We have a special reverence for photographs as a record of our past, especially photographs of people who have died. These photographs can act as an object of preservation; something tangible and collectible. We tend to think of photograph as evidence — records of the what, when, where, while frequently omitting the construction essential to the photo’s very existence. In making the photograph evidence, we equate the information the photo has to offer with truth. This is especially tempting when looking at photographs of the deceased, we elevate a single moment of someone’s life and ask it to reveal something true about them, something essential to who they were, or something that captures a part of their spirit. Roland Barthes describes this phenomenon, and the disappointment he felt as he was looking through his mother’s photographs after her passing. In this collection of snapshots he was able to recognize fragments of gesture, a smile, a twinkle in the eye — but never all of her, not her essence.“‘Not a just image, just an image’ Godard says. But my grief wanted a just image, an image that would be both justice and accuracy — justesse: just an image, but a just image.” (70, Barthes)
I have been searching for my own justesse through my family’s collection of snapshots. After my mother’s death, I experienced what Barthes describes exactly. As I looked though photographs ranging the span of her life, I could recognize her differentially but never essentially. I felt wounded by the ways I was shut out of these photos. My exclusion felt like a second loss, as though she was always just out of my grasp. This cycle of longing caused me to question my relationship to photography and the expectations I place on these photographs. I noticed what I value is not the information the photograph projects, but rather what I project onto it. Like a mirror, photographs have a tendency to reflect our own desires and associations.
Reproducing photographs in a variety of different mediums allows me to access the essence of the photograph, or the parts of the photograph that convey truths about the subject’s character or personality beyond their physical appearance. I am using a variety of printmaking and photographic processes to create the panels of these quilts, including inkjet printing, etching, lithography, gum bichromate, cyanotypes, and photogravure. It becomes so hard to separate out image from essence, and this work explores that tension by recreating photographs in a variety of different styles and mediums and incorporating them together in a quilt. I am drawn to the idea of quilting because of its tangibility. Quilts, traditionally handmade, are passed down through families as markers of shared history. Similarly, the quilts I am making are the assemblages of my personal history. These quilts are a loving meditation centered around the act of collecting, piecing together, and cherishing. Reproducing these photographs has become a way for me to spend time with family who have passed away, and preserve in a tangible way what they meant to me.