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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Judith Fox, I Still Do

I met Judith Fox at last year's ReviewLA portfolio review. When she opened her portfolio and I got a first look at her photos I found myself tearing up--a most unusual reaction. Judith told me she had been photographing her husband Ed who has had Alzheimer's Disease for the past ten years. I was so moved by the intimacy and rawness of the photos, and by the way she faced the subject head on.
In October, powerHouse published her work in a book, "I Still Do". On Saturday, January 9, "I Still Do" opens at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York.

There is nothing coy or precious in these photos. We see how frail the body really is, and how it can betray us. When you look into Ed's eyes you can't help but think about the photographer and her subject and how intertwined they are. There is a fierce honesty in Judith's photographs. This project is about both of them, and gives us a lesson in how to look unsparingly at the world around us.

Tell me a little of your background and how you came to photography

I grew up in New York (where I won, in third grade, a New York City art contest.) In hindsight, I was an artist and an entrepreneur from childhood. When I was nine, I combined my interest in art and my skills as an entrepreneur and successfully sold packages of seeds door-to-door so that I could “win” a Brownie camera.

A fast-forward summary of my career highlights: I was a freelance writer for national magazines; I owned a photography studio on Long Island; I started and ran a temporary service in Virginia and New York (18 years later I sold my company to a New York Stock Exchange firm); I exhibited and sold my fine art photography; I created a book of photographs called "I Still Do: Loving and Living with Alzheimer’s” which was published by powerHouse books in October, 2009.

Tell me about how and why “I Still Do” came to be
When I started photographing my husband, Ed Ackell, I thought I was doing so as an artistic challenge to myself in response to a book I’d read called “The Model Wife.” Where, I wondered, is “The Model Husband”? Then I realized I was married to him. So I started seriously photographing my husband, my model, my muse.

Ed had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease three years after we were married (I was widowed, he was divorced) and I started “I Still Do” three years after his diagnosis. In time, I realized that my project was also about living with AD and that I was photographing Ed as he was leaving me.

When I first saw the project earlier this year I was so moved by the intimacy of the photographs. How hard was it to begin, and has it been difficult for your husband and for you?

It was easy to begin the project, in part because I didn’t initially relate it (consciously) to AD.

Photographing the man I love was an intimate process. When I watched Ed through my camera lens, despite the distance of several feet between us, I felt as though I was caressing him. My camera wasn’t an obstruction, it was another way of touching him; and my photography helped me stay sane while the demanding role of caregiver continued to balloon.

What made you decide to show the work and to create the book? Has this been difficult?

When I showed the first group of photographs I’d taken of Ed to Arthur Ollman, the founding director of the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA) and the author of “The Model Wife,” he told me I had a book. Before going forward with that as a goal, I thought about what it meant in terms of giving up our privacy; and I discussed it with Ed. My husband supported my work and believed in me, and I knew that the only way to create the kind of book I believed in was to be honest and open. Once I made that decision, the rest was relatively easy.

Talk about making the contacts to get the book out there

For many years, while I was making the photographs that would become part of “I Still Do,” I was focused on my husband and the world of Alzheimer’s. I didn’t think about marketing the work, or my photography, or connecting with a photography community until sometime around 2007. I started by meeting with Mary Virginia Swanson (a very good move) and then I started attending a few portfolio reviews.

As a result of attending reviews, my sample book was seen by a number of interested publishers and reviewers. Because of that process, I received two offers to publish “I Still Do” and I signed a contract with powerHouse Books. Less than a year later, my book was released.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple—there was an agent who told me he wouldn’t take my book on because there wasn’t a publishing house that would print a book about such a depressing subject, no matter how beautifully done. After talking with three prospective agents, I decided it would be easier to find a publisher myself than to find an agent. I was right.

Is this still an ongoing project?
Marketing and publicizing a book is a full-time job; it’s part two of creating a book and getting it published.

I’m no longer photographing Ed—at least as I write this. But I’ve become an advocate on behalf of AD as a result of writing “I Still Do.” I’ve been invited to travel the world to talk about my book and living with AD. The book and photography are leading to amazing opportunities, including several gallery and museum shows.

I have several other photography projects in process (photography that’s very different from the work in the book—and work about which I’m very excited.)

Talk about adding the text—usually people add too much, yet in your book it is almost haiku
The text came about towards the end of the project. I knew I didn’t want to provide traditional captions for the photographs, nor did I want to write so much that it distracted from the images. I started writing in a spare style and found that it enabled me to say what I wanted to in a manner that interested me. The writing became a very important, fulfilling and enjoyable part of the process and project.

What do you want people to take away from seeing your work?
I want them to better understand the human beings who are dealing with Alzheimer’s—and to know that it’s a disease that can happen to anybody. I want people to understand the pain that’s involved in living with AD, and the desperate need to find better treatments and an eventual cure for the disease. I hope people reading “I Still Do” will have a better understanding of the importance of family caregivers and how difficult and isolating that life is. I want people who see my work to recognize that, while much is taken away by Alzheimer’s, a person is still left behind; a person who deserves respect, dignity and love. And I hope that people will recognize that there are gifts and moments of joy and beauty that come with even the most terrible of diseases.

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