In the late nineteenth century, photography was used as a diagnostic and documentary tool on people who were hospitalized for a range of perceived psychological troubles. It was believed that illness could be identified, and otherness contained, through documenting the patient's fitful behavior. Operating from a hard-fought and vastly more humane point of view, photographer Joshua Lutz considers mental illness as a tremendous struggle in the lives of one person and her intimates.
Hesitating Beauty, the moving photographic series now on view at Robert Koch Gallery and the title of a soon-to-be-released book, is a reference to Lutz's mother Jeanie, whose fragile presence is evident throughout the exhibition, though not always in portraits. When we first see her, Jeanie is featured in a formal setting, most likely a high school graduation photo, her dark hair and slender features offset by a strand of pearls. In a companion image entitled Prom, she is again dressed in formal wear and posing on a vast green lawn. Lutz's manipulation of the image, as though she is seen through a kaleidoscope, suggests both the fragmentation of Jeanie's identity and the multiple personality facets that would soon become known to her friends and family.
Joshua Lutz, Prom, 2010; courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.
From that starting point, an idea of who Jeanie is, or who she could have been -- a wife, a mother, a vibrant woman with goals and aspirations -- starts to emerge. Lutz presents his subject through photographs found in his family's collection and supplements those with his own compositions. Where the family photographs portray Jeanie alternately as carefree or laid low by her illness, Lutz's images present something closer to dreams, or nightmares, as a representation of mania as it devastates the mind of the patient and those closest to her.
Joshua Lutz, Mercedes, 2010; courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.
Joshua Lutz, Whitestone Bridge, 2010; courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.
While being interviewed for the American Public Media program The Story, Lutz fondly recounts moments from his childhood, noting that he and his brother enjoyed the unpredictability of life with their mother, who was left to raise her children alone after their father departed. Lutz recalls his mother's fascination with number sequences and their mystery, and wondering, as a young child would, what happened when those numbers aligned. He also recounts the anger that set in as he matured, wondering if the illness that consumed his mother would also claim him. Over time and with much effort, Lutz's fears gave way to understanding and compassion for this frail woman whose increasing instability made psychiatric wards all too familiar environments for her loved ones.
Joshua Lutz, Screaming Ocean, 2010; courtesy Robert Koch Gallery.
If the exhibition or the companion book were driven by a narrative, or established a discernable timeline of events, a framework for comprehending Jeanie's devolution would be provided. But visual and textual fragmentation reigns as our perceptions of her and her family remain elusive. We can only see and know her through second-hand accounts which, like memory, cannot portray totality. Lutz's deeply felt account of his mother offers a much-needed look at the effects of mental illness in the lives of the individual, and families, and of the pieces left to be reassembled in its crushing wake.
Hesitating Beauty is on view through August 24, 2013 at Robert Koch Gallery. For more information, visit kochgallery.com.