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When our father died in the Twin Towers attack on 9/11, my brother and I were left with the task of entering his apartment for the first time. Thinking practically, we were looking for things that would help us tie up all the loose ends of his life: a will, phone numbers, bank stuff, insurance stuff. We found much more. We found artifacts which showed us parts of our father we’d never seen before.
The inspiration for Artifacts came from a conversation I had with Bob Black while looking at my father’s ID card recovered from Ground Zero. We started talking about the powerful relationships between photographs and identity and the role they play in the story I am creating on my father and 9/11.
As part of a larger project I am working on for the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, artifacts is a departure from my earlier work on the subject which was more documentary in nature. On its own, artifacts, is the conceptual story of my father’s life told by him through the things he left behind.
The images in this essay are unaltered scans and photographs of artifacts found in my father’s apartment 10 days after 9/11.
“Give not over thy soul to sorrow; and afflict not thyself in thy own counsel. Gladness of heart is the life of man and the joyfulness of man is length of days.”
– Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus 21.
“If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come.”
– Chinese Proverb
And how often is it that we fail to listen to the dead, fail to attend to all those moments they have bequeathed us in their living? Do they not remain with us and continue to animate us through the entirety of our own divesting days? Do they not continue to speak when we speak, breathe when we breathe, ache when we ache, love when we love? Are they not still alive inside us and along with us? This is the canticle of the living. Can you hear it now?
For the lessons and lives of loved ones do not desist even after they themselves have gone. How often though have each of us drowned out the wisdom and kindness of the departed by our squabble with wearying grief. None of us is immune from this deafness, for each of us has during those days and nights of anguish lived through moments when our focus was more often on absence, the hole in the center of our lives built from death, instead of presence. This is natural. But I wish to offer something else, to suggest that in fact their voice is one of celebration rather than sorrow, that though we must commiserate with sorrow there is another lesson to behold. For though loved ones die and seem to vanish from our immediate view, they in fact remain.
We are of them and they of us and this beautiful and eternal abacus never ceases. Though their bodies and lives are no longer, their presence is everywhere instructing and nurturing. They contribute to the wholeness of our lives; they fill our chasms not with dirt but with fecund soil. They have bequeathed us life even in their vanishing. It is the greatest covenant that I know and we are sustained because of this lasting presence.
This constancy lines the heart of Marc Davidson’s newest essay ‘Artifacts.’ Recently completed, ‘Artifacts’ is part of a larger body of work, a work-in-progress, entitled “Shared September.” Marc completed the first chapter entitled “Zero Ground” (search Road Trips) and has since gone on to work on and complete a number of different components of the project. In its final form, “Shared September” will be a book commemorating the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. Though ‘Artifacts’ is part of this larger body of work, it is a powerful stand alone chapter in its own right.
“Artifacts” is a story about living though it is built from the agony and despair of death. But it’s lumber and stone are taken not from the ashes of annihilation and misfortune but from the fertile and affirming anatomy of life. A soulful and heartbreaking story, describing not the aftermath but of a life lived fully. Make no mistake about it, ‘Artifacts” is more than a memento mori but instead is a celebration of one man’s life and all the love and living that his shortened life held. Stitched together by a string of personal photographs, the essay is a collection and composite of the basic moments and possessions that made up the tick of one man’s life, and by extension the ticking of our own. Though the essay has been constructed by Marc, it is in fact his father, Lawrence Davidson, who speaks throughout. An extraordinary act of ventriloquism.
Opening with Lawrence Davidson’s book “Touchstones: A Book of Daily Meditation for Men,” a book published by the Hazelton Foundation which was given to Lawrence and which he used daily, the essay moves through a remarkable time line, shuttling the viewer through the moments of Lawrence Davidson’s life by using photographs, documents and objects that Marc obtained after his father’s death. It is a story outlining one man’s life. But the story that unfolds before us, though weighted by the knowledge of death, is one of redemption, reminding us of how important each life and each moment and each object contains the totality of our lives: a teeming accumulation of the quotidian. Not detritus, but the grains and seeds of one’s life.
Though heart wrenching, ‘Artifacts’ works a larger and wiser and more loving territory than one that the shadow of lamentation might suggest. From the passing of Lawrence Davidson’s life, comes another chance for each of us to learn about and see aspects of our own lives. We would never have known who Lawrence Davidson was had not this horrific subtraction occurred and yet here we are, in full view of his life and as each photograph passes, as each calendar changes into another, as each new object comes before us, we begin to understand both the fullness of his life and the necessity of each of our own. Lawrence Davidson is giving to each of us a renewed sense of living though he died eight years ago. It is that sharing, the remarkable act of generosity that is so vital to this piece.
