MOUNT DESERT — Mother and daughter relationships can be complicated.
The daughter who can honestly claim “My mom is my best friend, and wisest counsel; the unconditional supporter of all my choices, even the bad ones, and never says ‘I told you so,’” is as rare as the mom who can honestly say “My daughter has never given me a moment’s worry.”
This near universal truth about the nature of the mother/daughter dynamic may explain why Mount Desert Island native Sarah Butler’s new book of photographs, “Frozen in Time,” a six-year, visual saga, has become an international phenomenon since it was launched by Glitterati Inc. this past January.
“When people talk to me about the book,” Butler says, “More often than not they end up talking to me about their mothers.”
Beginning Thursday, Aug. 31, an exhibit of Butler’s photographs from “Frozen in Time” will be shown at the Star Gallery in Northeast Harbor, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. On Sept. 6 at 5:30 p.m., Butler will give a slide show/talk about her book at the Northeast Harbor Library.
The subject of Butler’s photographs is her mother, Frances Clough, who was raised in wealth, privilege and status in Bangor society. In the last decade of her life, however, she had abandoned almost all the social conventions she was raised to observe and the creature comforts her income could have provided, to live in such stark simplicity many would call it impoverished.
Since her mother and father divorced, when she was 7 years old, Butler had been angry with and at times estranged from her mother. In 2010, after eight years of sporadic contact, Butler decided to make a long overdue visit to her mother’s home in Verona Island, which she had never seen.
Butler says she had expected to find her mother comfortably ensconced in the glorious saltwater farm Frances had described, with its charming Cape house, and handsome 19th century barn she imported from New Hampshire and was meticulously reconstructing, on site, as a future dwelling. The reality was something else altogether.
“When friends she had been corresponding with saw my book, they were astonished,” Butler recalls. “From her correspondence, they too had been led to believe to this fabrication.”
Butler has chronicled the reality of her mother’s situation in 69 evocative, intimate photographs of Frances, her home, property and belongings, taken in the course of what became six years of visits.
Images of peeling wallpaper, crumbling plaster, chipped paint, stained sinks, rusty old appliances and unfinished projects populate the pages of “Frozen in Time.”
At first glance what we see in these images is reminiscent of the Maysles brothers’ strange and fascinating documentary “Grey Gardens.”
But, a closer look reveals that this is not the squalor Big and Little Edie Beal descended into at their grand old home in New York’s Hamptons. Rather, there is a thoughtful, often graceful order to Frances’s decaying environment. Like a petulant, indifferent spirit, neglect has come to live in this house, in a sort of detente relationship with its owner.
On the one hand, the good china is polished to a sparkle and neatly stacked in its cupboard. On the other, cobwebs collect on a pair of bronze decorative horses and a handsome old grandfather clock, lists dangerously to starboard in a back room. The weather-blasted house itself is sinking backward into the earth.
“On my first visit, I felt both appalled and somehow vindicated,” says Butler. “I mean, here in this badly stained sink and peeling wallpaper was proof of my contention that she had been a failure as a mother and a person. No wonder, I thought, I had been so angry for so long.”
Butler says at the start of her short visits, this residual anger and disapproval kept her from having meaningful conversations with her mother. “I used my camera as a protective shield between us,” she says.
“I had no idea what I would do with the images I was getting, but it was the only language I was comfortable using.”
Butler says she discovered the language of photography rather late. Art did not figure much during her childhood on MDI, nor was she the child who ran around with her Kodak instamatic snapping pictures of everything.
“But I do remember when I was very young walking around the house with my dad’s small mirror at waist level trying to navigate by the reflections.”
After graduating from Mount Desert Elementary School, Butler went on to prep school and an international school in Switzerland, where she majored in “partying.” Somehow, while still in party mode, she found her way to Rockport College (now Maine Media College) and, for no apparent reason, signed on for some photography classes. A small spark ignited here, but was quickly doused by her increasing alcohol consumption.
“Pretty soon I was kicked out for my drinking,” She says, “and then I was involved in a bad car accident.”
Apparently, this one-two punch got her attention. Butler sobered up, got them to take her back at Rockport and immersed herself in every aspect of photography.
“I was obsessed, “she says. “I loved it all. The history, the art, the process, the magic that happened in the dark room, the smell of the chemicals. I loved the way people understood what I was saying in my images. Finally, I had a language I could comfortably communicate with.”
That first year back at Rockport, she set a record at the school for the amount of work she accomplished. When she went on to graduate studies at Savannah College of Art & Design, an assignment in marketing led to her first book deal with her publisher, Glitterati. “Portrait of a Maine Island,” a loving tribute to MDI, its indoor and outdoor spaces and people, came out in 2009.
When she showed her mentors the pictures she’d been taking of her mother’s home, they urged her to continue the work and see where it would take her.
Like any good story, in which the characters grow and change to reveal multiple layers of complexity, “Frozen in Time” also records a profound sea change between mother and daughter.
Shot with film and a large format camera, which gives the photographs a depth still not possible with digital pictures, the first images are taken from a distance showing a sward of spring pastureland dipping down to the sea; grazing horses, a dilapidated shed. Her mother’s sagging Cape comes into view.
Then we are looking in through an exterior window; we enter and peer at rooms through doorways and around corners, from the bottom of a scarred staircase. While some of these images are troubling they also are, most often, beautiful. Bright red tomatoes take place of pride on the old enamel cook stove; a pair of colorfully smocked children’s dresses are hung like portraits against exposed plaster lathing; a curvy Victorian chair and a handsome Chippendale bureau stand together like an old dowager and her stolid husband; a spaghetti dinner seems to mimic the delicate pattern of the porcelain plate it sits on.
We first meet Frances herself through her lovely hands, initially idle, resting on her lap, then gently holding a clutch of yellow chicks; a speckled hen.
Butler says she navigated around her mother through her camera lens as she had once navigated around her childhood home with a mirror.
Initially resistant to the intrusion, eventually her mother learned the language her daughter was using and even started speaking it herself. The only staged photo in the book is one Butler’s mother set up — a pair of well-worn jeans hanging from a dishtowel rack.
“At some point, I was able to put the camera down and have some real conversations with her,” Butler says. “I was able to stay longer, be comfortable in her space. I learned so much about her history, our history that I hadn’t known.”
She says her perception of her mother, her past and her present situation altered profoundly. Her disapproval morphed into respect. She stopped trying to fix her mother or change her.
Butler began to see the grace in her mother’s pared-down life, understood that she was choosing this manner of being and, finally, not being. They became friends.
Frances died in 2015 at age 64.
“If I ever had doubts about whether my mother loved me — and I did,” Butler says. “The doubts were dispelled when I found among her belongings every letter my sister and I had written her, every school report, our baby clothes all carefully organized and preserved.”
Her mother’s careful preservations of the cherished artifacts of her childhood, Butler understands now, also was a language and in “Frozen in Time” her mother’s voice — and to some degree, all our mothers’ voices — is heard on every page.