Photographer Tony Luciani Creates Portraits With His 93-Year-Old Mother
When Tony Luciani’s mother came to live with him, neither she nor the artist could have predicted the surreal journey that was about to begin.
Tony Luciani couldn’t help but laugh as his tiny 91-year-old mother began photobombing him, popping up behind him as he explored the settings on his new camera by shooting into a mirror. Elia Luciani needed to use the only bathroom in the converted church she’d recently come to share with him and there he was, blocking the door with his tripod, intently taking picture after picture.
That incident in the autumn of 2014 would change everything. His mom’s lively photobomb exploits led him to ask if she would help by posing as he worked out how best to use the camera. “She became my model and I just noticed that she was present with me,” he says. “She was playing, sticking her tongue out—there were a lot of outtakes—but the process has been what we both enjoyed together. Not the final result necessarily, but the process of putting it all together.”
Her short-term memory loss had become a form of dementia since a hip-breaking fall a year earlier, so she had sold her home in Toronto and made the move to Durham, a small town in southwestern Ontario, to live with her son. A professional artist for more than 35 years, he usually spent a lot of time in isolation as he created three or four paintings a year.
The startling black and white photos have deservedly caused a stir. There’s Elia now 93, in helmet and gloves, balanced on a skateboard headed for a small ramp; or peering head-on through binoculars that make her look like E.T., the extraterrestrial. In “Internal Reflection,” part of a family portrait of Elia as a child appears in a hand mirror held over half the elder Elia’s face, suggesting the youthful being is still a substantial part of her psyche. A series depicting Elia interacting with her shadow neatly conveys her self-communication: in “Struggling with Yourself,” the shadow Elia and the real one pull away from each other on opposite ends of a rope. Many more of the images appear in Mamma: In the Meantime, a 94-page book available through www.blurb.ca.
The photography began as a diary of life with her son—a meantime—as they cope with her memory loss, and was meant to be a documentation of their loving connection. He’s still surprised at the reaction from around the world to the pictures he’s posted on his website, www.tonyluciani.ca, as people witness Elia’s involvement and react to the bond she has with her son. “Some of it has nothing to do with the art,” he says, “but everyone has a mother, grandmother, grandfather…”
Most days, Elia follows a familiar route with her walker through Durham while Luciani paints in his studio. When poor weather keeps her inside, they’ll often plan or complete photo shoots. The process has brought them closer. “It’s since she’s been with me that I’ve realized the sense of humour underneath all that motherly dimension that she has,” Luciani says. “I think she’s been reserved and held back, especially in family gatherings and in public. More and more, she’s very comfortable with just letting it all out.”
During their photo sessions, Elia usually follows his direction, but occasionally diverts from the scenario he’s chosen. “I don’t know if she does it consciously or it just happens,” he says. “It’s the same with painting. You have a direction and all of a sudden you look at your work and you say, ‘Oh, this is interesting.'” So he’ll encourage his mother to keep going, saying, “I didn’t think of that—just do that.”
Caregiving for someone, being present with someone, is binding with that person, Luciani asserts. “My mom’s here, but I’m not just a person who has a house that she can live in. She participates. I do all the cooking, the laundry—all the stuff that I’m supposed to do…but I don’t do other things when I’m sitting down having a meal with her. We talk, so that’s a good thing.”
One winter night after working in his studio he couldn’t find his mother until a tiny light in the basement drew his attention. She was peacefully working at the old commercial sewing machine Luciani had brought from her home for his daughter. (Elia had bought it from the business where she’d once been a manager in Toronto’s Garment District.) Not wanting to disturb her, he sat and started reading. It was like a comforting scene from his childhood, when he’d do homework in an overstuffed wing chair as her sewing machine hummed—a scene he had to paint. The stunning result, “The Dressmaker,” is in the current Loch Gallery show.
Luciani describes his painting as traditionally inspired interpretive realism. (The subject may have a realistic veneer, but he plays with light and dark, and changes elements in a scene to suit his inner vision and evoke a mood and feeling.) He later took photographs of Elia at the machine, added props and invented areas of light and dark as he worked on the painting, creating a serenely beautiful work that invites a viewer to step close to absorb some of its peace.
But here is the strange thing, Luciani says. “I decided I’m going to do the painting of her, as what I remembered as my childhood. I’m painting and my easel is facing one direction and there’s a wing chair that I put behind me so that she can read or watch television or something. She’s maybe five feet behind me. And here I am painting the painting of her at the sewing machine and she is sitting behind me reading, watching me paint her at the sewing machine. It’s like it’s gone full circle. It’s really bizarre how that worked out.”
A childhood memory revisited, a future unknowable. In the meantime, “Mamma” still means an ever-growing bond of love.