Every morning when I get up, I read the obituary page. If my name's not there, I shave. George Burns.
I've been subscribing to Mr. Burns' philosophy for wuite some time. Once, years ago, I saw my name in the obits in the Los Angeles Times as I was waiting to board a plane. You can bet I visited the Mutual of Omaha kiosk before boarding.
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For over five years, I have cut out obituaries from The Oregonian (and, in the instance of two of the finished montages, from The New York Times). What I found fascinating is the way the deceased–or their family members–choose to be remembered. The obituaries that catch my eye are the ones the feature a photograph from the person's prime.
At about the same time I began clipping and scanning the obituaries, I took a half dozen or so close-up photographs of stapled and nailed surfaces of the wooden power poles along Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland.
The first montages were more a visual/graphic experiment, developing the integration of the various elements in a cohesive composition. As the process unfolded, it revealed a direction — a relationship between words and images—a narrative on both the life of the subject and the way we choose to remember loved ones and how they want to be remembered.
As with the majority of my photography, these digital montages celebrate impermanence. I often refer to my photography as “fugitive,” and so it is in focusing on the end of one’s life. For what is life if not fugitive?
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The Salem Art Association (in Salem, Oregon) has sponsored what they call "Project Space" for four of the last five summers, utilizing a vacant storefront downtown for studio, exhibiting and performing artists. I have been involved each year of its operation. In fact, I exhibited the first obituary compositions at the first Project Space, during the summer of 2008. For the 2012 Project Space, the theme was "works in progress." Of the two proposals I submitted, the obituary project was chosen. For the exhibit, I showed the following six photo-montages, along with other unrelated montages. Other than the emphasis on the narrative, there is another big difference between these pieces and the original two, shown five years ago. I did Internet searches on each of the subjects. All of the searches revealed some additional information, but none so comprehensive as for Maggie St. James...
Maggie St. James
Maggie’s obituary revealed a fascinating story. When I researched her, it was her mother, who kept coming up. Ruth was a legend in Portland, having been an abortionist, performing over 40,000 illegal procedures. I certainly did not want Ruth’s notoriety to overshadow her daughter, who is, after all, the subject of the piece. The style was dictated by the choice of words available and the wording determined the size and relationship of images. It was influenced in part by film noir and pulp fiction, particularly, James Ellroy’s LA Confidential.
The two Lina Romays
The Two Lina Romays began with the obituary of the Mexican singer/actress. A Spanish gore/porn actress took the name, one of many she had used in her life and career. I found the juxtaposition fascinating.
Elena Mimi Casals was a Cuban poet and songwriter. Grace, Tessa and Molly led more private lives. Faces in a crowd, a family picture... or an old snapshot staring up at you from the obituary page of the paper.