INTERVIEW | Jane Tuckerman
By: Alex Friedlander
I am mainly looking at the images from your body of work entitled “Ghosts.” After reading the first section in your book (I Was Young and He Was Old and We Sat), I feel the project refers to the notion of the haunted and/or being haunted (alluding to all senses of the word). Where did this idea of documenting the human relationship to death in fact come from?
There are many reasons that an artist chooses a subject, or the subject chooses the artist. Some explanations are true and some become mythologized because there are no absolute answers. But, all are real.
So, why “Ghosts”, why death, why the dark?
It started in an old farmhouse where people had lived and died for centuries. At night I heard the invisible footsteps marching up the stairs. Deep in dark closets there were strange nut shaped articles in glass apothecary jars. The formaldehyde had seeped away during 80 years of storage, but the label was still clear, “Mitty’s Veil”. My mother had been born with a veil, which gifted her the ability of “second sight”, enabling her to see and connect with Ghosts.
My father fought in two world wars, and as many individuals who returned from those cataclysmic events, he never talked about the experience and his silence haunted the household. There were signs, a black tie worn everyday to show mourning for my brother who died as a consequence of battle. Wars were my generation’s heritage. All the problems with still undiagnosed post- traumatic stress visited upon our adolescence. Then Vietnam, the rage and the loss, and we understood that there were no real explanations and that in one hundred years there had only been 25 days of peace. “Duck and Cover” was the mantra for the eight to ten year old, and the reality of a nuclear attack was the possibility of spending the rest of your life below ground in a bomb shelter with enough canned goods to survive one hundred days.
Ironically, we attended the local peace loving Quaker church where the congregation prayed in Silence. More silence, silence from god, silence from my father, silence between two people, silence from the environment, all because there were too many Ghosts.
© Jane Tuckerman, Woman and Dog, Benaras, India, from the book “Ghosts” 2005
In terms of the content, do you feel that traveling to other places was necessary for the project itself? If so, why? Also, how do you connect to the foreign religious rituals and iconography found within the places you visited?
In 1984, I was invited to document death rituals in Benaras, India. A place where Hindus go to die because they believe that they will escape further reincarnations by dying or being cremated in this holy city on the Ganges river. Here, I confronted the raw process of death, how people deal with the inevitability of time and circumstance. Other countries offer more answers and create more visual rituals to assuage their fear of a visit from the Grim Reaper, the Calaveras, the Night Rider, or The Angel of Death. The culture in the United States has always sanitized death by sweeping it away as fast as possible. There are no processions or a week of keening, no small leaves set afloat with candles to usher the souls departure into the underworld, and no cracking of coconuts in the flames to symbolize the departure of the spirit from the corpse. I was spellbound, enthralled with these processes and signs of devotion. All of these great spectacles to ward off the dark specter of death that had haunted us from time immemorial, and I was invited along to feast, to pray, to believe and to hope.
© Jane Tuckerman, India Women, India, from the book “Ghosts” 2005
How do the pictures of Poland (especially Auschwitz) coincide with the rest of the photographs? Many of the other images reflect on rituals having to do with death or religion. The death camps during WWII are not necessarily related to the performance of rituals. How do you feel these images tie into your project? Also, why are they the last images in your book? Does that hold any significance on how things, for lack of a better word, end?
The hope stops at the gates of hell. Auschwitz was and is a representation of hell. Where belief and hope and devotion come to an end and nothing is left. Auschwitz represents the anti- Christ, the other side of the soul, the dark lurking in the underbelly of humankind. When I walked into Auschwitz, I started sobbing because all the ghosts that are still there have used up all the oxygen and one cannot breathe. I am not Jewish, I am not religious, but I am spiritual and I do believe in the extremes of good and evil and that we make no decisions completely on our own because the ghosts in our memory, in our collective unconscious, prevail. As one walks around Auschwitz, one hears the mumbling of explanation in many languages and the deep resonance from the walls of sobbing and sighing: it begins to sound like chanting, or praying, or in the best of all worlds, discovery and possible enlightenment. So, maybe this too becomes a spiritual journey.
© Jane Tuckerman, Figure, Birkenau, Poland, from the book “Ghosts” 2005
In regards to the making of the photographs, how did you decide to approach the image making? The photographs cross the barriers of fine art and documentation but are mended together to create a beautiful representation of the foreign and unknown. I am sure this was aesthetically intentional. Can you elaborate on that?
I worked with infrared film because it has a luminous, unworldly effect. It is sensitive to the unseen part of the spectrum, and documents imagery that is invisible to the human eye. This seemed apropos considering my subject. I loved 19th century pictorialism, painters and photographers. It was their connection with nature and light and impending doom, all of these resonated with my having grown up with a man that was born in the 19th century, on a farm with a vast horizon that announced the ever-changing weather, and unseen eyes watching in the night.
What are you working on now?
Recently, discarded dolls have become my subject. They are abandoned icons of childhood. A child grows older and becomes weary of the unresponsiveness of her former stuffed companion. This small bundle is cast aside and relegated to the abuse of aging and deterioration. The dolls also connect with my interest in religious iconography and rituals. We speak to the idols on the alter hoping for some sign of response. What we actually get is a sense of hope even from the ever-prevailing silence.
© Jane Tuckerman, Mary and Bettina, from the series “Discarded Icons”
© Jane Tuckerman, Cross-eyed, from the series “Discarded Icons”
Jane Tuckerman received her M.F.A. in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. She served as department chair of the photography program at Harvard University between 1978 and 1986. She taught at Smith College and currently teaches at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. Tuckerman has been featured in numerous exhibitions internationally, including Instituto Chileno Nortamericano de Cultura, Santiago, Chile, Yildiz University, Istanbul, Turkey, Photokina, Germany & Paris, Museo del Chopo, Mexico City, Witkin Gallery, NY, NY, Museum of Natural History, NY, NY, Carpenter Center for the Arts, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, MA, Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA and New Bedford Art Museum, New Bedford, MA, among others. Selected publications include Human Documents: Eight Photographers (Peabody Museum), The Making of a Collection (Minnesota Institute of Art/ Aperture/ Hartwell), Aperture Magazine, Art News, as well as her monographs Ghosts (2005) and Silence (2010) by Pond Press.
Tuckerman is the recipient of an N.E.A.Visual Artist Grant and her work is part of the collections at MOMA, NY, NY, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, NY, Houston Museum of Art, Houston, TX, Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, Minneapolis, MN, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, RISD Museum, Providence, RI, among others.
Tuckerman is represented by Panopticon Gallery, Boston, MA.