Family Album

A retrospective assessment by the organizer of HCP's second exhibition, the moving documentary account of illness and old age, Chillysmith Farm, which ran from September 4th to 26th last year.

The second exhibition sponsored by the Houston Center for Photography, Chillysmith Farm was based on the book Gramp, published first in 1976 by Grossman Publishers and in 1973 by Penguin Books. The book describes the last three years in the life of Frank Tugend, Mark and Dan Jury's grandfather. Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, made Gramp's last years an extraordinary ordeal for his family. From his initial periods of confusion and absent-mindedness to his loss of control of his bowels and his final refusal to eat, the family never institutionalized him. The words and pictures record their efforts to care for him.

The exhibition was named after some of the imaginary creatures that inhabited Gramp's world. Divided into three parts, the pictures in the exhibition extend the time of the book by including the illness and death of Nan, Gramp's wife, and the birth of Mark and Dee's third child. In addition to the exhibition, a movie covering the same three events was shown during the opening of the exhibition.

The book Gramp is a comprehensive tribute to Frank Tugend. Nine pages of introductory pictures describe Gramp from the age of eight, through his years of working in the Pennsylvania mines, building a house for his family, losing his son in World War II. These pictures set the stage for what follows: a privileged look inside one family's album. If we compare this group of pictures with Richard Avedon's portraits of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon (recently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Target III Sequences show), the stylistic differences clarify the functional intentions of the different photographers. Avedon's portrait and fashion experience intensifies the changes in his father by isolating his face against white. His father's physical deterioration (as a result of cancer) is mimicked by the increased grain and blurriness, the changes from large format to small, from static to motion, from studio light to hospital light, from business suit to hospital white. The unflinching concentration and purity of Avedon's approach intensifies our awareness of his father's changes. We are made to feel the loss of this man through the loss of the image clarity.

Mark and Dan Jury on the other hand are giving us pages from their family album, snapshots of their lives. They want us to understand the situation, their feelings of respect and love for Gramp, the difficulties of caring for his physical needs. The intensity is less, spread over many pictures, but our knowledge is greater: the behavior that accompanied the visual changes, how the changes affected the family, even the look of the house and the changes in Gramp's room.

I don’t mean these are snapshots as defined by innocence and ineptness. They are intelligent, well-crafted pictures. But they function as pictures from an album in that the subject is most important (not the photographer's skills); the activities are intimate family scenes (picnics, gardening, dressing, everyday activities that we don't expect in serious pictures); and the pictures are modified by or rely upon captions to provide the significance (in the way that captions in family albums tell who, what, when, where).

Two additional ways in which these pictures function as an album are particularly noteworthy because through the subversion of the conventions we understand the confusion in Gramp's mind. Family albums mark time through the rituals of birthdays, weddings, baptisms, and the physical changes of taller children, different clothes, new cars, less hair. (Here the rituals of childhood that are so faithfully recorded are happening to a grown man at the end of his life: being fed, taken to the toilet, diapers changed.) And pride of ownership appears in family albums when someone has caught a fish, bought a new home, married a new wife, killed a deer. (Gramp's confusion as to the order of things is evident in his attempts to present bouquets of weeds, or proudly possess rolls of toilet paper, or eat napkins,)

This is photography used in a very personal way. Instead of trying to make the familiar world more interesting by seeing it in unfamiliar ways, Gramp is an attempt to make the unfamiliar behavior of the Jurys' grandfather less threatening, to order that disorder through the ritual of photography. The function of photographing was to connect themselves to what was happening. They remained aware of their own experience, and considered it worthy of acknowledgement; they did not go to a mental hospital looking for metaphors nor escape to creative photography to transcend the problem.
The look of the photographs suggests someone there, helping change Gramp's diapers, reaching for the camera, snapping a picture from inside the situation.

If the pictures had been formally more adventurous, if they had been more dramatic, less like snapshots, if these two photographers had experimented with double-exposure or infrared, printed them on platinum, would we have felt ourselves there, been able to put ourselves in their places, would we ask ourselves the question: what will it be like for me to grow old?

They raise no questions of technique, few questions of art. Their vocabulary is essentially family snapshot.

All of these comments have been about Gramp the book. Chillysmith Farm, the exhibition, suffers in comparison. Isolation by matts in gallery white automatically implies we should consider each as a work of art, judge them on their merits as individual pictures, weigh one against the other, ask which is better, which do you want to buy?

The movie, however, was even more convincing than the book. Perhaps we accept the flashbacks and gaps more readily in film. Even though films don't show continuous time, we accept the episodic, edited version as real time, assuming we would have experienced it the same way if we had been there.

The pictures as presented in the book do that for me. It is my own grandfather that I see, my guilt for not doing the same for him, the question of how I’ll treat my own parents when their mortality becomes so painfully obvious.

As a male, I can look at the sequence of birth to satisfy my curiosity, secure that it will never happen to me. The pain belongs to someone else. My sympathy retains its distance. I remember being touched by the intimacy of Dee and her children, enjoyed sharing their fascination with these changes in her body. But I remain excluded from the process. These pictures are the father's point of view: watching, caring, but not knowing. We never see the father interacting with the pregnant woman, only the innocent three-year-old son. The camera has become journalist, reporting from the role of spectator, the male observer.

A large percentage of the pictures in this section are of the delivery. The camera is always from the other end, outside looking in, looking down. The camera is in control, aloof, observing her pain and vulnerability. I imagine her embarrassment (humiliation) of being seen from that point of view, in that way. Not in control.

Suddenly, it is clear to me. The fear in Gramp is my fear of not being in control. My bowels, my mind, my life: all my life of mastering the controls and now it's all taken away. Lost.

Dead, so what. You're dead, you're dead. But the part before that, alive and kicking but no longer in control.

I intended to conclude with an observation about Avedon's portraits. The overwhelming devastation of those pictures leaves no room for other action. He has been stripped of all props, all references to life, and in that final fading away, we don't have anything to hold on to.

Initially, I sought in Chillysmith Farm an alternative to that nihilism, the possibility of other courses of action. Not the easy consolation of birth following death but life preceding death. That human action is possible, not to keep death from happening, but to keep us from feeling totally helpless. I wanted to believe that death is not something that must happen in private, secret, ashamed, a failure. But I can see myself in Gramp's family album. It is not a nostalgic illusion but a clear description of loss of-control.

I’ve talked about the act of photographing, the social situation, the role of photographer, the function of the pictures, the relation of the photographer to the subject, rather than the aesthetic composition, the framing, the exposure, because art photography, like television, is never going to offer insight to a difficult situation. It will continue to rely on the familiar strings to pull our heart throbs, or borrow sophistication through stylistic similarities to high art (i.e., painting).

The religions of immortality (Christ), transcendence (Abstract Expressionism), fantasy (Surrealism), and idealism (Romanticism) offer denial; the simple pictures of this family album offer acceptance.

By Paul Hester