In a photo, Hannah Altman sits on a bed, hugging her knee and cradling her mother’s head on her chest. A lamp mounted on the wall casts a warm glow on an otherwise somber scene.
In another, they sit in the same room, now emptied of everything but the lamp and a file cabinet. Altman and her mother, both dressed in black, sit side by side on the floor and look directly at the camera.
The photos mark two days, a year apart: the first taken as they awaited the death of Altman’s grandmother; the second at her grandmother’s tombstone unveiling, a Jewish tradition marking the end of the mourning period.
“I think about those images together a lot,” Altman says. “The making of [the first photo] was very quiet. Everyone was sitting around waiting for the inevitable. There was no talking involved. We didn’t really look at that image for a while.
“After the unveiling, we went back to the house and all of the furniture had been cleared out of that room. So, we just sat on the floor and made something. That can’t be planned.”
For more than five years, Altman has been making portraits of herself and her mother for her series Indoor Voices. Each is carefully curated and staged, yet open to the organic nature of the moment. In one, they sit on their knees with their backs to the camera, foreheads touching and arms wrapped around one another. In another, they delicately clutch lemons while sunlight softly illuminates their faces.
“They’re set in real life,” she says, “but there’s something about them that’s a little off kilter, or arranged.”
Down the Shore, 2017
In Her Childhood Home While Her Mother Lay Dying, 2017
Keeping Time, 2019
Passover (Home Ritual), 2018
Shabbos Candles, 2018
Tzitzit (Threads) I, 2019
Washing the Dead (Funeral for a Beetle)
Altman’s choices—from lighting to the arrangement of objects—feel intentional in the moment, but take on new meaning when she revisits them later.
“It’s this weird 20/20 hindsight where we’ll make something because I wanted to explore an idea or use this setup,” she says. “Then, two years later, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, this was a really stressful time in our lives, or this was a really good year.’ It’s nice to have these documents that feel a little bit separate from phone photos or family albums.”
Indoor Voices and another series, Kavana, have been Altman’s focus as a graduate student in the VCUarts Department of Photography + Film. The two series incorporate symbols of womanhood, family and Judaica to create narratives that explore Jewish ideology, feminine behavior and performed gender.
“Photography has been the thing that my entire world rotates around,” she says. “It’s always been a steady constant to explore different ideas.”
Earlier this year, she had the opportunity to show her work during a solo exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and will present new work from both series during the first round VCUarts MFA thesis exhibition in April.
And the next time Altman finds herself back in her childhood home, her mother might turn to her and ask if they’re photographing today.
“I don’t know if she would say it’s collaborative, but I certainly think it is,” she says. “It’s an interesting way to make an archive—even if it’s something performed or a little fictitious. It’s still real.”
Lead image: In Her Childhood Home While Her Mother Lay Dying, 2017, by Hannah Altman.