WINCHESTER — The four new shows at the Griffin Museum of Photography all relate to aging and death. That may sound off-putting. Yet you don’t have to be Wallace Stevens (“Death is the mother of beauty”) to find many of these photographs life affirming and, more important, thought provoking. The shows run through Dec. 6.
The premise of Isa Leshko’s “Allowed to Grow Old” could hardly be simpler, and doesn’t that title just break your heart? Leshko, who lives in Salem, has spent much of a decade photographing elderly animals. There are 43 images: of dogs, sheep, turkeys, horses, cows, goats, pigs, as well as a rabbit, rooster, hen, mule, burro, donkey, and goose. So we see both companion animals and farm animals. The intermixing is conscious on Leshko’s part, to raise the issue of “why we pamper some animals and butcher others.”
The captions consist of each animal’s name and age. The oldest, a horse, is 34. Another horse, Buddy, a 28-year-old Appaloosa, has the most appropriate name. Shot in natural light, the photographs are black and white. This makes for a slight distancing effect, as color would not. That bit of distance ensures that while Leshko’s subjects look charming and moving and lovable, which they certainly do, they’re never cute. In an artist’s statement, Leshko notes that she strove to capture each creature’s “unique personality.” On the evidence of these pictures, she succeeded. What you see — what you feel — is respect no less than affection.
This is a show that would likely enchant children (a whole lot of adults, too). Yet there is the larger, and rightful, consideration behind these images: the reminder that these creatures were “allowed” to continue living as countless others were not. These photographs will make you smile. Cumulatively, as Leshko intends, they also can’t help but make you think. Depending on how willing you are to follow that thinking to its logical conclusion, tears may succeed smiles.
What inspired Leshko to pursue “Allowed to Grow Old” was how dealing with her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease raised questions about mortality. Virgil DiBiase is a neurologist who works with dementia patients. The six black-and-white photographs in “My Husband Won’t Tell Me His First Name” touch on aging and the loss of identity it can bring. Two are portraits and three are blurred images (not unlike Olivia Parker’s attempt to deal with similar issues in her “Vanishing in Plain Sight” series). The other, “1000 Pieces,” almost-overwhelmingly combines documentation and metaphor. An elderly woman stares down at a table covered with jigsaw pieces. Her bafflement is ours.
The title of Arianne Clément’s “100 Years, Age of Beauty” is nicely confrontational within the context of a culture obsessed with youth. Most of the 11 photographs are portraits. All of them relate to female centenarians and issues of appearance and glamour. We see the women dressed in finery, looking in mirrors, applying lipstick, as well as items that belong to them. The images are vigorously straightforward: big (2 feet by 3 feet, or vice versa), high-contrast (which is to say unflattering) black and white, unframed, unmatted. Perhaps the harshness might best be understood as the harshness that can come of triumph. These women, who have lived well beyond their appointed three score and ten, are in no way giving in to the ravages of age.
There are 14 color portraits in Susan Rosenberg Jones’s “Widow/er.” The title is straightforward. After the death of a partner, she writes, “There is nothing like the grief one experiences.” Her own husband died in 2008. Jones remarried four years later, but her grief persisted. These portraits, part of a larger project, are a way of attempting to deal with those feelings. Each caption gives its subject’s name, how long he or she was married or the couple lived together, and how much time has passed since the partner’s death. Remarks from the subject, a paragraph or two, follow. The captions, then, like the photographs, are simple. Or as simple as love and loss, which is to say not simple at all.
ISA LESHKO: Allowed to Grow Old
VIRGIL DiBIASE: My Husband Won’t Tell Me His First Name
ARIANNE CLÉMENT: 100 Years, Age of Beauty
SUSAN ROSENBERG JONES: Widow/er
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Dec. 6. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.