Bitter, Sweet 

Photographer Carol Dass takes a candid look at death and diabetes

Carol Dass, whose show at Phototroph just closed, has a new show at the Manitou Center for Photography. Like Phototroph, the Manitou Center is a small space dedicated to fine-art photography. Unlike Phototroph, the Manitou Center is easily accessible to non-cognoscenti, since it's located in an airy Manitou storefront, flooded with natural light.

Dass' Manitou show is very different from her last, which consisted of calm, gentle and contemplative small-scale works. Accessible, intimate, anything but disturbing -- it was work that was easy and delightful.

Here's how Dass describes this exhibition, titled The Flowing of Honey:

"The flowing of honey is a term used to describe diabetes mellitus. These photographs were made over a three-year period. I inherited diabetes from my father, and he from his. These images are about our disease."

Dass's father died on September 13th. The images are not easy to look at. There are only a dozen photographs, and most of them, out of context, are unremarkable. In one, Dass and another woman stand in an empty room, looking at two leg prostheses. Another is a simple shot of a chair, unoccupied in an empty room. But then there's a shot of Dass' father, asleep on a rumpled bed, the room flooded with late-afternoon light. The covers are thrown back -- diabetes has taken both of his legs. His face, even in sleep, is contorted in remembered pain. There's a final photograph of her father, his face softly profiled, calm and expressionless in death.

And then there are self-portraits. Dass, like Alice Neel, does not spare herself. She's a middle-aged woman, not an alarmingly thin 22-year-old supermodel. In one, she stands face to face with a grinning skeleton, politely offering her an entire layer cake on a platter. Not quite entire; a couple of slices are missing. Dass is nude, clothed in flesh, alive in the awareness of death.

It's difficult to look at death, and the rituals that surround it. If you've watched a close relative die, you know that it can be difficult and terrible. In a society dedicated to self-improvement, and to personal physical perfection (flat abs! thin thighs! firm breasts! rippling muscles!), death is, as Ross Perot might have said, stuck up in the attic with the crazy old aunt. As the season of dying approaches for millions of baby boomers, who have tended to regard death as an avoidable option, it'll be interesting to see how they (we!) cope.

Maybe Dass' relentless honesty, and her ability transform and communicate the dual experience of her father's death and her own intimations of mortality, will serve as marker on the path we will all take. Go look at the show.

--John Hazlehurst


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