PDN, October, 2007
Photo District News
By Joanna Lehan
As we grow older, our lives, along with our bodies, often shrink. Daily routines become ever more entrenched, describing smaller orbits in and around the home. What of our unique passions and proclivities, our selves, remain? Photographer KayLynn Deveney believes that much about ourselves is revealed in domestic details, and she makes a good argument in The Day-To-Day Life of Albert Hastings, in which we learn volumes about one elderly Welshman by following him through his days, which are spent, increasingly, at home.
The pictures don't tell the whole story, however. Deveney wondered how her perceptions of Hastings differed from the way he viewed himself. Taking a collaborative approach, she asked her subject to caption small prints pasted into a notebook. Through his voice we come to better understand a man who has withstood loss, but who lives with a quiet sense of pleasure, and even joy.
We are shown a few documents of Hastings' life: poems he's written, which are both clever and corny, several hand-drawn renderings from his former hobby as a clockmaker, and decades-old photographs of him and his late wife. But mostly we see moments from his day that reveal a charming meticulousness: a close-up of his hands using scissors to cut bread into cubes to feed the pigeons; the handwritten schedule he keeps of television programs inked neatly in capital letters; a daffodil in a teacup, its broken stem ingeniously braced with a rubber band. Except during a visit from his sister and niece, Hastings is always depicted alone. On a few occasions, he is in the hospital.
If the photos have an air of melancholy, Hastings' voice is rarely glum, and doesn't let Deveney get away with a picture that could be construed as maudlin. He uses active and positive words in his captions. "Enjoying the sun," he writes under a hilarious photograph of himself lying in his underwear and black socks in what might be his flat's parking lot. Under a photo of him squinting through a magnifying glass he writes, "Looking at something small" (not, "My eyes are failing," which is clearly the point of the picture).
The relationship between Deveney's photographic portrayal, our presumptions, and Hastings's own words is exemplified by a stunning picture of his bare torso. In it, his skin drapes over his frame, not in tragic defeat, but with a lovely sort of grace. Both the photographer and the viewer bring some baggage to the table here. We, the viewer, might regard such an intimate picture of an elderly person with a mixture of attraction and repulsion, inspired to imagine the ways we ourselves might wear our own aged flesh some day. As for Deveney, she may have made this sensual picture with an idea that she was defying our expectations, or elevating and honoring Hastings. But Bert Hastings' voice chimes in and deflates both our projections and the photographer's reverent gaze by bringing it back to his own experience: "I think that roughness on my lower left ribcage is where I broke five ribs 40 years ago," he writes. And sure enough, on second glance, we notice the subtle lack of symmetry to which he refers, and the image returns to being one documenting Hastings's own unique body, and not a symbol for aging.
Deveney was a staff photographer for years at her local paper, The Albuquerque Tribune, before she decided to pursue a Masters of Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. (She eventually continued on to complete a Ph.D.) New to Wales, she shyly introduced herself to Hastings, an ever-present neighbor who intrigued her, and soon began a project, and a friendship, that lasted several years. Bert Hastings died at age 91, just before Deveney published the book. We don't learn everything about him from this small book of isolated moments from his last few years. Remarkably, though, we learn enough about this stranger to be interested in him, enough even, to love him.