Photographing a Father, From Life to Death

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The Photo Blog
Jan. 13 2014 11:03 AM

Understanding a Father, From Life to Death

My Father Before Me, 2010 I had only photographed my father asleep before this. Very little was said while he stared at me through the ground glass.
My Father Before Me, 2010. Eugene Ellenberg said he had only photographed his father asleep before this, and his father said very little while the photo was taken.

Eugene Ellenberg

As a child, photographer Eugene Ellenberg had a hard time separating his father from the favorite chair in which he often sat. Later in life, during breaks home from college, Ellenberg discovered napkins, used almost like stationery, upon which his father often scribbled notes, typically Elvis Presley song titles. Both inanimate objects offered glimpses into the quiet nature of Ellenberg’s father, and although the two shared the same name, and facts were known about the elder Ellenberg—a Vietnam veteran who enlisted in the Army when he was 16—the photographer Ellenberg never felt he truly knew or understood his father. Beginning in 2010, he decided to try to understand both his father and his family (who all share a reserved nature) and began to photograph them for a project that would eventually record the end of his father’s life.

Much of Ellenberg’s series, “In My Father’s House,” deals with the concept of Ellenberg’s memory of his family and his method for trying to better understand their relationships, as well as attempting to understand exactly who they all are. He elected to have his photographic equipment follow the lead of whatever emotion he tapped into while taking photographs, choosing a mix of equipment and processes throughout the series.

Close
Close, 2010

Eugene Ellenberg

The First Sitting, 2010
The First Sitting, 2010

Eugene Ellenberg

Alexander, 2010This was a few days after my sister’s father-in-law passed away.
Alexander, 2010. This image was taken a few days after Ellenberg’s sister’s father-in-law died.

Eugene Ellenberg

When Ellenberg began “In My Father’s House,” one of the first images he took, titled Close from 2010, was of his father in his chair. “That chair was both his throne and that which constrained him,” Ellenberg said. “I remember removing his boots from his swollen feet for him night after night. That was a proud moment for me as a son, a simple gesture but something shared between us.”

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When he took the photograph while his father was sleeping as an adult, Ellenberg made the shot with a point-and-shoot camera that was developed in oversaturated color. “The warm hue of that image is meant to convey affection and fear,” he said. “If the black-and-white images elude to a memory, then perhaps color evokes urgency, as if it is happening even now as we see it in print. Alternating between the two, as well as between photographic formats, I’m attempting to blur the lines of what I recall, what I admit to, and perhaps what I want to see.”

Many of the images in the series were taken with a large-format camera Ellenberg used in tandem with the stark quality of a monochromatic print. Together, those mediums highlight the quiet nature of his family’s relationship. Ellenberg said most of the images were made in 2010, and apart from showing the work to some friends and colleagues, he decided to keep the project private for a while. “It was important that I understand my intention for the project and furthermore why I would ever want to show it publicly,” he said.

A Room for Alex, 2012Some time after I moved away, my sister and her children lived with my parents for awhile. Alex took over my old room, expressing herself onto thewalls. Not until I had printed this image did I notice the hole in the wall above the pillows.
A Room for Alex, 2012. Ellenberg said that after he moved away, his sister and her children lived with Ellenberg's parents for awhile. Alex took over his old room, expressing herself onto the walls. He said he didn't notice the hole in the wall above the pillows until he had printed this image.

Eugene Ellenberg

A Child Divided, 2010Photographing my nephew was in some manner a way to photograph myself as a child.
A Child Divided, 2010. Ellenberg said that photographing his nephew was in some manner a way to photograph himself as a child.

Eugene Ellenberg

Folding the Sheet, 2013Sitti ng up on the hospital bed in the living room. My father folds the sheet amidst a restless night.
Folding the Sheet, 2013. Ellenberg describes these images as his father folding a sheet during a restless night sitting up on the hospital bed in his living room.

Eugene Ellenberg

But in July, Ellenberg’s father was diagnosed with cancer that had spread to his bones. His father declined treatment, choosing instead to stay at home with his family during his final days. While dealing with his own grief, Ellenberg wanted to also document the experience in the least obtrusive manner, so he choose an iPhone as his means of recording the events. “It was important that I not only respect the grieving space of my family, but also that I allow myself room to be as present as possible,” Ellenberg said.

Ellenberg sees the work as something that shows the quiet side of his family as well as their affection for one another. “If the earlier portraits were a stark depiction of our reserved kinship, then perhaps the passing of my father shows us challenging our capability of affection,” he said. “What began as an investigation into the inner workings of my father had expanded into an exchange with my family. By the time I could vocally express to my father what he meant to me, he was unable to respond. The questions of ‘why’ still remain—perhaps through sharing these image I can arrive at a better understanding.”

Waiti ng, 2013We knew he would not be with us for long. For those seven days aft er his diagnosis unti l his death, he was never left alone.
Waiting, 2013. Ellenberg said his family knew his father would not be with them for long. For the seven days after his diagnosis until his death, he was never left alone, Ellenberg said.

Eugene Ellenberg

Two Hours, 2013 My father slept throughout the day before his body began to shut down at around 8:00pm. For two hours we took turns cleaning the secreti on fromhis nostrils. There in our home we gathered around him with an aff ecti on we’d never expressed before. We played old gospel and motown on astereo, kissed his head and embraced him and one another.
Two Hours, 2013. Ellenberg said: "My father slept throughout the day before his body began to shut down at around 8 p.m. For two hours we took turns cleaning the secretion from his nostrils. There in our home we gathered around him with an affection we’d never expressed before. We played old gospel and Motown on a stereo, kissed his head, and embraced him and one another."

Eugene Ellenberg

Sandy and Gene, 2013 The night before he died, my father pointed to the front door of the house and asked, “What’s out there?”. We walked him outside and sat on theporch in silence.
Sandy and Gene, 2013. Ellenberg said the night before his father died, the senior Ellenberg pointed to the front door of the house and asked, “What’s out there?” The family walked him outside and sat on the porch in silence.

Eugene Ellenberg

Death and Honor, 2013When we arrived at the cemetary the day of my father’s funeral, two soldiers, neither of whom knew my father, stood saluti ng. I understand this action as part of a military funeral, yet I acknowledged it as a public honor to him as a father.
Death and Honor, 2013. Ellenberg said: "When we arrived at the cemetery the day of my father’s funeral, two soldiers, neither of whom knew my father, stood saluting. I understand this action as part of a military funeral, yet I acknowledged it as a public honor to him as a father."

Eugene Ellenberg

Farewell, 2013 I went the funeral home a few hours early on the day of visitation. A mortician watched me as I photographed my father in the casket. He informedme about how the dead do not reflect light the same as the living.
Farewell, 2013. Ellenberg said: "I went the funeral home a few hours early on the day of visitation. A mortician watched me as I photographed my father in the casket. He informed me about how the dead do not reflect light the same as the living."

Eugene Ellenberg

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