograph these collections by the light of an attic window. Toward the end of my clearing out the house, these assemblages took over the project.

Photographing what I found in these boxes, which I didn’t rearrange in any way, was simple in concept but surprisingly complicated in execution. I set up my solid old Polaroid MP-4 copy stand, which has a long rail that allows more “working distance” than most such models, directly in front of an attic window that was formidably high on the house, unobstructed and north-facing.

I oriented the stand with the rail on the far side from the window so it wouldn’t cast a shadow on my subjects; this way, they would also be lit gallery-style, from the top. I mounted my 24.6-megapixel Sony Alpha a900 DSLR on the copy stand, and because my mother’s trays and boxes were quite variable in size, I chose an A-mount Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 T* zoom for the work.

Russell Hart: As I Found It
The Freezer Before I Defrosted It.

This meant that with the largest boxes, even if I had to crank the camera to the top of the rail, I had the option of zooming to a shorter focal length in order to fit the whole subject into the frame. The zoom also allowed me to shoot from a lower position (closer distance) at a shorter focal length (more wide-angle) in order to create a sense of being “inside” the box, with its interior walls more visible and tapering toward the bottom. The Zeiss zoom is perfectly rectilinear at its wide end and eye-popping in sharpness throughout.

Though the window light was fairly consistent and had the soft character I wanted, it still produced strong shadows and high overall contrast because the interior itself was dim. I often used a white fill card, placed on the side of the subject opposite the window, to help open up shadows. But my main method of contrast and shadow control was to use High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI)—shooting a series of identical frames of the subject at different exposures, then combining them with Photoshop’s File>Automate>Merge to HDR Pro command. (Other apps offer HDRI too, of course.) Though HDRI is now usually associated with special effects obtained essentially by overdoing the technique, at its best, it’s a very effective way to capture and control the full brightness range of a contrasty subject, as long as it’s static. More about that shortly.

After leveling the camera (using a bubble level) and making sure the subject was square, I typically shot seven or nine RAW frames of the subject at different exposures: one “on,” three under and three over; or one “on,” four under and four over. These brackets were usually separated by increments of .7 stop and were changed strictly with exposure time to avoid differences in depth of field between the frames, which would have been impossible for the HDRI software to resolve.

Russell Hart: As I Found It
Rus’ Wedding Ring (Given Christmas 1950)

My exposure times were long, given the low sensitivities (ISO 200 or under) I chose to ensure good image quality and the small apertures (ƒ/16 or smaller) I chose for adequate depth of field at such close distances. They often extended, at the far end, into several seconds and beyond. I always shot with the mirror locked up to minimize image-degrading shake and was careful to wait between each exposure for any vibrations to die down given that the camera was often high up on the rail. A blurred bracket also might have created a problem in combining the images.


When I sat down at the computer to process the frames for HDRI, I first looked at the most extreme exposures to decide if I needed to keep them in the mix. If there was enough shadow detail in the second-most “overexposed” frame and/or enough highlight detail in the second-most “underexposed” frame, I’d sometimes knock off one or both ends of the series. This meant I’d end up using five or six frames instead of seven, or seven or eight instead of nine. I found I got the best results by not giving Photoshop any more frames than necessary to capture full detail across the entire brightness range of the subject. I processed the RAW frames in color, ending up with a single Photoshop-format color file; this way I only had to convert one final frame to black and white.

After obtaining one file from the many, I ran the image through DxO Optics Pro software. Along with correcting for any lens aberrations, this software features perspective controls that allowed me to fine-tune the squaring up I’d done in-camera. Many of the boxes ended up more perfectly square than they were in real life!

Next, I converted the file to black and white, using Photoshop’s Image>Adjustments>Black and White command.

Why black and white?

Russell Hart: As I Found It
These Are 34 1/2”, Too Short.

Aside from saving me the need to correct for the window light’s blue cast, it made up for the fact that the contents of the trays and boxes were a hodgepodge of colors. I didn’t want an individual item’s color to give it a gratuitous prominence; I felt that color was a distraction from the idea that these items had been sorted into meaningful groups. While it might seem an obvious nod to photography’s own past, I also thought black and white made it clear from the outset that these images were about memory and history—a record of a past life and, ironically, of life’s impermanence, through sentimental objects. The Japanese have a phrase for this idea, mono no aware, which means “the pathos of things.”

