Frames of Reverence
Albuquerque Photographer KayLynn Deveney Delves into Issues of Aging, Friendship
By Ollie Reed Jr. (The Albuquerque Tribune)
Friday, October 5, 2007
KayLynn Deveney believes it was Albert Hastings' hat and sweater that drew her to her elderly neighbor in southern Wales.
It was 2001 and Deveney, an Albuquerque native and former Tribune photographer, was in Wales working on a graduate degree in photography at the University of Wales, Newport.
Walking from her rented flat into the heart of the city and back again, she'd pass Hastings' building and see him in his garden, meticulously watering his plants by pouring water from old detergent bottles.
Often he'd be wearing a hat and sweater — things that reminded her of her grandfather, tugged at her attention, hooked her gaze.
Deveney knew she wanted to meet Hastings, thought she might want to photograph him. But she passed him many times without stopping.
Even though she is a veteran photojournalist who worked at The Trib more on than off for a dozen years, Deveney retains a shyness that makes it tough for her to break the ice with a potential new subject.
When she finally did scrape up the fortitude to approach Hastings, she was won over immediately by his warmth and, soon after, by his personal history.
"I thought he was so interesting," she said during an interview at her Northeast Heights home earlier this week. "It was interesting, for me, to hear about (World War II) from a British person's perspective."
She soon asked Bert, as she would come to call him, if he'd work with her on a photography project. He agreed.
The result is "The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings." It is Deveney's first book, but it is Hastings' book, too.
It includes Deveney's sumptuous, moving, thought-provoking photos of the simple daily routines and environs of a self-sufficient but aging widower.
It also contains sketches by Hastings; photos of his wife, who died of cancer in 1958; poems he wrote; and comments he jotted beneath each of Deveney's photographs.
"I prefer baking my own cake, tart, plum pies, etc. I know what I'm eating then," he noted beneath a picture of himself busy in his kitchen.
Deveney realized early on she wanted Hastings to record his thoughts about her photos.
"I see his captions as a chance for deeper explanation but also for rebuttal," Deveney said.
"Pigeons getting used to the camera now," he wrote under a photo of himself interacting with the birds, a favored pastime. "One on my head and one about to fly up to my hand."
Hastings was 85 when he met Deveney. She was 34.
"Even though I associated his hat and sweater with my grandfather, I never thought of Bert as my grandfather," Deveney said. "And I don't think he thought of me as his granddaughter. I think it was always clear that we were friends."
She says friendship doesn't diminish the story she and Hastings are telling in the book.
"The story is about Bert, first and foremost," she said. "It is about us secondarily. I don't think our relationship shuts off the viewers' connection with the story, their emotional response to it."
Deveney said she hopes that people who see the book glean ideas from it about aging, the ways we interact with each other, how we care for our homes and how it is possible to meet lonely days with positive action.
"I didn't do the project to please Bert," she said. "My approach is `I'm here and I'm a storyteller, and this is my understanding of what's important.' And Bert gets to add on top of that."
The wrong goal
Deveney, now 40, is among the cluster of shooting stars who have made powerful, prize-winning photographs for The Tribune during the past two decades.
While on The Trib staff, she photographed stories about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation, a Mexican couple who settled in New Mexico to find a new life, Albuquerque lounge singers, a desert monastery, tiny Pie Town in Catron County and the last days of an AIDS activist and victim.
All during her newspaper career, she scrupulously maintained the objectivity expected of reporters and photographers. Or, at least, she tried the best she could.
"I don't know how much people who read newspapers think about the people who report the news and how their perspectives shape what they report," Deveney said. "But I sure think a lot about it. I'd had a lot of anxiety about this, really thought about my place in the process."
She wondered if pure objectivity was possible — especially on long-term projects in which reporters and photographers have prolonged contact with their subjects.
"Newspapers want you to make pictures that seem to be very close and personal and emotional, but they also want you to retain that mantle of objectivity," she said. "But when you spend months and months in the houses of the people you are photographing, you're going to become friends.
