Since the art critic Peter Schjeldahl has judged Henri Cartier-Bresson as being cold and without feeling—a charge I have to say I've never come across before, in years of reading about the photographer and his work—I thought I'd put in a cheer for a body of work that is undoubtedly suffused with feeling. In fact it might rank among the warmest, most affectionate, most quietly emotional picture books I've come across.
Sometimes, photography books aren't. On the surface, I Still Do: Loving and Living With Alzheimer's by Judith Fox might seem to be not a photography book, but a book about a disease, one of those specialty titles targeting a specific and defined demographic of people who are necessarily preoccupied, through no choice of their own, with a particular affliction or condition.
But it's not even that, really.
I noticed the book immediately on the "New Acquisitions" shelf at the local library because of its formally perfect and assured cover photo. (A painter would not do a better job of choosing that color palette.) And it is a photography book: Judith Fox is a committed photographer, and the foreword is a perceptive and helpful essay by Roy Flukinger, the distinguished Senior Curator of Photography and Film at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Attention from Roy Flukinger is a good sign that you're dealing with something beyond the ordinary, photographically speaking.
The book is simple. It's an extended portrait of Edmund Ackell with Alzheimer's, by his wife, who has become his caregiver. It's definitely a two-way portrait: the presence of the photographer wife is every bit as vivid and well-illuminated as the sufferer husband. And the pictures are a quiet triumph, it seems to me. They make a song with no note out of place, economical, quiet, but extraordinary. Definitely in a minor key. Sad. The story is one of trouble and decline, confusion and anguish, and the tragedy that in the end belongs to us all. But it's also suffused with acceptance, affection, and real devotion.
It's kind of odd, in a way. First the book struck me as something more specific than just a book of photographs that anyone could enjoy: something narrowed down, specialized, directed at Alzheimer's families specifically. But as I looked at it, it lost that quality, and broadened out again, far past being "just" a photography book, and became a book about the human condition. Because the subject of the book, when you get down to it, is the love between a couple. A young husband and wife in the prime of life and the flush of health could look through this together and be deeply moved, I think.
If you ever doubted that plain photographs could contain love, show a feeling so deep as that, take a leisurely look through this, and see.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
May 12, 2010
I was enormously touched by—and pleased by—your review of my book I Still Do: Loving and Living with Alzheimer's. I intended the work to be multi-layered...about loving, partnering, humor, mortality, illness and hope as well as Alzheimer's...and you understand that. Thank you very much for the beautiful and thoughtful review, as well as for helping to spread the word about a horrific disease that impacts individuals, families and communities.
With great appreciation,