I.n the summer of 1991, photographer Zed Nelson, then 25, invited a couple of new parents he knew to visit his London studio. Oh, and bring your baby, he said. At the time he had the ambition to be a traveling photojournalist. Over the course of a year, he would fly the first of a series of visits to distant conflict zones. But for that, Nelson had a calmer and more domestic project in mind. He set up a backdrop and lights, and encouraged visiting parents, an affable couple named Sue and Frank whom he had met at a party, to pose with their newborn, Eddie. The parents held hands, wide-eyed, visibly pierced by the terror and excitement of parenthood. Eddie, weeks old, unconscious, considered his own fingers and drooled. It could have been any other family portrait.
Except Nelson invited Sue, Frank and Eddie to his studio for more portraits, at the same time of year, every year, for as long as they agreed to come. It would trace the evolution of a father’s life, with Sue fixed in position to the right of the image, Frank to the left, Eddie slowly walking between his mom and dad. “The same backdrop every year, the same lights, the same camera, the same angle,” explains Nelson, recalling the complicated logistics of a project that has been running since 1991 without interruption. “Every year I measure the distances per inch. It drives us all a little crazy. But we keep coming back.”
During the early years of this project, which Nelson calls The Family, the photographer’s own life was hectic and stressful. On commission abroad, he would follow dictators and document famines, aware that this regular portrait session was an anchor date on his calendar. He once invited Sue and Frank to his annual session when he had just gotten off a plane from Angola and was shaking with malaria. “I liked the reassuring continuity,” says Nelson.
In 2010, The Guardian published images from the first two decades, showing Sue and Frank’s progress from minor parents (36 years old) to empty nests (55 years old). At the time, the family felt too shy to talk about it. They had hardly admitted to anyone that this was something they had done. Sue works as an artist, Frank as a support teacher. They are private persons; When the images appeared in print, colleagues and friends were amazed. People asked the reluctant couple, “Is it really you?”
“Neither of us had any idea it was going to last that long,” says Sue, over the phone from the family home. She and Frank have agreed to share their views on this unique and priceless record of their adult lives.
“When we started, it was a pre-digital, pre-internet era,” says Frank, “and we didn’t think about what would happen in the future. There are not roadSo many years ago, we would have asked ourselves: ‘What will all this be like in 2021?’ “
When Sue looks back at the first photograph of Nelson’s selection, which shows Eddie in his car seat, she remembers the intense sense of parental duty. “When you have a child for the first time, you think it will last forever, just because of that intensity,” says Sue. “Actually, the three decades since then have passed in an instant. Like a fast-forward movie. These photos make me realize how quickly time passes. “
His son’s teenage years seemed especially cruelly fast. “Eddie started high school one day and boof – The next thing we knew it was a man. “In the photograph taken when Eddie was 12 years old, Sue and Frank have their heads bowed. It is as if they are being whipped by the tailwinds of their son’s dramatic growth spurt. At 14, Eddie is almost his father’s height. At 17 he’s a little bit taller. At 18 there’s no competition. “He’s a complete, independent individual who doesn’t need us,” says Sue. sadness attached to that for me, there is also great joy and pride. “
It was around this time, when Eddie was preparing for college in the late 2000s, that Nelson presented the family with a portfolio of the photos he had taken thus far. Previously, they had never seen more than a few Polaroids from last year’s shoot to help get their bearings. “Zed didn’t want us to look at the photos and make plans for next time,” recalls Frank. He never wanted us to dress up, what I think he was trying to avoid was that annual family photography sensation. He often told me not to smile. He would order me not to sink my stomach. This may sound strange, but I always felt a bit detached from the whole process. I felt like we were models and we just illustrated something. “
Sue agrees. Remember having received the first photos and feeling away from the figures that appear in them. She still feels that way. “There is a feeling that we are characters in a plot. I look at people getting older, Eddie getting older, and I think, ‘Who are they?’ I don’t always see U.S in them. They don’t quite look like us. Another artist is making the decisions. It is your project. They represent a story about change, about aging, not a story about our personal lives or about us and who we were at the time. “
Perhaps the images are a canvas onto which we project our own experiences and expectations. As a father on the verge of 40, I am particularly fascinated by the story that seems to unfold on Frank’s face and posture as his son outgrows it. Eddie becomes the strongest, most handsome, and healthiest man, almost displacing Frank. He begins to throw his shoulders back and look into a future somewhere beyond Nelson’s camera. To one side, Frank seems to sink into himself. Hey lose weight. The face becomes leathery. When your son is 23 and Frank is about to turn 60, he seems to be committing to a new, fancier wardrobe. Suddenly elegant in tailored vest and shirt, thicker glasses on trend, Frank looks more comfortable again. It is as if the inward and outward passage of a mild midlife crisis has been captured. But these are just my impressions, based on Nelson’s selection from hundreds of photo rolls.
