Why I'm Making Art About Death

When people hear the word ‘grief’, many things come to mind in addition to bereavement, so a lot of people have asked me why I’m focusing only on death in my new project Grief Landscapes. As someone who is deeply interested in people’s stories, and who tends to want to include everyone in everything I do, drawing a line around the project sometimes feels hard. I know there is a lot of pain out there, and I think that pain is often lessened by sharing our stories of loss, no matter what those losses are. 

I’m restricting the scope of the project because the number of stories out there about death alone are overwhelming, but also because I’m deeply curious about how different people learn to live with the specific permanence of death. Maybe it’s also because I’m now in my forties—isn’t that the typical time when we turn to thoughts of the second half of our lives and what’s inevitably in front of us?

Ball, 2001

Ball, 2001

It’s interesting though, because when I look back at many of my projects, I’ve noticed that I often make a new body of work to deal with specific losses and changes in my life. The first photography project I ever did was documenting old playgrounds in New York City in the fall of 2001, shortly after September 11, when loss and grief had enveloped the city. I didn’t have a direct connection to anyone who died in the terrorist attacks, but it was impossible to be living in New York then and not absorb in some way the impact of those immense losses. In the shadow of all that, I found myself drawn towards documenting these old metal play structures—geometric jungle gyms, a lone merry-go-round, skyscraper slides. 

Slide 2, 2001

Slide 2, 2001

I loved those structures because they reminded me of my childhood, which was comforting, and I was also at that point having a quarter-life crisis. I was in my late 20’s, confused about what I was doing with my life, and although it probably sounds naive, it was possibly the first time I was really confronting what it meant to have things change around me so drastically. The inevitability of change ended up becoming literal through the project, as much of the equipment that I photographed was torn down only weeks after I took the photos.

I didn’t set out to do a project about loss, but it ended up becoming one, even if the connection was oblique. The children who ended up in the photographs were cut off, facing away from the camera, or running ghost-like through the frame. The one little girl whose face you see is in a domed cage-like jungle gym and looks a little scared, with an adult figure in black behind her. I ended up calling the project This Playground Closes at Dusk, based on the signs posted at the entrances to the playgrounds.

Child, 2001

Child, 2001

In a larger sense I guess I’m continually drawn to making work about what it means to deal with change and loss on multiple levels, and how those changes transform us and our relationship to the world. And I find myself wondering whether one has an easier time dealing with change if you’ve already lived through a specific type of grief about the ultimate change: the disappearance of someone who was in the world, and then wasn’t.

I don’t know where this project will go, and who knows? Maybe there will come a point where I will open Grief Landscapes up to other categories of loss. But for now, I’m finding that there is so much variety and diversity in people’s stories of bereavement, and enough challenge in capturing each unique account, that I’ll have my hands full for a while.

Leave a comment to let me know what you think about the relationship between death and other kinds of loss in your life. Has experiencing the death of someone close to you made it easier to deal with change and loss subsequently?

Questions

I’ve always been a big question asker (I think it comes with the territory of being extroverted and very curious about other people). Perhaps it runs in the family, because my father was notorious for asking question after question of my friends when I brought them around. When I was younger, I would sometimes get embarrassed, but more often than not, my friends felt flattered that my dad cared enough to ask about who they were. 

So it’s not a surprise that a big part of my art process involves asking questions. To some degree all art involves artistic research and questions, no matter what form one is working in. In my case though, I’ve found over the past few years that my questions have become more explicit. 

It started with the first Greetings From Motherland workshop that I ran. Since that project was originally sparked by my curiosity about how other mothers felt about their transitions to motherhood, I started the first session by having everyone brainstorm what they would ask other mothers if they could ask them anything. The women exploded with questions, and I think in ten minutes we had about fifty. “What would you have changed about the first year?” “In those very first moments after you met your child, what were you really thinking?” "How did having a baby affect your body and the way you felt about it?” “When was the loneliest time as a new mom?” “How did becoming a mother affect your relationship with your partner?” and so on. Those questions become the basis for many of the artistic experiments we did during the workshops. We wrote and photographed in response to the questions, and we went out and interviewed other mothers using those questions too. 

