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Death by Diana

Amy Blakemore captures haunting images of death with a cheap plastic camera.

The photographs Amy Blakemore takes with a crappy plastic camera can make you cry. Dad (1999) is an image from "Amy Blakemore: Photographs 1988-2008," a 20-year survey of the artist's work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The entire time I was in the gallery, people kept stopping and lingering in front of the photo Blakemore took of her father, Robert Blakemore, just after he died. Images of death lure people in, but usually it's the shocking photojournalistic kind. This simple, quiet picture dunks your head in a bucket of loss.

Early evening light seeps through metal hospital blinds and strikes a pair of hands peacefully folded together on top of a sheet. The thin body under the sheet barely seems to register beneath the folds of fabric. We don't see his face. With this posthumous image, Blakemore has somehow channeled all of the emotions that surround the death of a loved one into one spare photograph.

The body lies there so peacefully, you want to believe it is still alive, only sleeping. You want to believe that the person is still there. He was, just a minute ago. When was the moment of transition from person to corpse? Blakemore has captured and held that brief period just before the loss and grief punch you in the stomach. The poignant scene is all the more sorrowful because you know that sooner or later, you too are going to be standing like Blakemore, staring at the cooling body of someone you love. It's the kind of image that makes your eyes sting with tears.

Blakemore's simple, quiet photo Dad might make you cry.
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Blakemore's simple, quiet photo Dad might make you cry.

Every photo captures a particular moment in time, but Blakemore's capture concentrated doses of human experience. If you know her work at all, you probably know that she shoots her photographs exclusively with a Diana camera. The Diana is a 1960s plastic camera made in Hong Kong by the "Great Wall Plastic Factory." The Diana was so cheap, it was given away as a carnival prize. But the sheer crappiness of the camera is part of the appeal. Its inherent defects — the photos it produces are vignetted and blurry, with low-contrast, oddly colored images — yield haunting images in Blakemore's hands.

Dad is a highly personal and unpretentious image, but it exists in the long tradition of art-historical deathbed images. People have always wanted to mark and commemorate death. The folds of the sheets are reminiscent of the crumpled linens of Jacques-Louis David's 1793 The Death of Marat — but without the revolutionary drama. Dad is a contemporary image of death; the body, lying in a hospital bed lit by the metal slats of a blind, is a far cry from the painted deathbed scenes of kings and emperors. There are no elaborate bedchamber draperies, no retinue of attendants and no levitating angels. The man photographed is both unimportant and immeasurably important.

Blakemore was home in Oklahoma for Christmas when she learned her father was dying. Several of the photographs she took during that trip are on view together. There are a lot of strong images in the show, but these are especially powerful. Through them, you can feel the artist working to hang onto her father, to childhood, to family. In Workshop (1999), sunlight angles across an open blue door and strikes a grid of metal drawers, a repurposed card catalog. Each drawer is no doubt packed with nails and screws, nuts and bolts, spools of wire and twine — the leftovers from a lifetime of household projects. It's an old guy's kind of workshop. The space seems packed with memories of a now-absent figure puttering about. A tan windbreaker hangs on the inside of the door as if someone has just hung it up. How long will the jacket hang on the hook if the person isn't coming back? The absence is palpable.

Cellar (1999) is a photograph of a storm cellar from the same series. A rusted, hinged door rests on a mound of grassy earth. The image is vignetted, the door in focus and the pasture and trees that surround it blurred. It looks like a tomb. The form calls to mind the Native American burial mounds. If you grew up in tornado country, you may have spent time in one of those dank, spidery, mason-jar-filled spaces. Is that what death is like?

In Jim (1999), the face of an elderly man with oversize glasses peers out at the viewer through a screen door, trying to see who's there. He's wearing suspenders over a blue work shirt. It's Blakemore's uncle, and you know he's probably got a workshop out back just like her father's. The Diana's vignet­ting distorts him so he looks almost as if he is seen through the fisheye peephole. The blurred image makes him seem like a memory, as Blakemore tries to capture and hang onto the adults of her childhood.

Amy Blakemore should be a lot better known than she is. Her work merits it. But she's a solid, thoughtful artist, not a careerist, as low-key and unassuming as her work and her choice of camera equipment. This survey, sensitively curated by the MFAH's Alison de Lima Greene, is well deserved.

 
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