Dad: No. 11, House of Photographs, 2010
Archival inkjet print on warm-toned baryta coated Inkpress Pro paper, 10 x 10 in.
Scripps College, Gift of James H. Black & Patricia Black
“Ultimately, the project was about embracing the fragility of life while I silently gathered the courage to say goodbye.”1 Sean Black’s photographic series Dad (2009-12) touches on the certainty of loss, and changing family relationships. But it also serves as an accessible and warm look at the photographer’s father, James H. Black, in his later life. House of Photographs, the eleventh in the series, is perhaps the most overt image of the collection, with Sean Black—privy to the evolution and ramifications of James’s Alzheimer’s disease—poignantly alluding to his father’s declining condition.
The photo’s staging references Duane Michals’ 2008 image, Scalisi’s Magic House of Cards2, and retains the same basic composition: a man seated by a window, his back facing the camera, with the eponymous house partially assembled on the desk before him. However, whereas Michals’ image radiates youth—in both the musculature of seated model and the golden backdrop of the wall—Black’s photo is starker, more subdued, and more melancholy. The elder Black, mostly obscured in shadow, is shown looking at an old sepia-toned photo of himself and his wife Patricia on their wedding day. The color print held in his left hand is illuminated by flashlight, casting a deep shadow on the wall just beyond him. Barely visible on James’s left shoulder blade is a round white Exelon patch, a medicated patch worn daily to treat the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and a powerful, if subtle, indicator of the subject’s decline.
Beyond the grief heralded by the illness, however, Black’s image offers a view of the photographer and his father’s relationship that momentarily breaks through the scene’s heavy-heartedness. The shine of the flashlight, coupled with the sunlight filtering in from the window to the right, evokes precisely a hazy day spent poring over stacks of old photographs—perhaps a visual link back to the very beginnings of the series, wherein the two began printing boxes of James’s World War II-era negatives before the worsening of his Alzheimer’s brought that work to its end3.
Indeed, there is a distinctly “meta” quality to House of Photographs that cements its place as an inextricable part of Dad, and by extension, the role of this series in reconciling the family to James’s illness and decline. There is silent acknowledgement of maturing bonds now in the twilight of their existence: Patricia Black’s double cameo, as both the person holding the flashlight offscreen in Sean’s photo and the bride in the old print James holds aloft4, is especially poignant. It’s a theme that repeats throughout Dad—a collective familial catharsis in documenting James’s final years, quietly recognizing that the subject is steadily fading. Every tribute in the vein of House of Photographs, then, is a chance to bid him farewell. Though painful, the circumstances of James’s transformation are accompanied by an acceptance of—and devotion to— who he became toward the end of his life.
Liam Machado, University of La Verne ’16
Getty Intern ’15
- “Dad.” Retrieved from seangblack.com.
- From a conversation with the artist.