                              The Way the World Works

All of that material came together in the final pieces we produced. The writing, the text from the interviews, and the photographs ended up as a moveable cardboard brick sculpture called The Way The World Works, in which audience members were invited to read the testimonies on the bricks and build with them too (although it was the kids who played with the sculpture the most). We also realized we wanted to gather more stories, so at the last minute we decided to set up a postcard rack and give other mothers attending the show the opportunity to write in response to the same questions we had originally brainstormed. They could choose the questions randomly from a bowl, answer anonymously if they liked, and then add their postcards to the rack. It was exciting to see people respond eagerly to the opportunity to share their real feelings and stories in response to the questions that had started the whole project (you can read some examples here).

Mothers responding to questions. That's my dad in the upper right corner, and fittingly, he really liked this installation.

Mothers responding to questions. That's my dad in the upper right corner, and fittingly, he really liked this installation.

The postcard rack continued to be an important part of the Greetings From Motherland research for the next few years, and I used the process of starting workshops by brainstorming questions in many subsequent groups. For the final Motherland project that culminated in Landing Gear, we actually started with no topic at all—everything grew out of the initial questions, so we could get a read on what people were interested in exploring.

The Motherland Postcard Rack

My new project, Grief Landscapes, is starting with questions too, although I'm beginning this phase of the project on my own rather than through workshops, so it’s a bit of a different process. I brainstormed questions that would begin to uncover how different people deal with grief and bereavement, and then I consulted with grief counselors, as well as friends who have grieved. I’ve already received feedback that just answering the questions alone can be very cathartic for people, because many aspects of their grief have often been ignored by others. I’m continuing to add questions as they come to me, and I wanted to also invite readers here to add to the list if there’s anything you think I’m missing. Grief itself doesn’t have any answers, so it feels fitting that the project is starting with questions. I hope the work I produce in response will generate more. 

Help me add to my list of questions

If you’ve grieved the loss of someone close to you, is there anything you’ve ever wondered about other people who have also experienced a loss? 

And if you haven’t experienced profound grief in your life yet, what would you ask someone who has that perhaps you’ve been scared to?

How to Turn a Poppy Danish Into a Mountain

I’ve had a nice response so far since starting to get the word out about Grief Landscapes, and people’s stories are starting to come in. I’m finding my rhythm, and it’s interesting to see what comes up as I navigate the tricky terrain of interpreting someone else’s grief visually. Primarily I feel very grateful and honored that people are trusting me with their accounts. That can’t be an easy thing to do. And as I’m finding, neither is making an image in response, but I have to say that I’m really enjoying the challenge.

Poppy Seed Danish, 2015

As I’m shooting a new image, I have to keep in mind three or four goals that I need to reach in order for the photo to be a successful reflection of a person’s grief experience. First, it needs to resemble a landscape, and some objects are easier than others to transform in this way (clothing, fabric, anything with an undulating surface, for example). It feels relatively easy to take a beautiful but non-specific close-up image of a familiar object, because there’s so much there one can’t always see with the naked eye. But to make it even slightly resemble a landscape turns out to be a lot harder.

The second thing I’m aiming for is to have the tone of the image reflect the person’s grief in some way. Sometimes it’s clear, and something jumps out from the text that’s vivid and an obvious path to represent the terrain they’ve described. Other times, their grief unfolds over a longer period and I have to either choose which aspect of the person’s story to portray, or try to get it all in there. I’m also trying to avoid being too literal or obvious, because then I risk veering into the sentimental (something that feels particularly easy to do with a project like this).

The third dimension is whether the photo feels like it truly represents the person it’s about, which emerges from the objects suggested for me to shoot. And sometimes I get that wrong. My friend Jordana submitted a beautifully written account of her father’s death, which followed years of dementia. In her text, she writes about how different she and her father were—he was a Holocaust survivor; a working class, salt-of-the-earth mensch who didn’t always understand her, but loved her deeply and unconditionally. There was a simplicity to her grief, which she recounted. 

For the objects, she suggested a greasy poppy seed danish, which her dad loved to eat, or a ladder, since he had been a roofer. I jumped at the danish, since I thought it would make a really interesting landscape, and it did. The poppy seeds looked like black boulders, and the white icing like glaciers on the side of a mountain. I was using the black and white nature of their relationship as the jumping off point and I was excited to share them with her. But after I did, she gently told me that while the images were beautiful, they didn’t feel like her dad. They were too beautiful, and he was a man with dirt under his fingernails. It just didn’t fit.

