interviewing the interviewer
martha C. gregory
On mute, Three Red Sweaters presents itself as a visual archive of the pinnacle fifties, sixties and seventies in middle America, an ostensibly nontrivial and whimsical time for the multigenerational Gregorys to flail in the bronzing Pacifica. The scenes look choreographed and precomposed, playful subjects seemingly supplied with toys that comprise childhood like kites and bikes and rollerblades though they are not exclusive to the children; in this family, the line between adolescence and dotage is divided only by physicalities—all are beholden to an infantile wanderlust that is encapsulated by a grandfather with a Super 8.
Now unmute, play, and wonder: was the photographer ever really there?
Filmmaker Martha Gregory is doubtful about the preservation of memory.
BTL: In Three Red Sweaters, you interrogate where the value lies in a photo when it detracts the photographer from reveling in the moment. Your grandfather says that photography is actually a multiplier, that the moment itself, the moment the photo is preserved in a book, and then the reflection thereafter all extend the lifetime of the memory. In your mind, does this increase the merit of a photograph, or are you still concerned with people living in the here and now?
I think for my grandfather, while taking photographs of treasured moments was indeed a multiplier, it was also one of the ways he himself felt most immersed in the moment. There are some moments, especially as a filmmaker, when I do feel being behind the camera makes me feel more connected to what is happening around me. However, I have also developed a habit of catching myself sometimes as I get my phone out to snap a photo and then as I'm looking at the screen feeling very strongly that I'm not seeing this event in real life but through a vessel and that usually makes me feel sad enough to put my phone away.
BTL: Do you think the ability to pilfer through hundreds of photos on our phones to find the right one invalidates the representation of a moment, or does it create the opportunity to curate it in its best light?
I love this question. It gets to the heart of what I was grappling with in terms of my own documentary habits as a member of my generation who owns a smart phone, admittedly spends a lot of time on instagram and thinks (probably too much) about how others see me.
For me, what separates valid from invalid representation is the intention with which you take the photo. Are you taking photos with the intention of posting them immediately so that your friends can see what you're doing right now? So that you can feel their validation of you with their likes? So that you can feel like an active participant on social media? So that others "see" you? Or are you taking this photo so that you can have it forever? Will you always treasure the memory of this fancy meal or will it be supplanted next week by your next brunch?
I also feel like these things are not mutually exclusive. Your intentions can be wrapped up in both of those things; I find mine often are. Snapping pictures of my six year old niece is a great example of this dichotomy. I want my friends to immediately see how quirky and amazing she is but I also want to have photos of her forever.
Intention can be vapid, self-serving or self aggrandizing and it can also be complex, nuanced and pure.
Perhaps it's a contradiction but I'm very intentional and curatorial in my approach to my instagram feed. I also grew up taking photos on rolls of film so I've retained a certain amount of conservatism in that respect. I don't like to overshare or post constantly and as a result it has almost accidentally become a nice representation of the last 5ish years of my life. Of course it doesn't contain sad or emotionally ugly moments really but I still know what photos I took when I was feeling sad after a breakup or lost in my life and I like that.
Instagram specifically is a strange mixture of earnestness and narcissism that I think we'll be unpacking as a society for centuries to come.
BTL: On a separate note, it seemed that your line of questioning was orbiting an ulterior exploration more interpersonally motivated in regard to your relationship with your grandfather, especially given the part about his physical health. Was there something else at the nucleus of the film that wasn't explicitly investigated?
As I started to realize he wouldn't survive to see the project completed, I think there was a part of me that wanted to know if it all had worked. If he felt now, as his life was ending, that all the documenting, all the saving for later, all the preservation had added up to a fuller life. I both wanted to know for his sake but also for my own. I have always been a saver of tokens, photographs, a keeper of journals. I guess I was wondering if he could tell me, given the experience of being closer to death, that it is the right thing to do? Or does the preservation process remove you from living life more fully? I wanted to know if it had succeeded in keeping more of his memories for him so that he might have them with him before he died. Perhaps also, on a more fundamental level, I was also curious about what it is to be so close to the end of a long, well lived life.
BTL: What, if anything, was resolved for you through the production of Three Red Sweaters?
I learned that making art about your family is hard but incredibly rewarding. This project also reinforced my deep interest in memory as a theme in my work especially as it relates to filmmaking both abstractly and aesthetically. On a more personal level, it really did help me understand more about my grandfather and the ways in which he showed his love for his family through his own photographic language.