In converting the color file to black and white in Photoshop, I almost always used the control’s color sliders to adjust tonal relationships: a red element that might be rendered too brightly in the black-and-white conversion could be darkened by pulling down the red slider; a blue element that might be rendered too darkly could be lightened by pulling up the blue slider. After the conversion, I’d usually go into Photoshop’s very useful Shadows/Highlights control (Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights) to adjust the overall balance of bright and dark areas.

Despite the benefits of HDRI and Shadows/Highlights, most of the images’ real tonal control began when I opened up the Nik Viveza plug-in in Photoshop and used its “control points” throughout the image. (The Nik Suite is now marketed by DxO.)

Russell Hart: As I Found It
My father’s ties.

Viveza is basically like old-fashioned dodging and burning in, which of course you can do “manually” in Photoshop, except that it provides much more control. In addition to letting you adjust brightness (density), it gives you local control over contrast, shadow detail, color saturation and color balance among several other things. These changes can be made globally in addition to locally.

In fact, before making any local adjustments, I sometimes used Viveza globally to increase overall contrast; I often raised the contrast higher than I would have with Photoshop’s regular contrast controls, then “filled in” by increasing Viveza’s Shadow Detail slider. This gave me more punch than I could otherwise have achieved, without blocking up shadows. I also increased Structure globally. Structure is a very useful, slider-based Viveza control that improves the sense of texture and clarity.

I found myself placing scores, often over a hundred, and sometimes even several hundred, Viveza control points in a given image to make the local adjustments I wanted. In fact, at times, I had to make myself stop, or else an image would end up looking compressed in its tonal scale!

Russell Hart: As I Found It
Grammie’s Treasures, With her Typed Index.

I’d place a point in the middle of an area I wanted to fix, use the point’s main slider to set the circumference of the circle that controls the size of the area affected, then proceed to adjust the other sliders. These changes were almost always more than just to brightness. When a dark area was lightened, for example, it usually began to look a little flat, so I’d also increase the contrast within that area. Try doing that in the traditional darkroom when dodged shadows start to look weak! It’s challenging to do in Photoshop.

After applying a lot of control points, I saved everything, then reassessed the overall image back in Photoshop. Sometimes I made further global adjustments, either with Photoshop commands (typically Highlights/Shadows) or again in Viveza (using Contrast and Shadow Detail). Then, I applied another round of control points. I often took an image in and out of Viveza many times before I was satisfied. Given that the plug-in essentially masks on the fly, it saved me days of layering work.

As a final step, along with sharpening to size, I went back into Photoshop’s black-and-white converter and added a slight bit of warmth to the images. The payoff of that warmth, those big files and the careful technique and labor-intensive local work, was large prints that some viewers have likened to platinum/palladium contact prints in their sharpness and tonal scale. The prints’ image area is 16×24 inches, on a heavy 17×25-inch sheet of Moab Entrada matte-finish paper; they’re made on an Epson Stylus Pro 3880 printer (which is still going after all these years).

Russell Hart: As I Found It
Straw Baskets with Oasis Inserts.

Russell Hart And Coping With Loss

This body of work, which you can see in two full portfolios at in the Archive section, has elicited a more positive response from viewers than any of my other recent work.

I’m a bit mystified by this. Aside from editorial and advertising work, these images are the most documentary I’ve ever made in years of fine-art work that has always tilted toward the pictorial. At the same time, they’re the most personal work I’ve ever done, which is ironic given their documentary nature.

It seems that what started out as an exercise in coping with loss produced photographs that transcend their particular personal and family meanings; the photographs apparently connect both to notions of memory and to the experience of anyone who has dealt with the decline of parents in present-day America and perhaps knows how dementia destroys identity and history.

The work is also a study, by implication, of an obsessive-compulsive mind, yet more generally of the hoarding behavior that seems epidemic in our society. All that said, I don’t want viewers to come to these photographs with too much information or too many preconceptions. I made them so that viewers would be able to “read” their contents in detail, for what might be gleaned about my late mother’s life and personality.

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