So I took another crack with the ladder. I had one in my garage, so I hauled it out and shot it outside from all different angles. This time, it all came together—the straightforward nature of her grief reflected in the straight lines of the ladder and the image, the choice to have a narrow depth of field to reflect the dementia at the end of his life. She thought I had nailed it, and so did I. I still love the danish photos, and it's hard to let them go, but I love the ladder images too, and each image is ultimately a collaboration.

   Ladder, 2015

I’m excited to keep going, and I look forward to hearing more of your responses as well as starting to share them in the coming months. I also wanted to clarify the object aspect of the project, which some people have been confused about. The object does not have to be something currently in your possession; it can be something in your memory, or an object that represents an aspect of the person. In most cases I am recreating the object anyway (some people don’t actually have anything from the person who died, or what they have wouldn’t work with the text or as a landscape image). Keep the stories coming.

Getting Over the Fear of Putting Myself Out There

One of the things that is both exciting and challenging about being an artist is the reality of starting over with each new project. Of course, I love it because I get to follow my curiosity about a new subject and see where it takes me. I enjoy the sense that when I’m exploring a new idea and trying out different things artistically, it’s as if I’m solving a mystery (albeit a mystery without any hard and fast answers, usually just more questions, but that’s fine). On the other hand, for each new project, there’s a shift, and sometimes I feel as if I’m starting over again with my art practice, figuring it all out again each time. 

It definitely feels that way with Grief Landscapes, because although the project is building on a lot of ideas and work I’ve done before, the form of it feels really new for me. For the first time, I’ve decided to put the work out there in the world at an early stage in its development. In order to do that, and because of the necessity of recruiting people for the project, I’ve realized that it’s time for me to get over my fear of exposing myself online and in social media, and of reaching out and letting people know what’s going on with the work and my process.

The New One, 2005 

It’s funny, because I’ve been working on the Internet in some form literally since the web began, in 1996. My first job after college was as a copywriter at Prodigy, an internet service provider that actually predated AOL (anyone remember that connecting modem sound?). I spent my days surfing the early web and writing pithy headlines and puns for home pages of links. Then I worked at NBC, in a tiny division called Interactive Television, in which we were developing content that attempted to combine the internet and television (to pretty boring effect, I must say). After I became a photographer, I launched SingleShots in 2003, shooting online dating portraits for hundreds of people. 

Since I’ve been working online practically since the beginning, you might imagine that I would be totally comfortable sharing what I’m doing here. And it’s not that I haven’t made any attempts—I kept a blog about Greetings From Motherland for a while, and made occasional updates to the Facebook page I kept about the project. But I had trouble getting past the icky self-promotional feeling, or how vulnerable it made me feel to write things and put them out there.

So what’s changed? I’ve started to realize that when I share my work, or the process behind my work, I’m letting people in and bringing people closer to it. It goes beyond the work itself — the work becomes the catalyst for the relationships that are developed and the conversations that are sparked. I’ve known this intrinsically when I’m face to face with people; it happened quite naturally with all of the Greetings From Motherland workshops I ran. 

It feels time to expand that circle with this new project, and start treating the online space as I would a workshop I’m leading. I have to trust that those who are interested in what I’m doing will want to hear more, even when I’m not sure who is reading and listening. But my real wish is that with time I will be able to develop a community here and elsewhere online, and we will start to be able to have those conversations that I’m hoping to have. Grief is not an easy thing to talk about, for example— I’ve already noticed that when I tell some people what I’m working on, they look away, and clearly want to change the subject. I’m hoping that here that will be different. 

I plan on updating this blog once a week (I’m hoping that by saying that out loud I will stick to it), I’m regularly updating my Facebook page now, and I’m posting images on Instagram and Pinterest. I'm starting to build my email list from scratch so people can get direct updates (it had been so long since I used it, MailChimp wouldn't let me send anything out. Speaking of which, feel free to subscribe). 

It’s like I’m putting my toes in the water, and finding out that it’s really not that cold. Anyone who knows me knows I actually hate getting in the water—I’m like an old lady who splashes herself and takes a half an hour to get in. And then does the doggy paddle once she’s in. But here I am, proudly doing the doggy paddle. It feels like I’m finally in the pool.