The great New York photographer Helen Levitt died yesterday at age 95 – NPR did a nice piece on her, which got me thinking a little about the nature of photography and death.
Like other artists, photographers’ work outlives them. Sometimes the work only becomes famous after a photographer’s death, sometimes it may not be famous at all, but is important none the less. In helping my sons do a roots project for school some years ago we gathered together memorabilia of past generations of our family, including numerous photos of relatives I had not seen before, taken by unknown photographers. These images are the only tangible connection I have with those relatives. A tantalizing hint at who they were and perhaps what they were like.
As inevitably happens when you photograph a lot of people, some of your subjects pass away, often unexpectedly. I have been in the situation several times now when I was the last person to take photographs of a client’s family member, usually at some family celebration. These images become priceless mementos and, I hope, offer some small comfort to those who are bereaving. At the time we took these pictures the subjects were all in good health and no one expected these would be their last images. Being told that I captured the true essence of a person is a humbling compliment and one that inspires me to realize that whenever taking pictures of a person you never know if these will be something the client may consider just another picture, or may become the lasting memory of their loved one.
Long after anyone may have forgotten who took the picture, I hope at least a few of my images show up in the hands of some future descendant of my clients and helps give them a glimpse into who their long deceased relative really was and what they may have been like.