10/16/2014 02:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Would I Have Been Friends With My Mom if I'd Known Her Back Then?

It's a simple question, one that many of us ask ourselves at some point.

While scrolling through #tbt photos on Instagram, Danielle Delph, a Portland-based artist, had an epiphany: she wanted to explore the idea concretely. The result is a compelling series of photographs in which she and her mother feature together, enjoying each other's company, only with a twist: they appear to be the same age.


The series has been making waves in domestic and international media. We spoke over the phone about the artistic process behind the creation of the photos, community response, and her future plans with the series:

Jesse Damiani: How'd you get the idea for this project? What were your goals? Why'd you choose your mom specifically?

Danielle Delph: One of those questions I think we all ask at some point is, "Would I have been friends with my parents if we'd known each other growing up?" You start to realize similarities you share, in senses of humor, the way you look -- especially when you come across them at different stages in life. The way I got to it actually was because I was on most of us are...and it happened to be Thursday, so it was Throwback Thursday. People are digging back into their past and finding pictures of themselves, their grandparents, parents, etc. I think it might've even been Mother's Day, and someone had posted a picture of their mom in high school -- it was one I'd seen before they posted it online -- and it was just one of those times where everything makes sense. I thought, "Wouldn't it be so cool if I could merge my throwback world with her throwback world?" It was a really simple idea that I thought everybody could relate to, a chance for people to imagine themselves in that space with their parents. So that's when I set to work on it.

JD: How did you decide which pictures to use?

DD: It was kind of a nightmare, because I had to be like, "Hey, Mom, can you send me every photograph of yourself as a kid?" which was difficult because a majority of our sentimental stuff from childhood: baby photos, Christmas decorations, all that, were destroyed in Hurricane Ivan, so there was a super limited amount of photos to begin with. I had to reach out to my childhood best friend, family friends, and relatives to ask for photos; I had to rummage through our lives through other people. I was really vague about what I was up to. I said I was working on a project for my mom. Everyone in my area had lost a lot of photos and tactile objects during the hurricane, too, so they all thought I was just scanning them to collect them into one place to give them back to her.

JD: Did you run into any obstacles you weren't prepared for?

DD: I remember making this comment about a series I did in college that incorporated the botanical and the medical, that they were meant to fit together, that I could find parallels where the two things just worked with one another. I found that similarity with this project, merging the two worlds. I was a little concerned I wasn't going to be able to find enough examples that worked, and even from what I had, there were several images that just didn't make the mark: one I completely finished that just didn't work as well as the others, and one that I just didn't end up finishing because there wasn't a good match, it was just a matter of choosing battles.

The biggest hurdle was image quality. Obviously we have a gigantic Internet photo album called Facebook, and I dug through my the photos there to find photos of myself from high school, and all of those were really lo-res -- you'd think in the digital world it would've been decent, but my Mom's photos were actually at a better resolution than the digital ones I'd taken from Facebook. I got into this problem where I had to diminish the quality of the photos of my mom in some of them, which was weird because they're older, and already have a worn-out quality to them; they'd scanned too well. I had to put them at a lower resolution so mine didn't look significantly worse than hers. So there was that basic pixel concern at times.

At first mention you don't really think about it, but when you work closely with something for that long, you see how the pieces fall apart, how some images start not to work, whether you're trying to make something look older, match resolutions, etc. It's two different languages you have to marry together.

One thing I noticed when I was going through all my mom's photos -- she has an older brother, and I actually have a whole pack of these particular photos I pulled aside because I really loved them -- all those old photos were for particular moments, you know, recitals, Christmas: something very specific. It's two people in a big moment -- she's wearing a dress, or her brother's wearing a tux, they're on vacation, they're in New Orleans -- these precious moments they were trying to capture. I found that it was hard for me to find photos to connect that with my life at first because we're a culture that takes a picture of a chicken sandwich, attaches hashtags to it, and glorifies it, and that obviously wasn't a thing for them. When I talked to her about that, she was like, "Film was expensive; people were precious about what they took because you had to develop it. It was an event." For us, all we deal with are gigabytes -- it's really cheap and we don't understand what it was to use film because we don't have to. Right now I have pictures from 2012 and 2013 on my phone and I keep getting this message that I'm out of storage. Today I realized that was the first time I couldn't actually take photos. Our whole culture, the way we take photos now, is completely different than it was not that long ago.

JD: When in the process did your mom find out you were doing this? What was her response?

