(FOAM Blog repost #3) The Look of Love: On Sharing Intimacies and the Limits of Intention by Ken Schles
About six weeks ago both my aged parents died. They had a dual funeral. Their coffins were lowered side by side, simultaneously into their grave. After hearing of this, more than one person has asked me if they were in an accident. There had been no accident. They died independently of each other, in separate facilities about 30 hours apart. Mom died two days short of her 87th birthday. Dad followed suit. He was 94. Because he had been in hospice for three weeks, his death was imminent and expected. And in fact, I got a call that he was dying four hours before I got the call telling me my mother had become unresponsive. They were together for most of their 67-year marriage. For some years they both suffered from dementia. Neither of them was in a catatonic state when they died, although my father seemed to live his last few years in a half world: something between a waking state and a dream state. He had to be sedated and given antipsychotic medications. At the end he became increasingly silent or gave one-word monosyllabic responses when compelled to respond. That said, he was always happy to see me and greeted me like an old friend with a broad smile and a lingering handshake. He saw trees growing in basements at night and one of his last requests was to be wheeled outside so he could see a bush. He once “wandered” and was found by a passing police cruiser lying unconscious in a ditch by the side of the road just before dawn. Barefoot and wearing only thin cotton pajamas on a cold Thanksgiving morn, he edged towards hypothermia and had defecated all over himself. Afterwards, I asked him where he thought he was going. He said he was trying to get home. I asked him where he thought home was. He described a place that never existed, a home that was a conflation of two places where he once lived long ago: one, his childhood home, the other was the first house he lived in after he married. He described being lost in the woods at Prospect Park (which is close to where I now live, some 35 miles away) and of being trapped in a fenced in area, yelling obscenities at a stranger—a small child who may or may not have been real—and of wanting to break into locked cars by shattering a window with a rock so he could get out of the cold and warm himself. He was trapped in a wilderness, both metaphorically and in fact. After that incident we moved him to a locked ward. A year and a half later, in the hospice where he spent his last days, he would spit at or try to bite the attendants who would try to clean him or change his diaper after he shit himself. My mother, who remained more “aware,” had fallen a few months earlier while alone in her room. She passed out upon standing due to a potassium imbalance and broke two ribs. They crumpled like sheets of paper in that, the slightest of falls. I was already on my way to pick her up to take her to the oncologist to try and figure out what we could do about the reoccurrence of her breast cancer, which, due to her weakened condition from age, dementia and a prolonged battle with diabetes, was deemed to be inoperable. Six hours in an emergency room and two IV’s of morphine told me she was headed to the edge of her last precipice. My father at this time was in the same hospital having been admitted for a bout of pneumonia. He had a mild heart attack the previous week while in the hospital’s care. Unable to get them into the same room this time out, they would soon share a few last weeks together at a convalescent home before returning to separate rooms, in this same hospital, for treatment of new and unrelated complications. They spent their final weeks apart in different facilities. With their deaths whole histories of experience were wiped out—whole histories that reached far into the previous century—whole histories they had already forgotten.
During this past year, and as I get ready to make a reprint of my first book, Invisible City, I became curious to revisit my early contact sheets. About a year ago I went through the original material considered for that book and put together a maquette of pulled images and text. That material was originally not used because I felt it pushed the book in directions I hadn’t wanted. But I always knew there was material to explore there. Over the last months I made the time to go over six years of contact sheets. I scoured and scanned familiar and unfamiliar territory. Perhaps it was my state of mind, but I can’t help but be struck with the fact that many of the people in those early contact sheets are also now dead. As I look at this picture here from those Invisible City days, I see a young face of a lover looking back at me, my hand in her hair, and I cannot help but be reminded of this starkly different picture of my father taken a few weeks before his death. Starkly different, yes, but they both seem to share certain formal and emotional qualities. I can’t help but notice their connection even though they were taken at such different times in my life and under such different circumstances.
Each of us experiences the world in unique and profound ways. Irreproducible and irreplaceable, every experience leads us along a path that connects the present to memory, to language and to culture. Experience, therefore, is a kind of conflation. Our experiences may remain uniquely personal but because we relate them and relate to them socially, they connect us back through culture and language to collectively held beliefs and commonly understood (communicable) thoughts, emotions and ideas. Our experiences are transformed through language as we apply language to them in our attempt to make sense of them.
Images represent and project experience—they are expressions of being. And we create photographs in particular moments in time and place to carry and communicate images forward among us and between us. And it should be taken as a self-evident fact that our creations always contain meanings outside our efforts to make them conform to any one particular meaning—for they (many times) project a deep intimacy that transcends (and transforms) the moment of their creation. Our photographs exist as something both mute and telling. They convey meanings that shift with time and place and context and the interpretations of others. The meanings contained in our images are both inimitable and unbounded and, at times, defy intention.
Announcement: my Invisible City work is on view at the Istanbul Photography Museum now through August 31st.