“This work is, in a sense, a preparation, helping me to face the deterioration, and the loss I have endured.” These words, which close the “eulogical” end of work statement to Colin Gray’s “In Sickness and in Health” struck a chord; as did “Looking at myself in the mirror I see a reflection of my father’s face. I see the history in my own future. This is a curious and rather frightening experience.” Steidl Mack, itself an interregnum in publishing history, published Gray’s work that depicts a short space in time in the record of the artist’s body of work on the single subject of his parents. The project “The Parents” formally began when Gray had access to a borrowed Hasselblad in 1980 and continued until his mother’s death in 2010. The book was published in 2011. There have been many bodies of works that deal with the passing of one parent or another, or even both, but not so many that come after thirty years or more of studying the same subject. It was at the “Family Ties” conference, where Gray presented this work, and where I met him and discussed his, and my own, work, when I had the sense of the scale of this work, with its concomitant requirements of collaboration, issues over ethics and the whirl-pooling of narratives that weave, one into another. The book is beautiful; Joby Ellis at Steidl Mack had worked on the design with Gray and I recognize that I have a heightened sense of awareness about editing and sequencing which clearly accompanied this ‘read’. All the images are the same size, they are all square – suggesting full frame Hasselblad and the self containment of narrative content. Solid white margins with no text whatsoever apart from page numbering. There are some white pages, indicative of punctuation; there is no introduction and, as I say earlier, an end-statement with, finally, the almost obligatory (but un-headlined, in this case) acknowledgement. Words therefore seem less important to this document, the imagery left to the photographs, no direction home in this tale about home, family, love and loss. Simply put, this is a beautiful rendering of familial love, care and nurture. The three individuals who share emanance in each frame – whether they are physically present or not – the parents and their photographer-son propel the narrative with lyrical, poetic, and at times, harrowing imagery.
There is a lot to be said about the sequencing that I mention earlier; colour tones, physical structuring, short and immediate narratives – no more than the two page spreads, continue to build the sense of the meta-narrative – which isn’t, in my mind, determined to be deeply intellectual, but deeply emotional. The sense of scale of involvement between the three protagonists – woven into a story about ‘oneness’ is visceral. It perhaps didn’t mean to set out to touch raw emotion, but it does nevertheless, by dint of the honesty by which all three entered into the project, those thirty-five years ago. It wasn’t inevitable that Gray would photograph his deceased mother, but his father ceded to his son’s wish for a short time with her in order for it to happen. Gray, I seem to remember him saying, had no formal plan to do so, but did so because of inertia. I wonder how the passing of the surviving parent will be dealt with. The loss that I endured marked an ending with his death, and it is this that I am still trying to elucidate. This work of Gray’s has helped me see further into what it is I have been trying to describe. It isn’t “about” an abusive relationship, though it was certainly that. It isn’t “about” pain, though there was certainly a great deal of that. It is “about” loss, an absence of love and remoteness from it that I have tried to overcome without having a reference for it. “About” choices made and consequences thereafter. Most everything else I have tried to do, around Purgatory in this last year, has been to try and steer a course away from it. Purgatory though has provided the base camp and will stay there, I need to plan more imagery.