Single Subject Series: Kaylynn Deveney

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It is not unusual for a photographer to build up a portfolio of a single human subject based on someone with whom they have a close relationship such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, Harry Callahan and his wife Eleanor, David and Catherine Bailey or Man Ray and Lee Miller; but it is arguable that these collections are orientated towards the artistic representation of the human figure.

At the other end of the spectrum there are a few notable series that focus on an individual subject investigating identity, lifestyle and social circumstances. Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh (here), Julian Germain’s For Every Minute (here) and several of Nigel Shafran’s collections centred on his wife Ruth (here) fit into this category.

In a very similar vein to For Every Minute there is Kaylynn Deveney’s compact little book The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings (1) comprising over eighty square format photographs in dispersed with facsimiles of old photographs, hand written notes and other mementoes. Deveney, an American photographer who spent time studying in South Wales, sympathetically photographed her elderly neighbour Albert Hastings inside and around his home. There are many similarities to Julian Germain’s study of Charlie Snelling; the photographers became genuine friends with their subjects, the subjects were elderly widowers living alone and there was something unique about these men that originally attracted the photographers’ attention. It is noticeable that both Germain and Deveney document how much they gained from these relationships and how they were richer for the experience.

Deveney, as a photographer, is “focussed on ideas and depictions of home” and to that end Day-to-Day is a domestic portrait, a series of pictures of Bert Hastings engaged in the mundane details of his routine from collecting his pension to making an evening meal. To a lesser extant than Germain had done in Every Minute, Deveney incorporates photographs of the subject’s late wife into the series but there is an added poignancy here as we learn that she died tragically young in 1958 so Bert Hastings had been alone for over forty years. One of the aspects of Every Minute that impressed me was the respect paid by Germain to Charlie Snelling’s family album, it had been given the same treatment in terms of scale and layout as Germain’s own photographs and I felt that this was missing from Day-to-Day with the old photographs smaller and without any accompanying text.

From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings - Kaylynn Deveney 2007

From the series The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings – Kaylynn Deveney 2007

Text is a key element of this series with each of Deveney’s pictures captioned by Bert Hastings. At one level and in certain photographs this offers an insight into his mind and adds a layer of information and context that helps the viewer empathise and understand the photographs and the subject but, on balance, I feel that the idea has been taken a little too far and would have been more effective if only used occasionally. However, this is a small point and overall the use of Bert Hasting’s captions is highly effective and enhanced by using a facsimile of his hand writing making the captions more personal and introducing the dimension of time as we see the deterioration in his handwriting between the various handwritten items such as poems incorporated by Deveney and the occasion of the photographs.

The various notes and mementoes that Deveney has incorporated are very cleverly selected to provide context to the overall series. In The Mind’s Eye (2), Cartier-Bresson says “in a picture story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of the camera to reach.” Deveney has achieved this “illumination” not just through the use of Bert Hasting’s captions but in the incorporation of many other texts; his list of television programmes to watch in the first week of May and the titles of the books in his library tell the viewer much about his personality, likes and dislikes that would be impossible to convey solely through pictures. Not surprisingly, as a newspaper man, Harold Evans (3), is an advocate for words; he believes that, by adding text, the editor can enhance both the emotional and cognitive experience of viewing a photograph or a series of photographs. When this is done well the photograph and the text each contribute to the story and the relationship is symbiotic. Day-to-Day is an excellent example of the power of words and pictures working together in this way.

Deveney recognises that this series is neither a biography nor an attempt to tell a complete story; an unachievable objective in any series of pictures, but she does provide a multi-dimensional view of her subject by mixing memories, specific activities from his days and by drawing attention to his creative interests and hobbies.

Both Germain and Deveney talk with sincerity about the special attributes of their subjects and they were obviously interesting men with unique histories and endearing personalities. However, if we invested time in building a relationship with a elderly neighbour or chance acquaintance we would probably discover that they too are unique. Our mass media, over communicated world conditions us to see people as types, examples and statistics forgetting that each of us has an unique personal history and, to state the obvious, an octogenarian has a lot more history than most.

Twenty photographs from the series can be found at the photographers website (4) here unfortunately the various facsimiles that add so much value to the book are not shown here.

Sources

Books

(1) Deveney, Kaylynn (2007) The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings. New York: Princeton Architectural Press

(2) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation

(3) Evans, Harold (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-Journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

Internet

(4) Deveney, Kaylynn (2007) The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings (accessed at the photographer’s website 13.3.16) – http://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings

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