The Intimacy of Loss: Aydinaneth Ortiz by Kathleen Stewart Howe
In the artist book La Condición de la Familia (2013), Aydinaneth Ortiz redirects the conventions of domestic photography, a photography of intimate connections casually rendered, to explore and mediate a family tragedy. The visual vocabulary of the family snapshot and photographic album, reservoirs of communal memory (although now a format under siege as images and memory move to digital spaces), are repurposed and joined with more formal pictorial strategies to communicate private experience publicly.(1)The seemingly un-self-conscious, day-to-day, almost confessional mode of image making has been part of the language of contemporary photography since the 1970s, when Nan Goldin began what would become The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Larry Clark issued Tulsa. Both artists created visual diaries of the chaotic lives of their milieu, whether the New York club scene or the drugs and gun culture in Middle America. In other hands, such as British artist Richard Billingham and American Larry Sultan, the casual photograph explores the contours of their family lives, recording moments usually shrouded from view. Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh (1996) documents his family life in a crowded council flat frequently disrupted by his father’s drinking. In the book Pictures from Home (1992) and in the continuing series, Sultan combines his family’s archive of snapshots and 8 mm films with his own photographs. The power of this mode derives from the extent to which viewers have internalized the domestic photograph, typically made at symbolic points in personal life. These pictures encode bonds, mark achievements, and record milestones. They are documents of shared moments in the ongoing life of an extended family and community, from highlights—weddings, christenings, birthdays, graduations—to less significant events—a day at the beach, a party, a moment of play. Since the late nineteenth century, this visual language has communicated across time, place, class, and ethnicity. Susan Sontag claimed, “through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself—a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness.”(2) Whatever disrupts that narrative of connection and coherence—pain, illness, abuse, addiction, and loss—is left out of the traditional family photo album. Ortiz’s work departs from the conventions of a family record; she documents, and tries to make sense of, the rupture in familial connection and the loss of coherence. La Condición de la Familia melds the power of the family photographic album with the mediated stance of an artist book. Ortiz constructs her report on her family’s condition by layering vernacular, amateur family photographs with the cool compositional structures of her own portraits, interiors, and streetscapes. This interweaving of vernacular and formal builds a dynamic sequence that simultaneously provides the story with a narrative arc while resisting a totalizing, authoritative narrative. The result is emotionally resonant, compelling viewers to decipher the tragedy that unfolds over the 40 pages of the book and across years of family life—the death of her younger brother, as the result of an older brother’s downward spiral into schizophrenia. We are primed to narrativize the bound presentation of sequential images by a shared acceptance of the conventions of the photo-narrative, which extends back through the picture magazines of the 1930s and the dominance of the photo-essay in print media. We read meaning in this format through the formal strategies employed by the picture editor—the sequence of images, their placement and weight on the page, and the pauses afforded by white space—and we expect that meaning to be anchored textually by captions. Yet, Ortiz denies immediate comprehension by withholding textual information that would identify the actors in the family drama or provide a clear chronology. The photographs and documents become mute witnesses, as the artist prompts the viewer to search within them for clues or warnings. La Condición de la Familia begins with evidence of shared family moments and smiling siblings then gives way to formal portraits. One family member is increasingly seen at a distance, no longer part of the group seen in earlier photographs. Even the photographer stands back, photographing him at a remove. Images of furiously disheveled rooms and punched out wire mesh bear witness to disintegration. Family portraits, presented as multiple exposures, encode a whirlwind of fear and confusion. At the still center of the book is the intimacy of loss. Here, private photographs afford us scalding views of intimate moments at the funeral home and gravesite. In the sequence of images that follows those pictures, Ortiz changes register from the informality of domestic photography to formal documents of loss—flowers on a gravesite, RIP scrawled on the stanchion of a street sign—rigorously composed in classic black-and- white photographs. Mourning is now more public and the “what-ifs” more pressing. Family anguish has become public, recorded in files moving through the medico-legal system. Ortiz ends this study with an early family snapshot of siblings smiling and clowning for the camera. It is indistinguishable from thousands of family pictures. The artist reclaims this private family moment and offers it to public view. Now this ordinary photograph, which once might have interested only other family members, demands our scrutiny. Is it possible to read the future in this image? The pressure it exerts on the viewer to find some clue to the family tragedy that later unfolded destabilizes the security of our own family pictures. Ortiz’s work grapples with the dynamics of memory, representation, and loss. Roland Barthes saw in every photograph a chilling reminder of death, as the photograph simultaneously records what is, only to reveal what is no more.(3) La Condición de la Familia narrates this tension through visual changes of voice and flashbacks. In 2014, Ortiz began work on a new series, “California State Mental Hospital.” She sought out the state facilities that she felt should have been there to help her family as they faced the deteriorating mental condition of her sibling. What she found were shuttered buildings, victims of ever decreasing funding for mental health care. She began to photograph, in her own words, “large structures [that] were abandoned, boarded up... left to decay.” What had seemed to her “exclusive to my family” was one of many stories in an underfunded and broken system. Photographs in “California State Mental Hospital” catalog boarded up cottages and treatment facilities set against sprawling, unkempt grounds. The structures themselves seem ghostlike, there yet not there. Similarly, in the series “Not Alone” (2014), Ortiz inserted the silhouetted form of her dead brother into photographs of the landscapes he once moved through and that the family continues to inhabit, creating a parallel of choreographed presence and documented absence.
Notes: 1.For a brief critical survey of domes- tic photography and the use of its conventions by contemporary artists, see Patricia Holland, “‘Sweet it is to scan...’ Personal Photographs and Popular Photography,” in Photography: A Critical Introduction, Liz Wells, ed., 4th edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 117–65; and essays in Family Snaps, The Meaning of Domestic Photography, Jo Spence and Patricia Holland, eds. (London: Virago, 1991). Several exhibitions have explored the range of intimate and domestic photography, for example, “Who’s Looking at the Family,” at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1994. 2.Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1973), 8. 3.See Roland Barthes’s influential meditation on the nature of photography as an insistent reminder of mortality. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).