David Hilliard last photographed his father in March, a week before the nursing homes locked down.
“He was holding his old dentures from 1955, which he got in the Navy, in one hand and the new choppers in the other, with my hand on top of his head,” said the photographer. “I didn’t want that to be the last picture.”
His father, Raymond William Hilliard, died on April 10 of COVID-19. His passing marks the end of a decades-long body of work for Hilliard. Raymond has been a favorite subject since the artist’s days as an undergrad at Massachusetts College of Art in the 1980s: reading Playboy in bed; puffing a cigar over lunch; sitting on a doctor’s examination table.
“From early on, I was interested in making high art pictures of this everyday guy,” Hilliard said.
If Raymond was an everyday guy, his son was not.
“If you’re lucky, your parents tolerate you and embrace your quirks,” Hilliard said. “I was very gay. He was my champion.”
Hilliard’s multi-panel photographs capture the tensions and soft spots in the relationship. In his 2008 photograph “Rock Bottom,” he and his father stand waist-deep in a lake. The triptych is in the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection and will be spotlighted in a museum blog post on June 15.
“The narrative possibilities with a triptych are perfect for a relationship between two people,” said Karen Haas, the MFA’s senior curator of photographs. “It represents the distance, but also the connection.”
Haas featured “Rock Bottom” in the MFA’s “(un)expected families” exhibition in 2017-2018. “People want to read into it,” she said. “Did they not get along? But the water between is like glass. It’s a connective tissue.”
The photographer grew up in Lowell and Tyngsborough. His parents divorced when he was small, and shared custody of Hilliard and his brother. Raymond didn’t remarry, but he had a longtime girlfriend whom Hilliard views as a second mother.
The artist knew Raymond could be seen as a caricature. “In the late ‘90s, I realized I was in danger of limiting the mythology of my father as a Hawaiian-shirt wearing, cigar-smoking guy,” Hilliard said. “So I started photographing his private side. His shame around his lack of education, his love of nature, his love of Transcendentalism. He journaled.”
In 2015, heart trouble landed Raymond in a nursing home. He later developed dementia. Hilliard kept taking his pictures.
Raymond had spoken to his son about the final image.
“He said, ‘David, when I die you have my permission to photograph me in my casket,” Hilliard said. He would be clasping Thoreau’s “Walden” on his chest.
Raymond declined quickly once he contracted the virus. On Good Friday, his nurse called Hilliard to say he was at the end. She held the phone to Raymond’s ear.
“They said I should say goodbye to him,” Hilliard said. “I’m not religious. My father was an atheist. I was really more embarrassed.”
And then, he wasn’t.
“I started shouting out, ‘Dad, you need to go, you’ve been a great father, you need to be free,’” Hilliard said. Then, Raymond died.
“The nurse said, ‘He’s gone. He’s got tears coming down his cheeks.’” Hilliard said. “He heard me.”
Because of COVID, the artist won’t be able to shoot that final casket photograph. The nursing home urged Hilliard and his brother to cremate Raymond, rather than embalm him.
“He never wanted that,” Hilliard said. “He said, ‘I don’t want to end in a vase.’”
So he got a casket-shaped urn, and a little oak table for it. He has been photographing his father’s remains in his favorite places. At Walden Pond, in the foothills of Maine, at his favorite diner in Lowell.
“I’m driving around in my Subaru with my father in the passenger seat,” Hilliard said.
It’s not the same as having the old man there in person, but Hilliard has years of photographs, and of a relationship founded on support and understanding.
“I had a charmed relationship with my father,” he said. “He was the great love of my life.”