The Universe of Gay Block

THE Magazine, October 2003

The making of Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed began in 1973 when I registered for my first photo course in Houston. The professor told us to load cameras with Tri-X film and start photographing something until we understood it. I found myself at Mother's house the next morning. We'd had a difficult time together and I was always angry with her for being so undependable. One day she might be loving, but the next day she'd be cruel or insulting. So I kept photographing and videotaping her relentlessly until she died in 1991. I couldn't really deal with the images until she died. Oh, she saw the photos I made, but except for a couple, I couldn't exhibit them because she looked so angry. About a year after she died, when these same pictures no longer looked angry, I knew it was because I'd begun to miss her. That's when I knew I could start to put this work together. In the end, this work has had a cathartic impact. The ten years of putting this work together, photographing her things, working with my video of her, and then dealing with what was left unsaid between us was a profound self-psychoanalytic experience. However, I was most interested in making it into a visual and textual product, one that might help others to work out things in their important relationships before the person dies.

I started photographing Mother when I was twelve years old with my Brownie camera. The first photograph was of her reading the paper in bed. Her bedroom was a focal point of our family life. I used to watch her dress, but when she put her perfume on I couldn't breathe. These were snapshots that she didn't know I was taking. Almost all my other pictures of her were collaborative events and she knew what was happening. Of course, I didn't know anything when I was twelve, but that's why I love these Brownie pictures so much.
I love that I have a photo of my bedroom from that time, of the family at dinner (my seat is empty since I'm taking the photo), and of course, all the bedroom scenes that include my brother. Scanning these old three-inch Brownie pictures from the fifties into my computer and putting the true colors back into them has been a fabulous experience. It puts me back in those rooms all over again.

photo by Jennifer Esperanza

Truth and beauty, those words are lynchpins in photographic literature. I've always said that my portraits are my truth, meaning that I'm the one who selected the subject, then selected the image from the sitting that best portrayed what I felt and saw during the sitting. In the eighties, I did a series of clothed and nude diptychs in Los Angeles. I put an ad in the UCLA paper-The Bruin-and asked anyone to pose for me for two hours for thirty dollars. This was a fascinating study in the truth. Depending on the images I chose to enlarge, the subject could appear to be more comfortable clothed or nude. There was absolutely no truth in those images because I was making the selections.

I'm as interested in a person's story and exactly the words they use to tell it as I am in exactly what they look like. My partner, Malka Drucker, and I did a book and exhibit and which showed at MoMA, in New York, in 1992 and about Christians who rescued Jews during the war, Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust. Malka and I did long interviews, and since Malka is a writer and I'm not, I edited the interviews for the book because I loved the way these people expressed themselves.

For those rescuers' portraits, I chose to use color because their heroic acts were so off the charts that I wanted the viewer/reader to be able to feel as if they were not only sitting there with this hero, but that this hero was just like them, and that with moral conviction any of us can do heroic things. So it was important to me to photograph the person exactly as they appeared during the intense interview that preceded the making of the portrait. After two hours of interviewing, I knew how I saw the person, how the person looked.
For instance, Johannes DeVries sat in an armchair, and for over two hours one leg was swung over the arm. I'd never seen anyone sit like that ever-it would have been unthinkable to photograph him any other way. In terms of the photographs from the project about my mother, I think a lot of them present evidence of her life and of my experience of her.

Few artists have the luxury of single-mindedly tracking a particular subject for over twenty years. When Gay Block first began to photograph her mother back in the early seventies, she didn't know that she was laying the foundation for a project that would become an obsession. Constantly searching for a way to redeem her difficult mother-a bright, vain, self-centered woman-Block's antipathy for her subject is really a smokescreen that conceals a profound understanding and a complicated love.
-THE Magazine

August Sander and Diane Arbus were my earliest influences. When I was studying photography in Houston with Geoff Winningham, he suggested that I go to MoMA and look at Sander portraits. They were a great influence, and so was seeing the Arbus show before I began photographing.


I did a series of portraits in 1981 at a girls summer camp-the same camp in Maine I had attended and my daughter was then attending. Looking at these girls, I kept projecting them into the future, into the mothers they would become or not become, the marriages they would or would not have. Now I want to go back and photograph them again. The oldest girls would be thirty-seven at this time. I will start the research soon. The hardest part will be finding them.*

Web note: Perhaps you will recognize yourself or someone you knew at the girls camp. Select the link and see the work.

More Information and past Film Festival showings of "Bertha Alyce"
Oakland International Film Festival, Award for Best Short Documentary.

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