Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT
Family Portrait, 1996
Family Portrait was created in 1996 as a photographic tableau and a “memento mori” of personal loss. My middle brother, an AIDS doctor, died suddenly in the prime of his life.
My mother’s death from a brief, terminal illness followed soon after. My father’s death in 1979 had also been sudden and unexpected. Acutely aware of the finite nature of an individual life, the randomness of its ending, and of photography’s relationship to time I set out to make an artwork that would express my own profound grief. I wished to contain within it the visceral equivalent of mourning, and to resurrect the presence of that which is absent, a yearning often evoked by bereavement.
Family Portrait (shown on the center wall), consists of seven positive prints. By shooting with color film but limiting my palette, I created a symbolic sequence of my family. The black (shadow/death) images were created through the absence of exposure; no subject matter was photographed; and no light reached the film. The white images (radiance/life) were created through exposure to a white rectangle illuminated by bright light. The pairing of white and black not only describes a particular family’s loss, but also reflects the digital era’s use of a visual binary code: black as zero, white as one.
While working on these photographs, I realized that all the negatives looked very much alike, whether the positive image was black or white. While I intellectually understood that life and death are part of the same cycle, in photographing Family Portrait, I had discovered an uncanny representation of this universal truth. I decided to address the complexities found in the simultaneous activities of living and dying by displaying the usually discarded Polaroid negatives along with the positives, making two separate but interconnected artworks. These negatives contain the memory of their opposites, and like individual family members, they look similar but are different.
Family Portrait, 1999
In 1998 Polaroid introduced a new black and white film for the 20 X 24 camera, prompting me to create another version of Family Portrait in 1999, exhibited here on the right. In this piece I abandoned the positives altogether, keeping only the negatives. The whitish-gray patina left on this new film reminded me of the aged surfaces of cemetery markers, while the seven negatives in the 1996 version had resembled open graves or burial pits.
The three Family Portraits not only stand as a symbol of our mortality, but the sequence of seven all in a row represent the death of a particular family unit. Without parents, one feels orphaned; without the experience of having a living mother one may find it difficult to imagine family life; and with the premature loss of a loved sibling, one’s shared childhood memories and family history are painfully missed.
The history of photography begins with the negative image. William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) the British inventor of paper photography, discovered in 1834 that a fern leaf placed on light-sensitive paper and exposed to the sun introduced a negative photographic print, called a photogram. This record of the leaf’s outline had reversed its tones in ghost-like shadows. The photogram was later contact printed to make a positive (1840), thus the duality and axis of the negative-to-positive process, rich in metaphors, serves as a foundation for all photography.
A version of the history of art has art’s beginning with the negative image. A Greek fable told by Pliny the Elder describes art’s origins in the story of two lovers who are parting due to war. The woman traces the shadow of the head and shoulders of her departing beloved on a wall. The shape that remains is later rendered in three dimensions in clay to create a sculptural relief. This fable suggests that the first work of art was made from the need for a remembrance of love coupled with the anticipation of its loss through death.