Alzheimer’s. A word that conjures up images of fear, isolation, confusion, and loss. In the United States today, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million.
Terminal illness is a painful topic — but this one strikes home for me. My father was recently, finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, after years of ambiguous labels assigned to his memory loss and declining capacity to care for himself.
I sat down with photographer and mixed media artist Ellie Brown to talk about Alzheimer’s, fathers and daughters, and art as a means of documenting, unpacking and transforming this disease. Brown’s upcoming show “Sundown,” at AS220 in Providence, encompasses all of these things.
Brown’s own father, a tall, friendly and robust guy known for his love of music and acting, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2015 after years of ambiguous dementia. Then based in Philadelphia, she soon thereafter moved her life to Rhode Island in order to be closer to him and to make the most of the time they had left.
“When I found out my father had early onset Alzheimer’s disease, it was my first instinct to photograph and document everything — as I do — partly to document the disease, but also to have my own personal record of my father,” recounted Brown.
“It [soon] became clear to me that my father wasn’t comfortable with having his straight photographic image on my website, and that other members of my family weren’t comfortable [either]. So, I took a step back and stopped photographing him. I started making gel medium transfers with the images I had already taken. My instincts told me to start drawing into them. And what happened was, I was able to get at the nuances of the disease that I wasn’t able to with straight photographs.”
The transfer of an original photograph to another medium represents one layer of removal from reality. The degradation of the image that results is another layer of loss. The imagery reflects the hallucinations, metaphors, fears and emotions of Brown’s father’s Alzheimer’s experience. The work is shadowy, small scale and largely monochromatic, although a few pops of color peek through here and there.
“This is something I’ve thought about a lot,” admitted Brown. “My photographs are really colorful, [but] this is darker subject matter.”
“The images reflect conversations we have when he tells me about his hallucinations, or I sit and observe him in the middle of one. He is always dizzy and so I’ve chosen this mixed media process to empathetically reflect the disorientation he’s feeling,” explained Brown.
The work feels intensely personal. Documentary of a family member, by nature, is intensely personal.
“I can tell you that some people are really put off by work that is this personal,” said Brown. “I showed my work to someone recently, and he said it felt like he was looking at pages of my diary, which I thought was extraordinary.”