“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” — Robert Frank
Imagine you had an assignment to describe your essence to a perfect stranger using only pictures. Likely included in your photographic biography would be your surroundings, family, and personal effects. You might select objects that represent your morals and beliefs – for instance a cross on the wall or a collection of books. You may photograph your home, vehicles, and land to give them a sense of your social standing. A large portion of the photos would be of things that you own and cherish – things that bring you joy. Such items help define us, providing a reference for how we think and feel. Their emotional impact stems from corresponding memories – past experiences, people, feelings, eras, and places. This connection between our psyche and our belongings is the realm of Rachel Cox’s photographic work.
For Rachel Cox, the camera has been a part of her life since her teens. Growing up in the “analog years,” she captured family members on Polaroids and continues to shoot the majority of her work on film. Her work focuses on the interaction of people and the items around them throughout life and even death. These items convey complex nonverbal communication such as wealth, education, relationship status, gender, sexual orientation, style, taste, confidence, vitality, and health. Attached to these objects are emotional and symbolic significance that elevates their importance beyond their monetary value.
“I’m really interested in objects and how they define us as a culture and how they help navigate uncomfortable situations, emotionally-challenging situations.”
While some photographers focus on a specific subject matter, Rachel enjoys the process of exploring new avenues, researching historical perspectives, and deciding how objects intersect with her life and interests. This has resulted in a variety of projects ranging from Shiny Ghost, that followed her aging grandmother over the course of 15 years, to Feel Some Type of Way, which reveals the beauty and suggestiveness of show room hot tubs, to the curated adornment of modern funeral homes in Mors Scena. Often her images contain pieces of something larger, something that spurs a memory. The elements of the photograph suggest a feeling, a timeframe, or an experience – they contain the “humanity of the moment.”
“It’s probably recognition and an uncannyness, a familiarity that you can’t quite pinpoint. When you look at something, and there’s an aesthetic to it, whether it’s lighting or color or texture—that reminds you of something you’ve experienced but you don’t know when or where. You’re kind of like scrolling through your memory index trying to figure that out. That’s where a lot of this exists for me.”
In Shiny Ghost, Cox confronts the life and loss of a loved one, her grandmother. As a third generation only-child on her father’s side, her grandmother had a major role in her life. However, her liberal atheist views clashed with those of her conservative Baptist grandmother. This opposing viewpoint and way of life intrigued Cox, and her grandmother became her muse.
“The things I was photographing were just familiar, everyday, casual moments—nothing specific or staged. In the beginning I didn’t ask her to do anything. I photographed her and my grandpa, but really it was her, I think because of how quickly she got used to it. She didn’t even say anything when I’d bring my camera out, didn’t act differently. I could tell she kind of liked it, too. So, I didn’t feel that I was changing the nature of how the moments and conversations were going by photographing them.”
Photography became the bridge between them. What started as candid snapshots turned into an epic 15-year account of her grandmother’s life and eventual struggle with Alzheimer’s. Her grandmother had a form of dementia with deterioration of the emotive areas in her brain. Yet, she continued to cling to the objects around her as they helped define who she was as a person. Cox’s photographs of her grandmother and her possessions gives insight into the basic need to characterize ourselves. We each have a somewhat static mental avatar that embodies our appearance, the sound of our voice, our age and vitality. We work hard to maintain that image despite the inevitable effects of aging.
“As we went through the process of working together on this project, I began to realize that the politics and the stark religious beliefs didn’t really matter. Bit by bit, she began to feel capable of showing herself to me in an ‘undesirable’ way, without make-up, looking very frail. Her willingness to be vulnerable around me became a foundation for our relationship.” (Source: Photos of my Dying Grandma’s Last Days. Interviewer – Tom Seymour, Vice UK, May 2016)
Following the work of Shiny Ghost, she moved on to Feel Some Type of Way. By personifying showroom hot tubs, exposing the voluptuous curves and alluring design, she projects these traits and associated emotions of love and intimacy on the prospective buyer. It further explores the relationship of advertising and design in tempting the id, the life instincts that are crucial to pleasurable survival.
Her most recent work, Mors Scena, focuses on the objects that surround us after death. These objects have little bearing on the identity of the deceased, but are tailored to the grieving survivors.
“Now I’m using objects in a little bit more ambiguous way in these photographs I’m making of funeral homes that are addressing this need for beautiful objects when going through a troubling time, losing someone and going through feelings of loss and grief.”
These scenes of western culture funeraries utilize elaborate floral arrangements, mood lighting, velvet room dividers, and assorted decor from multiple eras to ease this transition.
The funeral home is not a home or a familiar place. It bears no memories of the deceased, and so it must rely on the affective maxims of color theory with their subdued lighting, muted tones, and understated decor to serve its purpose to the bereaved. Far from the work of Shiny Ghost, the individual is less defined – their identity in flux. Far from the world of objects, the deceased now exist in the realm of memories, the realm of photographs.
“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”
— Aaron Siskind
We are all surrounded by objects and often take for granted their ability to communicate. Capturing the humanity of the mundane is an impressive and ambitious endeavor, one to which Rachel Cox has devoted her career.
“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.” – David Bailey
Her accomplishments have not gone unrecognized as her work has been shown all over the world. We are fortunate to have her as the Program Head of Photography at the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History. Her critical thinking, devotion to her students, technical expertise and extensive knowledge of photographic presentation and preservation are an asset to the University and our community.
“It really is about guiding their creative pursuits . . . challenging them to talk about their work more critically, talking about their work with an awareness of what’s happened with the history of photography, how do they fit into that history, and getting them used to becoming their own curator.”