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Review by Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
Although he always had a dark sense of humor, the rock musician Warren Zevon might have sensed something was amiss when he titled an album, Life’ll Kill Ya three years before he died at the age of 56. He produced two more records including The Wind which was made after learning he had mesothelioma with only a few months to live. The music on this final album is revelatory. It is a reminder of the power of human creativity in the face of daunting odds. Late last year, two photography books reminded me of Zevon’s compelling response to his cancer. Nancy Borowick’s book, The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss and Cat Gwynn’s 10- Mile Radius. Both of these photographers – one as witness and one as patient – employed photography as they coped with the difficult diagnosis of cancer.
Nancy Borowick’s mother was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, and it recurred in 2009 and again in 2011. While her mother was still undergoing her treatment, her father was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer in 2012 and died the following year. Borowick had been photographing her mom as she underwent treatment since 2009, and began to photograph her father in the last year of his life. Like Warren Zevon, Nancy Borowick’s father had a sharp wit; he lost both his parents to cancer, and he counted each day he had as a gift. Her mother made “to-do” lists and this book is peppered with several of those lists, along with words of wisdom from her father, and family artifacts or ephemera which all offer intimate glimpses of a loving family dealing with the anguish of simultaneous cancer cases.
It is Borowick’s masterful documentation, however, presented as black and white photographs that is the heart of her book. She is both participant and observer in this struggle. The pictures move from home to car to hospital and back. She creates a rhythm in the quotidian with humor and thoughtful solemnity. The opening image shows her mother holding two coned-shaped party hats to her breasts. It is disarmingly funny, and yet the look on her face is serene: her eyes closed, feeling the warm sun on her face through a window. It is a plea to savor each moment.
We learn that Borowick was planning a wedding, and the doctors told her she should get married as quickly as possible. She documented her own wedding by positioning a remote camera in a tree above the outdoor venue. We see the aisle, the back of her groom, her parents by her side, the wedding photographers and guests from a birds eye view. A gathering of guests appears a few pages later at her father’s funeral. Between these two events are several poignant images of her father as his health deteriorates. He made plans for his funeral and wrote his own fourteen-page eulogy. Deeper in the book, we are witness to her mother’s decline, and her “short bucket” list of to-do’s. She leans on her children, and on Borowick’s photographs for strength before dying at their home. It is a mournful passage that includes a disquieting image of her mother’s shrouded body being carried down the stairs by the coroner. The final series of pictures depict the process of getting the house ready for sale by organizing, sharing or discarding the accumulated belongings and cleaning the rooms. It feels cathartic, and she ends hopefully with this passage, “It was no longer our home; it was just a house. My room was a blank slate and a new family would move in and create their own memories, perhaps have their own joy and sadness as we did.”
In contrast to Borowick’s role as daughter and witness to her parents’ cancer, Cat Gwynn is the cancer patient in her own story. Over a period of three years, as she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, she committed to a daily mindful practice of making art by the simplest means possible. She employed an iPhone and a variety of image processing apps which she taught herself how to use. Often suffering from insomnia, she worked on each day’s images late at night. The resulting book, 10- Mile Radius, is an absorbing meditation on the strength of the human spirit.
In the introduction, Gwynn describes the many family and friends she loved who have perished from cancer, yet she writes, “nothing can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis.” With a mix of words and images, Gwynn takes us on and emotional and physical journey that was confined for about three years to a ten-mile area of Los Angeles between her home and the various medical centers she frequented. Along her way, she noticed the mundane and created abstract studies of light, color and geometry. An initial sequence of images ends with a toddler in a pink plastic car by the edge of water titled, This is the End… yet after a blank page, it leads to an image with balloons called, Breathe. The emotional ebbs and flows of Gwynn’s days become apparent with each picture and her humorous, poignant or witty titles. One in particular, At Peace with the Obvious (feature image) offers a nod to Eggleston in both image and word, but is a declaration that the everyday is there to be seen, and she dedicates the gift of each day to bearing witness to it.
In the middle of the book, Gwynn presents a series of portraits that she made while undergoing radiation treatments after completing chemo. The treatment facility was walking distance from her home, which offered her daily exercise and a chance to take pictures. One day she got up the nerve to ask a man with a magnificent tattoo on the back of his bald head if she could take his picture.. After seeing her bald head, he agreed and she photographed him at an entrance to a building whose beams radiated outward above his head like a nimbus. From then on, Gwynn committed to making another portrait each day for the rest of her treatment underneath those radiating beams. It becomes clear that this book is, in fact, a primer on the creative process.
Though cancer is a thread that runs within each of these works, they are not really about cancer at all. Borowick and Gwynn demonstrate the profound and human capacity for love and creativity in the face of mortality. We are all mortal beings and as Gwynn writes in her book, “The urgency of life becomes a beautifully sharp lens”. Or as Warren Zevon put it, “enjoy every sandwich, man.”
Feature Image: At Peace with the Obvious (Detail) Photograph by Cat Gwynn, courtesy of Rare Bird Books and the artist.
The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss
By Nancy Borowick
Introduction by James Estrin
Published by Hatje Cantz
By Cat Gwynn
Published by Rare Bird Books