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Friday, August 26, 2016

Documenting The Decay

While I would not say this essay is gin-powered, as such, gin was involved. Read at your own risk.

A reader pointed me to some pictures, a document of one man's dad's descent and eventual death from Alzheimer's. While I haven't been able to find a complete gallery, I've poked through some links and seen a bunch of samples. They're perfectly good pictures, and include some really very nice portraits as well as some very decent photojournalistic "story telling" pictures.

As the best of these things often do.

This is a genre, though, and it's the genre I want to talk about a little bit.

There's some historical precedent here. Leibovitz documented Sontag's death in something of the the same way. Sally Mann is working on her husband's muscular dystrophy. And then there are endless "When Jane's Husband Was Diagnosed, She Started Photographing. The Last Image Will Break Your Heart!" links infesting the clickbait grids across the internet. It's a genre.

I'm always harping on and on about emotional connection, about how the artist needs to have some sort of genuine emotional response to what's in front of the lens. These things certainly have that, don't they? I mean, a loved one slowly dying, wow. It doesn't get more personal and emotional than that. And that, I think, is why even the least of these things has a lot of genuine emotional power. It's real (although it's only a matter of time before someone gets busted for faking one). Still, I find that these things leave me a little chilly.

Let's poke at a couple. Sally Mann's work in progress is Mann doing her usual thing. Dark, moody, semi-abstracted details. She's digging, deep, for the heart of the thing itself. It's in there someplace. Closeups of weakened limbs. The man's profile. I read this as Mann showing us what MD does, and leaving it up to us to make something of it. For the moment, anyway. I assume she's making something eventually that actually destroys the viewer.

Leibovitz is more like the things we see these days, the slowly sagging, slowly sicker figure, the hospital bed, the grave. All done with strong Leibovitz notes throughout, often an elegant frame but genuine moments. Rather than the huddle of earnest medical staff in the hospital hallway, there's a photo of the Sontag's son in the waiting room, slouched and reading a newspaper, as one does. Sontag looks like shit on her last day in the hospital. It feels less stagey, less carefully selected to Tell The Story than the modern versions do.

We have, I assume, all seen at least one of the other sort. The photographers rather fancy themselves Time Magazine essayists, so they're offering crisp black and white pictures of: the subject hale and hearty, the subject gets diagnosed, the medical staff consult worriedly with the family, the subject bears up bravely while looking worse and worse, the subject looks awful, the empty hospital bed.

The last style, by overtly seeking the sentimental, manages instead to crush it with a sort of formulaic and overwrought treatment. The sentiment is the sentiment of the romance novel, not of Faulkner. These times are difficult, but complex. There is relief as well as grief at the end. There is boredom, vast swathes of boredom, in the weeks and months leading up to the end. The dying person does not always bear up all that bravely. By leaving these things out, by distilling it to the Great Fall and Sorrow, the modern format reduces the whole thing to a sort of stagey veneer, too thin. Two dimensional. Mann and Leibovitz go much further, distilling the whole thing down much more, but rather than thinning it out, they're concentrating it, to my eye. We see only a fragment of the whole, but a very genuine fragment. A fully realized, deeply felt, fragment. A fragment with three full dimensions.

Even worse, the modern format, by concentrating on the Great Loss aspects, create more problems. By distilling the misery and loss out, they distill the thankfully, it's not me and the, for want of a better phrase, misery-porn, which comes out to the same thing. This doesn't mean that the pictures are bad, or not genuine. It doesn't mean that the pictures are not deeply affecting, powerful in their own limited way. They often, even usually, are. What it does mean is that the artist is struggling to justify the work, which is ultimately not fully realized, which is ultimately thin.

These things are deeply personal. For the most part, these essays strive to bring out the individuals as individuals. This is Bob, he's dying. This is Emily, Bob's loving wife. The were married in 1804 and have lived permanently embraced in one another's arms for the intervening 212 years, etcetera. These details, while making the individual story accessible, personal, also provide us with that valuable distance from which we can breathe our sigh of relief. For this, and for reasons noted above, the creators should feel the need to justify the work. It is thin, it is personal. Why do I, a stranger, want to look at it?

Of course, in a lot of cases, they're also processing their own grief. They want to do something to cure whatever it was that killed dad, or mom, or their little sister. I get it, but that too is personal. Your grief is not my grief. Adding insult to injury, it's not really within the power of one person to move the needle on an Alzheimer's cure, or whatever.


There's some nubbin of something in here, I think. By all means, make your Time Magazine essay. This is an important time. Record it and remember it as you see fit. If you want to elide the boredom of the waiting room, go ahead. If you would prefer to forget the relief at the end, go for it. But be advised that your essay is -- for other people -- a bit thin. The two-dimensionality of the material that, in the end, you're willing to share, will come through. If, on the other hand, you want to make your lover's demise something worthwhile, try for all three dimensions.


1 comment:

  1. If the photographs showed you the character of the deceased, their quirks and triumphs and thick skull-ness, their sneering and laughing and crying, would you be interested? I would, those photographs would move me by showing me the person, not the empty shell that is soon to be. I believe there are four things that are our downfall:
    We care for who we know, to the exclusion of everyone else (hence the photographs need to show me the person, not the occasion).
    We normalize everything: what the many do equals to what is logical, correct and morally good.
    We victimize the victim and side with the powerful
    We compartmentalize, we see the thorn in someone's eye, but we don't see the pole sticking out of our eye.
    Oh well