I wonder if I am not talking yet again about myself. Shall I be incapable, to the end, of lying on any other subject?
– Samuel Beckett, from Malone Dies
There’s music in everything, even defeat.
– Charles Bukowski
For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever make pictures of my father. He didn’t mark my life like my mother. Also, I was angry. So perhaps I was punishing him—even posthumously—by not making the effort. But I was angry with my mother too and that hadn’t stopped me from making her portraits.
I’m not exactly sure what changed. Resignation maybe.
As with my mother, I began the first five of these six images using old photographs I found in my parents’ archives. The original photos, small black and white things, show Joseph Rodick at different ages. They start all the way back to a child of three standing next to a teddy bear perched on a chair. About that picture, I remember my father saying it must have been taken in a photography studio because the teddy bear wasn’t his.
The text in these five images are taken from my father’s words during the last days of his life. Those days were awful: hospital beds, tubes, mindfucking drugs —the indignities of an elderly life’s end, unhappily too common. Intubated, he couldn’t speak. So he wrote things down. Some stuff was illegible, some banal (I have a green notebook falling apart but still useful. I would like it here. Put a rubber band around it.), a few things cryptic. My father was proud of his usually beautiful handwriting, but by then his veiny hands shook so much all he could eke out was a scrawl. I kept those pages and photographed them, so the words you see in the images (and referenced in the titles) are rendered directly from his own hand.
A difficult person to know, my father. (Yes, I know, everyone is. But not equally so.) For one thing he didn’t trust anyone, ever. I know he didn’t trust me because he told me so. That was just one more sad thing because, especially towards the end, he didn’t have much of anyone else.
Where did that mistrust come from? Maybe from his life through to early adulthood, full of hardship: poverty, war, sickness. An older sister who wrote her little brother Joe letters he’d keep always, but who died at 34 from tuberculosis. A year in a sanitorium, at age seventeen, for TB himself. No one visited me, not once, he told someone—not me—sixty years later.
Of course, the elder sibling of mistrust is fear. And my father feared. Again, that austere early life couldn’t have helped. His father supporting a family of five on the wages of a sailor and then as a chauffeur. The Great Depression. And then the War, my father at home in England (ineligible for combat because of diseased lungs), alone with his mother who, he said once, had a nervous breakdown from the bombing. And then later, life with his bride Frances, my mother. He loved her but she was a troubled woman, fighting and consorting with her own, more violent, torments. When she’d explode and splinter, he’d take shelter, locking the door behind him and leaving the rest of us to find cover on our own.
Sometimes, when I look at his eyes in these portraits I imagine them peeping through a cellar keyhole, checking to see if the hurricane has passed.
Joseph Rodick wanted to be an artist. He drew all the time, everywhere, and not badly for someone unschooled. He’d flip over the paper placemat in a restaurant and draw people with a ballpoint pen: that was his ritual. But all that fear (the abyss of poverty never far away) made a career in the arts daunting if not impossible. Instead he became a book seller. Life as a small merchant wasn’t easy but it was more sensible and secure.
He also lacked that much underrated quality of artists: ruthlessness. You need it if you want to make such a self-centred pursuit, one with long odds against success, into your life’s obsession.
When he saw me muddling my way into an art career—and it was he who introduced me to photography—my father was pointedly indifferent at best. In what felt like a taunt, all he’d say about my work was, how many pictures have you sold? Other people said he was jealous—the schooled son who didn’t know poverty or war or sickness chasing the father’s dream. In any case, I responded to what I felt as meanness and rejection with sullen expressions of meanness and rejection of my own.