I’ve said many times that I believe our photographs are – or should be – the ‘icons of our lives.’ This photograph is certainly an icon of mine. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. It is framed and hanging on my wall downstairs with all the other ‘icons’ I have been fortunate enough to inherit or collect; part of my life’s treasure. It is my Opa smoking his beloved pipe and was taken by my Uncle Henry a very long time ago. Family or not it is a brilliant photograph: beautifully composed, beautifully exposed and artfully dramatic while remaining natural and ‘real.’ This is not a pose. This is something my Grandfather always did: something fundamentally him. But I know that so my response to it will be very different from yours. Every time I look at it I smell that pipe tobacco; I feel the texture of that blanket hanging on the back of that rocking chair that now sits in my mother’s home and will one day sit in mine, then my son’s. I know that furrowed brow; I know the power in his silence and I am in his study wanting to be just like him when I grow up. As a child he was a giant: a big, friendly, giant. And I adored him. My mother and I lived with him and my Oma in their home for much of the first four years of my life. They lived the last ten years of theirs in our family home; their full lives having come full circle. I’m sure I knew he wasn’t my Father when I was little but until another one came along – and even for a while after that - I think I wished he was. And… so he was.
When that is what I needed, that is what he was. For the time there was an empty space he filled it. And it occurs to me that as men we are all Fathers and we are all Sons. Even when we are not. What do I mean? There is no perfect Father: No perfect role model; No perfect protector; No perfect teacher; No perfect nurturer. To expect this of anyone is to expect too much and it is unfair. To expect it of ourselves is to set ourselves up for failure and will only serve to convince us that we are not – and will never be - good enough at this ‘Fathering.’ This Fathering that is most often ‘taught’ to us by men who were never taught, by men who were never taught…. But look around your life. Feel around in your memory. It has only recently occurred to me that when there has been empty spaces in my life someone has stepped in. Someone has ‘Fathered’ me for the time I needed them to: my best friend at school; my best friend’s Dad; the fifty year old ‘mature student’ when I was an undergrad; my Martial Arts coach; my Artist friend…. Whether or not we have – or need – one particular Father as more traditionally defined, we absolutely need the things that are intrinsic to our beliefs of what that relationship entails and we are very resourceful at finding them. And just as we are resourceful at finding what we need we are fully capable of filling that empty space for others too – even though we may never notice we are doing so. Often it will be to many of the very same people on that list. Look around your life. Feel around in your memory. You have done this. We are Fathers and we are Sons. Even when we are not.
As I think of the sometimes unreasonable expectations I had of my Dad I wish I had known that he could never have done it on his own – and that that was OK. I wish I knew that most of the time I was getting what he didn’t always know how to give me – I just got it in other places; and that this did not mean that he wasn’t ‘doing his job.’ I wish he knew that when he was weary and the rope he was holding on to so tightly to keep me from falling began to slacken, somewhere else someone was taking it up – unknown to him, unknown to them, unknown to me – and I was getting all that I needed. I may have wished for it from him but until he knew how to give it… it was OK. I could always find it elsewhere. Just as he had had to do all of his life. As, no doubt, my Son will have to do in his when I don’t quite get it right.
To think of it like this doesn’t dilute the role of the Father at all. If anything it galvanizes its importance: confirming it as something we always need and will always find – if we have our eyes open. Something we are all capable of giving and receiving – if we have our eyes open. And in connecting it to this project, this work, it takes me back to where I always begin: it is within the relationship, the story, the grand narrative of Father and Son that we will find each other, find who we are, and recognize how we really want to be. We will see the world we would like our Sons to inherit and have them design. The very possible ‘impossible’ world I want to reveal in my Father Fotos.
My Opa filled my ‘empty spaces’ so many times throughout my life. For all my life. And in the later years of his life – when he needed me – I filled them for him. As I did for my Dad. As he did for me… as we all come full circle.
And so. Full circle. Back to the picture: I hear his voice telling stories about the things I did when I was little; I can feel myself sinking into the thick duvet on his bed as he sat me down to present me with my first watch; I remember the first time I said ‘No!’ to him and was afraid he might not love me anymore because when I hugged him goodbye he did not hug me back. I remember that the next time I saw him after that he was in a hospital bed after having had a massive stroke and that he would never again be able to walk or speak as he once did. I remember that even in his wheel chair, and his forced silence he was a giant. Always a giant.
Pictures are more than proof. They are the icons of our lives.