For in truth, this essay is not really Marc Davidson’s essay as it is Lawrence Davidson’s: his life, his voice, his descriptions, his time, his stories, his conversation with us. Even in death, he is sharing with each of us the moments of his life: childhood, life in Israel, military service, marriage, relationships, children, hard-won successes and setbacks. His life is spread out before us, as a son, as a brother, as a father, as a grandfather, as a companion, as a friend and colleague, even as a stranger, a person we knew nothing of until this very moment. Is there anything more generous than to share the contours of your life with another? It is this aspect which is so exceptional and remarkable. The generosity of the essay is the quality that I return to again and again. A brave and self-less act on his son’s behalf to honor the father by allowing him his moment to speak and by doing so removing himself, the photographer, from the equation. His father’s voice and story are alive, can you hear it?
Photographic essays are usually told from the viewpoint of the photographer. With photographic work that wishes to speak about tragic events, it is even more arduous. Most of the stories about death are narrated from the point of view of the survivor. How else to tell the story? This is no less true about the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Most of the collective grief has been focused, as it should, on the survivors, the family members who lost loved ones. They grieve and they continue to grieve, for the loss is never fully remedied. We too ache for them and we wish, in our quiet moments, to assuage their suffering which appears to continue without surcease. Moreover, we view these events always from the perspective of the living. We listen to the stories of the widows and widowers, the parents and children. We shelter and shoulder their bravery as they recount their loss and love. The story is a universal one for from all the families of the 2,973 people who perished that autumn morning, people who came from more than 90 countries and represented the entire spectrum of ethnicity and religions, occupation and ambition, age and gender, we feel a bond, for though we cannot feel fully the weight of their loss we recognize the totality as belonging to each and all of us.
And yet, ‘Artifacts’ is a story of survival. It is a story told by not a family member but by a person who perished. A resurrection of sorts. A life which unfolds in front of us and is transformed from death toward life. Lawrence Davidson is no longer a number on a fact sheet or a name on a Certificate of Death sheet. He is with us and he is here to share his story with each of us through the things he best loved: his photographs, his letters, friends, his children. His children, the anchor and pivot of his life. This essay is his story told not from the beyond but from the place, right here, of the living and of the expanse of his life. In the wake of his death, the story of his living rises. A life bequeathed and continued.
Not just the pictures of rubble and ash and bone-broken girders, not just exoskeletons of steel and glass, not just the placards of the missing and grieving, but of the clothes and the shoes and the papers, a grounded-firmament of papers scattered like a great-plain of seed and sand, the badges and shoelaces, the wrist bands and name tags, the emails and extension memo’s, the parking passes and metro cards, the ties and rings and bracelets and rubber bands, the coins and collars, the cufflinks and sock stitching, the flaxseed of hair and the nails filed that, miraculously, showed up next to poured and flamed concrete.
Who speaks of these things? Who speaks of the minutiae of the living that goes bereft when the living have left their loss to us? We consider history and death on a scale set large by constellations, when it is just as true that our lives are large because of all that infinitely small detail which scatters and snakes it’s way into life. Can you now see the largess of what was left simply in the small, dog-eared turn of a corner in a plastic card, set aflame thousands of degree that will not relent? The face remains uncharted though the life and building came down. How do we begin to speak of this to others?
‘Artifacts’ is an extraordinarily courageous and generous essay. Marc Davidson has brought back from the dead his father’s voice, has allowed him to speak to each of us and to tell us part of the story of his life. This is an affirmative story, a story of living and creating, a story of a man whose greatest riches were his children and the life that they continue to live both honoring and celebrating the gifts which he bestowed them. I can’t think of another act by a photographer as selfless as this. How many photographers remove their craft, step aside from the stage and allow another to speak unadorned. A testament of the life that one man, and by extension all of us, imparts during the span of an impossibly short but miraculously rich time on Earth.
How is it that we cope with loss, sudden loss, the how and what of things? What are the objects of our life that make up the person we are, tell us who we are, allow us to gather and to reshape? How to capitulate a life? Indeed, we are partly plastic ID pictures and death certificates, we are partly bone and carbon and water and earth but we are so much more as well, eternal and etched out inside the life and lines of every living person and place and thing of whom we are a part, even when we are forever apart.
To document. To retrieve. To hold fast, even when you have so little left. To know that though they have ended and yet have also just begun. We have, because of them, not ended even when it feels like that in the cave of our hearts, but in truth, in the greenest of light we know that they are telling us: we have only just begun.
Can you hear their story and their heart beat and the expanding of their breath?
– Bob Black
Marc Davidson is a 36 year old Canadian photographer based just outside of Toronto. Born in Israel, Marc moved to Canada at the age of 9 where he lived until moving to the US at attend the University of Colorado. After graduating, Marc worked in Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Whistler before re-settling back in Toronto in 2002. Married with two young daughters, Marc is a stay at home dad who also devotes time towards his personal photo projects and the occasional commercial client.
Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..
Many thanks… david alan harvey