I remember the first time I looked through Annie Leibovitz’s book “A Photographer’s Life 1990 – 2005” the imagery of her dying father shocked me. I wondered why someone would chronicle and document the death of someone so dear. Death is a moment we must all face, but few make the choice to document these last moments through photography. It is an occasion none of us want to be reminded of no matter how inevitable that event may be.
Today for the first time I had an epiphany of the reasons why Annie made the personal choice to photograph and share something so personal and so intimate. My own uncle Harvey is dying of cancer. He has cheated death many times throughout his life. Initially as the first Japanese American Naval Aviator during combat flights during the Korean war and then three times in his prior battles against cancer. He has watched his older brother and sister die and now describes his remaining days as ‘facing reality.’
So today Tracy and I drove up to the home of my uncle and aunt to visit them. There is not anything more important in this life than those who we love, those we call family. For quite some time I have done my best living life knowing that tomorrow is not promised to anyone, so I wanted to see my uncle and let him know how much he means to me, how the honor I carry today is primarily due to him, my father and my aunt.
Throughout his life Harvey has been physically very strong. He was elated when his favorite ski resort offered 70 year olds free lift tickets. I”m sure Mammoth Mountain calculated the probability of 70 year olds who still ski before offering that marketing ploy. But their actuarial calculations didn’t include my aunt and uncle. When Harvey was 80 I got a call that he had cut his thumb with a chain saw. That was bad enough news until I heard that he cut his thumb while he was in a tree he had climbed up into in order to trim branches….at 80 years old! Most of the 80 year olds I hear of are climbing onto elevated toilet seats, not trees…!
So Kazy, Harvey, Tracy and I gathered around their dining room table to talk and catch up on what life has presented. In my past experience when one talks about the future the conversation surrounds hopes, dreams and plans. Today’s conversation was very different. Instead we spoke of plans when Harvey is no longer here. He made it very clear that he wanted to assure that his wife of many decades was looked after as he has done all of their lives. He asked me questions about my own father’s death 32 years ago, how my mother felt and how long she stayed in the house where we lived. We spoke of taxes and wills and safe places where my aunt could live after his death.
In spite of the somber nature of our conversation, something remarkable struck me. As we spoke I was again reminded of the honor of the family from which I am fortunate to have come. Harvey had no thoughts of himself or the pending end of a full life. Instead he was concerned about a wife who will in all probability survive him. In an effort to change the mood of the conversation my aunt said, ‘I’m suppose to go before him, so he’s messed up the entire plan.’ But I expect nothing less from a woman who served this land as an Air Force nurse and then as a surgical room head nurse for over 40 years.
When Tracy and I made plans to come down here, I had hoped to take a photograph of my uncle and aunt, so we brought down all of our lighting gear. But my aunt and uncle have never been very agreeable to being photographed, so I was not certain I’d be able to take their image.
But when I mentioned that I wanted to photograph them, they both seemed very happy, which in turn greatly lightened the mood of the day. So we set up the lighting and back drop and began shooting. My uncle said something to me that made me smile. He said ‘Marky, photography is all about light.’ Of course I have heard this many times, but to hear my uncle say this gave me a very warm feeling. He and I have never really spoken about photography even though he has his own DSLR. After a few shots he asked if he could take a photograph of me and Tracy with his camera, so both of us did a ‘studio sitting’ for him. And even though I normally hate being photographed, I was truly pleased to sit for him.
So back to my original point of Annie’s photos of her father. I have taken thousands of photographs of people in expressive moments. I have proudly displayed them in my exhibit and in books. I have received accolades from other artists about my work. But today, one of the most important photographs of my life was taken – an image which honors a man who has been a part of my life and was instrumental in demonstrating to me what honor truly is and what it is not. In a lifetime my uncle has shown me the most important parts of humanity.