DD: My mom never found out I was doing it, she just kept getting annoyed that I was nagging her all the time. I live in Portland, so because of the time difference, I try to call her every morning so I can talk to her on my walk to work. I'd say, "I know I asked you two weeks ago, can you send me those photo albums?" and she'd say, "I know, I'm sorry, I've got a million things to do." So it was this ongoing thing, and then I said I needed photos of me and she just said that was never going to happen because she didn't have them. Finally she made the mistake of saying she'd come across another album after sending the first, so I got on her tail to send me that one. She never thought anything of it because my whole life I've always asked for strange things for some art project, like, "Hey, Mom, I need fake hands from the nail salon for a project," so she was unfazed by it.

She realized what I'd done when I uploaded the photos to Facebook, which I thought was an interesting way to present it to her, given how we communicate now. There was something very weird about tagging myself and my mom in a photo from so long ago, because that's not something she's familiar with, or even I'd be familiar with, given the time period of the photos. I found that to be a weird layer of how I presented the project.

She left a comment where she was like, "This is so precious it makes me cry." The second one I posted was the baby one, and she left a comment saying, "Looks like you and I have the same hairdresser." Her mother cut her bangs, and my mother cut my bangs, so I was like, "That's your fault, that's totally you!" We had the same bangs, straight across. That was a similarity.


JD: How has the Internet community responded to the series?

DD: Really positively. It's been picked up quite a bit on viral blogs, and a lot of times on those things you see people who troll and leave nasty comments, and you're lucky if that hasn't happened to you, and I haven't seen anything like that come through, so I feel really lucky. It's a majority of women who are like, "This is a cool project, really beautiful." It's something people can relate to without words; you can figure it out without subtitles and have an emotional response to it, which is why I think it's been picked up internationally.

Someone made the comment that in the last picture I'm holding a Starbucks cup; I was actually very intentional about the outfits I wore, the objects I had, and the scenarios involved -- I put all those things in there as a way of reminding that I am from a different world. I wasn't trying to make myself be how I'd be in her world -- the fashion's different, you know, homecoming dresses are completely different, for instance, and you can see those differences. In the baby photo at the beginning -- you can't really tell because of how I'm positioned -- I'm wearing an Ariel shirt from The Little Mermaid. I didn't want to hide those things because I think it makes it more interesting. I wanted to put myself in her world as I was in mine; she's already been part of my world, she's known my world, she's always been part of it, so there's no reason to put her in it.

When I moved out to Portland, she had given me jewelry that was hers, and in one photo I'm wearing her bracelet. There's something very strange about that -- I shouldn't even say strange, though maybe that's the best way to describe it -- to be wearing something of hers while interacting with her before she ever owned it. It's another way of going back in time. It almost feels like a secret she's not in on: I have something of hers that she doesn't even know about.


JD: Do you feel like you learned anything about yourself or your mother you didn't already know?

DD: There was a point where I was digging through these photos so much -- I had them all over my desk at work, spread out all over my office area in general, and then I'd come home and they're spread out all over there, too -- it was like I was dissecting a mystery, finding two little girls who were lost and trying to bring them together. It was a way piecing things together to figure out these stories.

I learned that it's really easy to pass judgments on your parents. I think everybody does to some capacity, but you realize that you go through the same things they go through, and you can read those things through the ages: I started to notice when things were going really well for her, or a period where things maybe weren't as great. You just start to see certain things when you engross yourself in a different world that way. It was funny, at one point, I was really bummed out, and one of my friends said it might be because I'd seen something sad while I was digging through these photos so much, that I'd identified a part of her world I'd never seen before.

JD: Did your work in advertising have any influence on the project?

DD: Advertising's been a great venue for me to be conceptual, and if anything it's made me a more conceptual person. You have to figure out how to say something very quickly, in 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or in my case, an image. You learn how to do that nimbly.

JD: Do you have any plans for future series?

DD: Yeah, I do, it'll take some heavy digging, but I have some thoughts in mind...who knows if I can find that right imagery that'll work together again? We'll see.

I'm going to Lexington, my hometown, where all photos were taken, for Thanksgiving, so I've been calling around, looking for a needle in a haystack because it's kind of short notice, and I might've found a gallery to show it there. I wanted to have the first showing there because I felt like, these are all the people that knew us. There's something kind of weird about my mom's real childhood friends and my real childhood friends all together sharing these moments.

Another thing that happened recently is my mom said that she still knows the owners of the house where a majority of the photos were taken, her home growing up, and she was like, "If you want to go see it, I'm sure I could get us into it." She's said to me, "I look at that website every day, it's so special, it feels like déjà vu. All I want for Christmas is those photos framed." I thought how weird it would be if we took the same photos in those spaces at her old home, and then those moments would've actually happened, even though they also didn' would kind of solidify it, in a way.