“I can’t really remember one of those years the next,” Frank says cheerfully, thinking of the period I’ve interpreted as one of collapse and renewal. “I am not very sentimental. I tend not to look back at things. What interests me the most is the day in front of me … Obviously, as you get older, I have some ideas about the passage of time. Sue and I are 66 now. These days, 60-something seems pretty young. But I have a growing feeling that it won’t last very much longer. “
Eddie was always a willing subject for Nelson photographs, but prefers not to be interviewed. Instead, I know him as a changing figure in photographs, the student years shedding him as he flares out, does gymnastics, his bangs begin to recede, and reveals a rounded forehead like his father’s. Finally, “Eddie almost took us out of the box,” says Sue. “If you want to read the photographs this way, you could say that we only had one child, and that is a very close relationship, but we have had to learn to give it space. As you grow and change, so does our role in your life. We have to back off. “
In subsequent photographs, Sue continues to change her outfit and hair color, as she always has, reinventing herself. Over a long period, it appears to age subtly, almost invisibly. She recalls: “There were a few years that we posed for photographs and I would ask myself, ‘Do I want to see myself getting older? Do I want others to see that? A thing of vanity. “In 2016, she has disheveled, bleached hair and looks at the camera with more poise and defiance than in any other photograph, as if she dares to capture it. here aging.
Then all of a sudden it’s the same year your baby grows a beard, Sue looks so much older. Leave patterned clothing for stately and somber dresses. In photograph 29, he seems to have accepted that an interesting new phase is imminent. “I have to say,” says Sue, “I’m not aging the same way inside my head. I don’t actually feel like I’m getting old, because I don’t deal with it every day. My mind works as it always has. I don’t think of myself as getting old, I think of myself as having gone on this incredible journey, still doing things, feeling, thinking, doing things. I am proud that Frank and I have come this far as a couple and as parents, and still be able to do the things we enjoy. That is why I have to disassociate myself a bit from these photographs. Because for me, I don’t see myself in decline. I see myself always striving to do more. “
In the final photograph, taken by Nelson, 56, this year, Eddie is 30. He has a partner and a daughter. For the first time in years, Frank smiles. Grab a toy dinosaur like he’s ready to jump at any moment and pacify his granddaughter. Sue is a little down, as if she has been reminded once again of that intense parental responsibility. Eddie’s hands are clenched around his son. The baby has his eyes on Mom. “And the cycle begins again,” sighs Frank.
Everyone has wondered, from time to time, how this project could end. Frank says, “Visually it would make sense if … Well, I guess, if one of us, or both of us …” It trailed off. “It is not a very appetizing thought.” He wonders if, deep down, he, Sue, and Eddie have always kept this careful distance from Nelson’s project because they can imagine how it must end one day. Most likely there will be a photograph with a missing person, then two, and Eddie will be without his parents in that family background.
“Analyzing 30 years of your own life certainly awakens feelings of mortality,” says Frank. But I suppose we will continue with the photographs for as long as we can, until one or both of us stay on the road. Zed is much older than Eddie. Either way, “says Frank,” it’s not going to last forever. ”