On Wanting to See, the Invisible Jury, and Small Red Boxes: Notes on Making My Father's Portrait
There's music in everything, even defeat. - Charles Bukowski
For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever make pictures of my father. He didn’t mark my life like my mother. Also, I was angry. So perhaps I was punishing him—even posthumously—by not making the effort. But I was angry with my mother too and that hadn't stopped me from making her portraits.
I’m not exactly sure what changed. Resignation maybe.
As with my mother, I began the first five of these six images using old photographs I found in my parents’ archives. The original photos, small black and white things, show Joseph Rodick at different ages. They start all the way back to a child of three standing next to a teddy bear perched on a chair. About that picture, I remember my father saying it must have been taken in a photography studio because the teddy bear wasn’t his.
The text in these five images are taken from my father’s words during the last days of his life. Those days were awful: hospital beds, tubes, mindfucking drugs —the indignities of an elderly life’s end, unhappily too common. Intubated, he couldn’t speak. So he wrote things down. Some stuff was illegible, some banal (I have a green notebook falling apart but still useful. I would like it here. Put a rubber band around it.), a few things cryptic. My father was proud of his usually beautiful handwriting, but by then his veiny hands shook so much all he could eke out was a scrawl. I kept those pages and photographed them, so the words you see in the images (and referenced in the titles) are rendered directly from his own hand.
A difficult person to know, my father. (Yes, I know, everyone is. But not equally so.) For one thing he didn’t trust anyone, ever. I know he didn’t trust me because he told me so. That was just one more sad thing because, especially towards the end, he didn’t have much of anyone else.
Where did that mistrust come from? Maybe from his life through to early adulthood, full of hardship: poverty, war, sickness. An older sister who wrote her little brother Joe letters he'd keep always, but who died at 34 from tuberculosis. A year in a sanitorium, at age seventeen, for TB himself. No one visited me, not once, he told someone—not me—sixty years later.
Of course, the elder sibling of mistrust is fear. And my father feared. Again, that austere early life couldn’t have helped. His father supporting a family of five on the wages of a sailor and then as a chauffeur. The Great Depression. And then the War, my father at home in England (ineligible for combat because of diseased lungs), alone with his mother who, he said once, had a nervous breakdown from the bombing. And then later, life with his bride Frances, my mother. He loved her but she was a troubled woman, fighting and consorting with her own, more violent, torments. When she’d explode and splinter, he’d take shelter, locking the door behind him and leaving the rest of us to find cover on our own.
Sometimes, when I look at his eyes in these portraits I imagine them peeping through a cellar keyhole, checking to see if the hurricane has passed.
Joseph Rodick wanted to be an artist. He drew all the time, everywhere, and not badly for someone unschooled. He’d flip over the paper placemat in a restaurant and draw people with a ballpoint pen: that was his ritual. But all that fear (the abyss of poverty never far away) made a career in the arts daunting if not impossible. Instead he became a book seller. Life as a small merchant wasn’t easy but it was more sensible and secure.
He also lacked that much underrated quality of artists: ruthlessness. You need it if you want to make such a self-centred pursuit, one with long odds against success, into your life's obsession.
When he saw me muddling my way into an art career—and it was he who introduced me to photography—my father was pointedly indifferent at best. In what felt like a taunt, all he’d say about my work was, how many pictures have you sold? Other people said he was jealous—the schooled son who didn’t know poverty or war or sickness chasing the father’s dream. In any case, I responded to what I felt as meanness and rejection with sullen expressions of meanness and rejection of my own.
Here’s a funny story, or maybe not. My mother told it to me, swearing it to be truth not mischief, when I was around thirty. She said, on the day you were born you know what your father did when the nurse told him he had a son? Not a clue, I said. My mother: He fainted, right then and there. I said (incredulously): You mean he fainted because he was overcome with emotion? No, she said (suppressing an eye-rolling laugh I think), because he wanted a girl. Wait a second, you mean he fainted from disappointment? I said. (I thought, who in heck faints from disappointment?) That’s right, said my mother. And then we both laughed.
Apparently, months earlier, perhaps thinking it would tip the gender outcome in his favour, my father had chosen a name for what would be his only kid: Rita.
Rita Rodick, Rita Rodick. Try rolling that over your tongue a few times.
Fast forward to September 2015 when, with these old photos of Joseph Rodick scattered all over, I formally start this work. As usual, I don't know where to go with it. I don't know what I want to say, or if I have anything to say at all. So I do what I always do: I wander in and out of the pictures, in and out of my own head. I get lost in the images and in all the ways they seem able to transform themselves. I curse. I read and reread those chicken scratched pages of my father’s last words till my eyes bleed. I spend a fair amount of time feeling sorry for myself, for a whole bunch of reasons. And, at times, when my father’s picture becomes more than just an image, I feel sorry for him too. More sorry than I ever did when he was alive.
I go up and down alleyways, most of them blind. Blind, but not mute—they all have something to say, even if it's just a whispered nudge in one direction or other. I work and I wait for each image to tell me what to do next.
That last image—Portrait, Joseph Rodick age 88 (2004/09/06/15), see below—I made using a photograph I took of my father a half hour after he died. I wasn’t there for his death but when I got to the hospital, a nurse with a shockingly sincere look of concern met me in the hall. She took me to his curtained-off hospital bed.
It’s funny. I’d brought a camera with me, so obviously I intended to take photographs. But it was this really crappy little camera. It was as if, by bringing an inferior instrument, I was disclaiming any inclinations or instincts that might look predatorial to that invisible jury I carry around in my head. A kind of alibi. (No, your honour, I’m not the cold, callous snake of a son that I appear to be. If I were, I would have brought my Bronica large format. And my tripod.)
Anyway, for ten minutes maybe, I took photographs of his body. I remember the waxy look of his skin, much yellower than I expected. But what I remember most was that dead mouth, gaping wide. It looked like he’d expelled those last shreds of life in that final breath. Or that they'd been sucked right out of him.
Joseph Rodick’s life ended on October 26th, 2004 at 12:15 a.m. Those are the numbers on his death certificate.
When I look at these six images I see different things. I see the human face of time and its juxtapositions, that what looks and feels like a long life is a cipher. I see what looks like a man’s destiny and feels like a tragedy, emerging from a life left in more ways than one. I see a boy, a man, looking, for something. I wanted to see, he said. But what?
I see the loneliest man I ever knew. Who died alone.
And I see myself. A man deep into Keats’ season of mists. The soft-dying day... that time, that place, where the strange twins of memory and incomprehension drive their stakes into heart and mind, claiming ever more territory.
A few months after my father died I was going through his things and found a small red cardboard box. SIMPSONS it said in cursive gold lettering, the name of a Montreal department store, long shut down. Opening it, I found a sheet of thick yellowed paper, carefully folded to form a square about two inches wide. I unfolded it. Curled inside was a snippet of blonde hair, delicate and fresh, as if cut yesterday. It belonged to my father’s sister, dead for over 70 years. Written in my father’s beautiful hand were five words: Hair - lock of Rita Rodick.