Tony Luciani’s 91-year-old mom, Elia, didn’t know she was photo-bombing. She just wanted to pass through the bathroom door where her son, a painter, had set up a tripod to test his new camera. But something about the pictures of her face poking around the doorway, in and out of camera view, set them both laughing and ended up with both mother and son becoming photographers at 57 and 91, respectively.
Photographs by Tony and Elia Luciani were the subjects of simultaneous shows this past winter at the Durham Art Gallery in Durham, Ontario. Tony’s show, MAMMA: In the Meantime, was all about his mother. His mother’s show, My Coolpix and I, was all about her world. Elia Luciani’s series of photographs has been described as “ethereal” and “dream-like,” evoking thoughts and feelings about the fragility of memory, its presence and its absence.”
That might be because Elia has dementia.
Elia had lived alone in her own home until three years ago, when she fell and broke her hip. The family had already noticed that she was increasingly forgetful and had lost some of her English, slipping back into her native Italian. They decided that it was time to put mom in a home.
“For me, taking her to live in an assisted living home wasn’t an option,” Tony says. So Elia moved in with Tony and his dog and cat. She now shares the converted church where Tony also has his painting studio.
Elia’s dementia has gradually progressed, but she is healthy and strong, and walks three or four kilometers a day, snapping pictures. And while her short-term memory is gone and she can no longer cook, her sense of humor remains lively, which is easy to see in Tony’s photos of his muse and collaborator.
Changing Course at 57 and 91
Those first spontaneous photographs of Elia became a turning point for both of them. Tony, already an established fine artist, began using a camera as more than a visual reference tool for his paintings. He began documenting his mother’s life in humorous and often surrealistic images.
And when he gave Elia a digital point-and-shoot camera, he discovered that she had an “eye” for capturing her own state of her mind.
“I taped over the buttons she doesn’t need on the camera and put it on a small tripod.”
Elia began keeping a visual diary of her surroundings. The subjects surprised Tony.
“She wasn’t shooting beautiful flowers but the inside of the refrigerator, the oven, whatever was in her face.” If what she saw was disorderly, she paused and arranged the items first—uncharacteristic for Elia. When she found dishes askew, she placed them in tidy stacks before their close up. “I think this is who she is now,” Tony says.
“It’s kind of a self-portrait,” Tony says of a picture Elia’s took on one of her walks. “The weed reflects on her as the lone weed. She’s lost most of her friends and family, and she feels alone. She was once among all the flowers in the field and now she’s a weed.”
The Art of Caretaking
When Tony decided to take care of his mom, he had no idea that she would become his muse and collaborator. Today, at 94, Elia is at Tony’s side when he sets up a shot.
“She loves the process. She loves to participate, to engage, to play,” Tony says. Instead of directing her to pose, Tony talks over different scenarios with her, and together they create the photo.
“She loves feeling that she’s needed. I show her the end result and she laughs. She understands exactly what I’m doing. I always show her the end result before I post a photograph. I give her the last word,” Tony says.
Some of the photographs of Elia have gone viral, and Tony receives responses from people around the world. He believes that the photos have a significance that goes beyond him and his mom and realizes that the photographs are affecting people’s lives.
“ I try to place her as a symbol of other mothers and grandmothers who are in the situation that she’s in and the situation that I am in, too. It’s as much about them as it is about her and the illness.”