Frank Rodick, 2014
These images are based on the life and death of my mother, Frances Rodick. Like most of us, she wasn't famous, or important in the sense of accomplishing grand things. She surely wasn’t a saint. But she was—and I admit this reluctantly—likely the most important person in my life. And my instinct, when it comes to making pictures, has always been to work from the place where my heart calls out the strongest, for better or worse.
The first image, called 97532, no. 1 (death), comes from a photograph I took of her two hours after she died in 2010. I always say that I began at the end.
I started work on all these images after she died. I used to think the timing was coincidence, but that’s so wrong, a mistaken assumption coming from a ridiculous conceit. I forget who it was that said artists should work as if their parents are dead, because a parent can be the most insidious censor, the kind that does its business straight out of one’s mind and, even more dangerously, one's belly. For these pictures anyway, there was no as if: I had to wait for the fact of it.
I built most of these pictures around old photographs of my mother, discovered in my family archives. Somebody took those original pictures in 1942—the time when, unknown to Frances, that dark star in her life would begin to burn most fiercely. My mother lived a long time, long enough to see empires rise and fall, long enough to see her family grow modestly, and then—through madness, disease, and rancour—wither. My mother lived long enough to lose a sharp and stormy mind—through mental illness, drug abuse, and, at the end, many years of Alzheimer's disease—piece by piece but in the end completely.
Frances Rodick was born to a life one degree of separation from a great catastrophe—the murderous disaster people named the Holocaust. She gave that horror a singular home inside her, and, through a process more relentless than calculated, ensured it would be my home as well.
Both our lives showed me that Ibsen was right: sin and mayhem will run through generations, like blood through an artery. And just as quietly.
After my father's death in 2004, Frances endured six more years of what might carelessly be called life, existing in a splintered body and razed mind. Watching those last years I saw some of death’s work up close. The way it makes seconds stretch into years and years compress into moments. The way it makes doing that one last thing impossible: words never said or taken back, that question never asked, a blessing wished for but never given.
There were things about my mother I admired. Her raw intelligence and sense of humour. The way she spurned God and Heaven, not just completely but fearlessly too.
But at her worst, which was more often than anyone of us wished, Frances Rodick consorted with her torturing spirits. Together, they discharged a jagged pain into her shrunken world.
After her death, along with that large collection of family photographs, I studied my parents’ documents and papers. Some were old—birth certificates, business agreements, letters—and some more recent, mostly to do with the business of endings: wills, do-not-resuscitate orders, death certificates, and medical records.
Parts of the text you'll find on some of these pictures come from those papers. Other text comes from historical documents such as the Nazi records that, in the timbre of an accountant, catalogued the wilful shattering of lives. Other words I wrote myself, searching—I realized later—for a voice that somehow would fuse my mother’s and mine.
An intersection of a single being, the thrust of history, and the memory of those still living: I suppose that’s one way of considering someone's life, and their death too.
The last image—the one I call Parade in Petticoat Lane, 1955 (my mother holds her basket)—was originally taken by my father. That was the time that probably should have been the best in her life. They were on vacation, something they never did when life got longer and darker. My mother was still young, physically healthy, married and without children, building a life of her own. But knowing her as I do, I think the devils and memories that would plague her life were already well at work.
I never had a plan in making these pictures. I never presumed to know where they would go. Most of the time it felt like they were leading me, pushing me this way and that, a couple of steps at a time over suspect ground, vaguely familiar but layered over with fog.
Perhaps these pictures are a memoir—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being. If they are, I suppose they’re a hallucinatory memoir because one hazards only a tremulous guess at knowing other people, including oneself and—especially—one’s parents. But if they are hallucinations, maybe they’re the kind Céline wrote about: constructions, some shining and some terrible, but in the end more real than the everyday experience of life. That's how it feels to me and, as I let it wash over me, that that may even be where the remains of my hopes lie.