The Hollow Victory of Death

by April Rapier

Exploding Into Life, text by Dorothea Lynch, photographs by Eugene Richards published by Aperture, New York, 1986.
Dorothea Lynch was, by many accounts, a woman blessed with the spirit of living. She graced others with an empathetic understanding when her own life-threatening crisis arose, she called upon that same empathetic reserve, removing herself from the pain of an impending mortality in order that that the record be clear and helpful. In Exploding Into Life, with text by Lynch and photographs by Eugene Richards, the simplicity of feeling and portrayal draws our paradoxical relations between opposites – hope and despair, sorrow and joy, loving and selfishness – and how they work around an influence each other until the lines are finally and fully blurred. This is a powerful and unforgettable account of the cause and effect between basic emotions called to the trenches when the shit hits the fan.
At first glance, the task of photo-documenting the illness and decline of one’s longtime companion seems out-of-hand, impossible short of a descent into an emotionally muddled realm. Richards’ photographs recognize and celebrate the same joy and triumph that emerged through the despair of cancer, the triumph of knowing one’s own life well enough to get on with the living of it while time exists. Occasionally it becomes difficult to recall where a piece of information was derived from, so beautifully do the pictures and text merge as a complete history. Few, if any attempts were made by either Lynch or Richards to romanticize or idealize the hopelessness of death at a too-early age. It is an honest account, painfully so; one tries to disengage from Lynch’s steady gaze through tears of outrage and premature acceptance, only to be drawn immediately back, oddly comforted. There is great peace in Lynch’s truth. Neither journalistic embellishments nor euphemisms take the place of reality in Lynch’s journal, nor does Richards shy from the misery of, for example, chemotherapy sickness. But for Lynch this abnormality is converted to a fact of (altered) life, reckoned with objectively and positively.
This account ostensibly serves many groups, from cancer patients to surviving family members, counselors to oncologists. The photographs aren’t a mere time-compressed record of their lives – they serve as a guide, from surgical scars to X-rays to loss of sexual identity and appetite. Lynch, in the text, addresses the issue of photo-documentation: “Maybe you should make photographs of the whole thing. If there aren’t any pictures of mastectomies, maybe you should take pictures of mine.” “No,” Gene says looking upset, “No, I couldn’t. We have no permission to photograph inside the hospital. And a camera would be in the way when I’m with you.” “Come on,” I bully him. “You’re always criticizing me and our friends for not recording the important events in our lives.” So began the draconian labyrinth of procuring permission, symbolic of the loss of control experienced when being treated (and usually experimented upon in the process). The documentation thus extended to other patients, a full-hearted, generous, and necessary gesture that was treated with suspicion and guilt by the medical community and the families of patients, and greeted with acceptance and understanding by the patients themselves.
Fear rises and swells throughout the text, as each new encounter with cancer is faced. Yet Lynch’s beauty is a constant, her humanism and caring overshadowing all else. One image of Lynch at an elderly patient’s in-hospital birthday party shows the “guests” wearing party hats. As surreal and sad as the atmosphere might have been, Lynch is radiant, a complete participant. Part two of the book, the treatment, removed Lynch from everything that was familiar. She was impounded in the cold steel and harsh light of hospital sterility, routinely tortured with toxic drugs and radiation, in the hope that her cur would be the one that took, in spite of the odds and a grim family history. In no way did she attempt to be instructive, which accounts for the success of her attacks on the seeming absurdity of the procedures, the indefensible medicalese that doctors fall back on when the simple truth is too difficult to deal with. She also encountered some unfathomable and cruel, if well-meaning characters along the way, whose ignorant theorizing indoctrinated listeners with terror. She debunked the various agonies and annoyances elegantly, empowering those who encountered her.
Richards’ photographs of other cancer patients range from straight forward and illustrative to abstract and dreamlike, the latter especially when Lynch in included in the image (as in one picture of a woman sitting beside her bed, tubes connecting her to a machine outside the frame, and, one presumes, Lynch’s hands extended toward the woman from across the bed, a serence reassurance). Many of the photographs were made in low light, the shadows and darkness and TV glow ominous and appropriate foreshadowing. In the photographs of Lynch, the passage of time is marked by a bald head (the result of chemotherapy) slowly growing hair, as well as events drawing the two back into the work (the Seabrook protest – “Nukes=Cancer”,, the birth of a friend’s baby). Patients die, patients who, in the course of the research became friends. In this arena, her frustrations find voice, for she is helpless to do more than record the losses. Lynch continued, her wait, one is certain, prescient. And then, several years later, a recurrence, the decline rapid, relentless, Richards’ first photograph in this phase of the book is perhaps the most beautiful, resignation and peace acting like a veil over Lynch, filtering and protecting her. Subsequent images reflect a wide-eyed euphoria, born of disbelief; Lynch’s writing became disjointed an infrequent, a result of the drugs she was given as treatment. She began to confine her observations to that which she understood: garden growing, medication, love, goodbyes.
Richards’ postscript, dated October 7, 1985, is equally eloquent and moving. The first paragraph reads:
For almost two years I have been sleeping half on the floor or against the wall, not wanting tot move Dorothea’s notebooks and diaries off my bed. On hot humid nights, papers, loose from their binding, stick to my back and my shoulders; in winter, when I try to turn over, they crackle like dried leaves. Still, I can’t move them. Almost everything else that belonged to her – clothes, car, jewelry – has been donated to charity, sold, or carried off by friends.
At this point in the book and this review, my tears begin; I only wish my father and I could have read Lynch’s and Richards’ account together before his death. Cancer’s victory over Lynch is hollow, so strong is her reverberation through her words and Richards’ pictures. The book is a loving and lasting tribute, a legacy for everyone to witness.