"I tried to be objective for a long time — until I realized that was the wrong goal."
A Grand experiment
The right goal, as she came to understand it, was to make photographs that reflect the circumstances of a story as she saw them — even if that meant blurring the distinction between clinical observer and personal friend.
In 1998, after returning to The Tribune from a 10-month sabbatical photographing in Northern Ireland, Deveney took an advanced photography class at the University of New Mexico in which she explored the personal photo-journal format.
She thought the journal approach might make her feel free to express her feelings. She tested her theory with a class project about the residents at the Albuquerque Grand Senior Living facility.
Deveney had been interested in aging issues since, as a UNM undergraduate, she started photographing her maternal grandmother, Myrtle Della Nichols Marks, whom Deveney nicknamed Fred "for some teenage reason I thought was good."
Fred was 70 when Deveney was born. She died at age 90 while Deveney was a student at UNM. Deveney was there with her camera at the end.
She decided a project at the Albuquerque Grand would tell her more about how people deal with aging and how the elderly are treated in American society. But she also thought it would tell her more about herself as a photographer.
"I know that I feel a lot about the people I photograph, but rarely talk much about that," she wrote in the first pages of the photo journal that would emerge from the Grand project. "I know that the situations and the photographs are influenced by me, and I am certainly influenced by the people I photograph.
"This exercise will help me think about where documentation meets interpretation, where analysis meets emotion."
While shooting the Grand project from fall 1998 into spring '99, Deveney did becomes friends with and a part of the lives of facility residents — three in particular.
Her conclusion was that this intimacy helped rather than hampered the story she was trying to tell.
"If you don't take yourself into a situation to photograph," she wrote, "you don't bring anything out."
No fly on the wall
Deveney continued her exploration of aging issues and the personal photo-journal technique in graduate school in Wales.
Her masters project was "Edith & Len," a photo journal about Edith and Leonard Crawshaw, a married couple in their 90s who had just moved into a Welsh nursing home together.
She photographed it from October 1999 to June 2000.
Once again, the border between photojournalist and friend quickly became hazy.
"It was clear I could not come into this small room and be a fly on the wall," Deveney wrote. "Nor did I wish to be."
A journal entry for Oct. 26, 1999, shows how Deveney tried to be both documenter and supporter.
"I helped take Len's socks off and button his pajamas because Edith was really struggling," Deveney wrote. "I photographed her struggling before I helped, though."
Deveney found out that being a friend can make the job of a documentary photographer sometimes easier but also sometimes more difficult.
She felt guilty photographing Edith during emotional moments when the older woman dissolved into tears, or taking pictures of the couple after they had quarreled.
Jan. 21, 2000: "I don't think Edith and Len think I'm going to reveal as much about them as I will in my final work. But I can't tell if they really care."
She knows that her presence, often a blessing to the old people, was also sometimes an intrusion.
March 30, 2000: "I left waving goodbye to them as we all blessed each other. As I was walking down the hall, I heard Len say, `I'm glad she left.' "
Deveney says that no matter what the circumstances, it's difficult for people to be put under the microscope — or the photo lens.
Friends to the end
The Grand project and "Edith & Len" led quite naturally to "The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings."
Each story, though different in their own ways, revealed how people's worlds shrink as they age, sometimes to something as small as a nursing home room.
And because of those projects, Deveney, now completing work on her doctorate in photography, has come to acknowledge her hybrid role in the documentary process.
Len Crawshaw died in November 2000 while Deveney was in Albuquerque preparing for her wedding. But she was at Edith's side when she died in April 2002.
Bert Hastings died in February of this year at age 91, while the book about his life was still being prepared for publication.
Deveney had last seen him in October 2005 but had stayed in touch by phone and letter.
"I don't know how you can start a project with someone who is in their 90s and photograph them for one year, or three years, or five years and not stay in touch with them," she said. "You become a fixture in their life. I don't think I could finish up with what I needed and stop being friends with them.
"I don't think I could be OK with that."