A Photographic Memory

Directed by Rachel Elizabeth Seed. 

Thirty years after her mother’s death, photographer Rachel Elizabeth Seed discovers her mother Sheila Turner-Seed’s work—interviews with some of the greatest photographers of the 20th Century, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and W. Eugene Smith—in her father’s garage. When she threads the audio reels and presses play, she hears her mother’s voice for the first time since she was a baby. Rachel finds it familiar and comforting, and is transformed by the experience. Wanting to know more about her mother and to revitalize and honor her work, Rachel revisits the photographers, as well as her mother’s friends and family, to learn who Sheila was while also looking at how photography can help preserve memory and reconnect us with those we have lost. Through this process, Rachel gains a sense of connection to her mother by discovering how much they have in common: their looks, ambition, career paths, and desire to settle down and have a family. However, in order to move on with her own life, Rachel comes to realize she must set herself apart from Sheila, and to do that must find out if she has the same genetic predisposition to early death that took her mother’s life. Rachel’s ability to forge her own path hinges on these medical results.
During the course of the film, the viewer accompanies Rachel as she tracks down New York street photographer Bruce Davidson, British war photographer Don McCullin, National Geographic’s William Albert Allard, International Center of Photography founder and photographer Cornell Capa, and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s widow, Magnum photographer, Martine Franck. Rachel also visits her mother’s family, friends and colleagues to expand on her knowledge about Sheila as a friend, lover, artist and relative. Interwoven with Rachel’s interviews are Sheila’s groundbreaking conversations with the photographers; Kodachrome Super 8 home movies; photographs by the featured photographers; Sheila’s prolific contact sheets and negatives that provide a visual journal of her last years; audio letters; and excerpts from her mother’s journals. This media is edited into a posthumous, nonlinear, mother-daughter collaboration that revitalizes Sheila’s creative legacy and speaks to the themes of memory, loss, and inheritance, and what it means to grow up motherless.