James Friedman was 9 years old when he began photographing his mother, Dorothy. She was 11 years old when she smoked her first cigarette. They both continued with their respective fixations until the day Dorothy died.
Friedman’s series “1,029,398 Cigarettes” chronicles his mother’s life over the course of 30 years and over a million cigarettes. The photos show the corrosive effects of chain-smoking in real time, spanning from before Dorothy was diagnosed with emphysema to her final days in the hospital.
But more aptly, the images capture a son’s perspective of his imperfect but exceptional mother, a woman he described as caring, brilliant, talented and sophisticated. A woman who wrote poetry and read almost a book a night. “She could speak about almost any topic in great depth,” Friedman told The Huffington Post. “What I got most from her, I think, was her sense of intuition. Feeling comfortable embracing intuition in relation to creativity.”
Friedman initially began photographing his mother to become closer to her. “There wasn’t a lot of affection in our family,” he recalled, “not a lot of connection. For me the camera was a way to form some kind of communication. Photography was a way for me to communicate; the world seemed to make more sense when I was looking at it through a camera. It still does.”
At first, Dorothy was resistant to being photographed, and would often cover her face to avert the camera’s gaze. As time went on, and Dorothy came to sense how important photography was to her son, she gradually granted him permission to shoot her more and more often. “Once the process began, she, in my view, let herself be transformed,” Friedman said. “I think she enjoyed it, the collaborative performance. It helped us understand each other and communicate better.”
In his early photos, Friedman captures his mother as a stylish young woman, posing in 1960s fur-lined dresses and strings of pearls. In one particularly striking image, Dorothy stretches her arms sideways like a bird preparing to take flight. “She talked about flying and freedom a lot,” Friedman said. “That was something she dreamed of, having that kind of freedom. It’s kind of heartbreaking to me in terms of what she became when she was ill from having smoked a million cigarettes.”
In the next image in the series, Dorothy is in the hospital during the final year of her life. Cords emerge from her scalp barely distinguishable from strands of hair, connected to a machine close by. “Those pictures in the hospital were difficult to take, but I did take them,” Friedman said. “I wanted to have a project with a beginning and an end.”
Friedman seems uneasy about having followed through with his project, pushing past the point when his mother could potentially have asked him to stop. The series, organized out of chronological order, jumps from a retro glam shot of Dorothy as a young mother, cigarette in hand, to a painful image of a woman in a hospital gown, a tube stuck in both nostrils, staring with confusion and physical anguish into the camera’s lens. The contrast of youth and vitality with illness and old age tells a story that transcends the individual woman depicted to capture what so many endure when losing a parent. The photos show just how much there is to lose, how much of Dorothy was gone long before she took her final breath.
Toward the end of Dorothy’s life, the camera once again facilitated communication and closeness. Hooked up to breathing tubes, Friedman’s mother was no longer able to speak. The camera made space for a wordless conversation between mother and son that continued until Dorothy died in 1990. Although Friedman initially expected the series to warn others about the dangers of smoking, it changed along the way to capture the relationship between mother and son, imperfect and impermanent, pulsing with tenderness and love.