Patricia sings as her husband Ed plays in a nightly ritual in their home in Detroit. Photo by David Alan Harvey
Conversation with Patrica Lay-Dorsey
Author of Falling Into Place: Self Portraits
Detroit-based artist Patricia Lay-Dorsey was diagnosed with chronic progressive Multiple Sclerosis in 1988. Twenty years later she turned her camera on herself and began taking self-portraits with the intention of showing from the inside the day-to-day life of a person with a disability.
The photographs chronicle the struggles and achievements of the artist as she learns to accept the limitations of her body and celebrate her abilities rather than her disability. Taken together, the images build a compelling narrative about the artist’s daily life over five years that is inspiring, deeply moving and offers a fascinating insider perspective. The story highlights Lay-Dorsey’s energetic lifestyle, and unconventionally for a woman of her age, a love of Detroit electronic dance music which led its aficionados to bestow on her the nickname ‘Grandma Techno’.
Published by Ffotogallery in Cardiff, Wales and designed by award-winning book designer Victoria Forrest, the hardback book includes 50 colour images, an artist statement and biography, and texts by David Alan Harvey, Magnum photographer and Burn Magazine Editor, and David Drake, Director of Ffotogallery.
David Alan Harvey: Patricia, I think you are the first Burn commenter who has actually done a book on their own. Is that right as far as you know? Who else has done one?
Patricia Lay-Dorsey: What about Michael Loyd Young?
DAH: I am talking about somebody who was an avid Burn commenter and who sort of came out of the Burn crowd, so I don’t see Mike in quite that role. I mean, Mike looked at Burn, but he wasn’t a Burn commenter in the way you were. I mentored Mike out of workshops. You just from Burn itself. Mike by the way is my next interview with his upcoming Beer, Bait & Ammo.
PLD: Yes, I was quite active on Burn.
DAH: That’s right. Mike is actually on his second or third book, but I think you’re certainly one of the first people that we published originally for a Burn essay. Do you know where Falling Into Place came onto Burn there at the beginning?
It was right before the new year, so it was the end of December 2008. It was either the second or third essay published
DAH: Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Certainly one of the early ones.
PLD: Right at the beginning.
DAH: Now refresh my memory on exactly how Falling Into Place started getting shot. What happened?
PLD: Okay, actually you had a lot more to do with it than I think you realize. I was scheduled to go to Look3 in 2008 for the first time and take your essay class.
DAH: Yeah, Nachtwey and I were teaching an essay class, and you did take that class.
PLD: No, I didn’t, because my husband Ed ended up with a bad back, had to go to the hospital and then was on a walker. I couldn’t leave him.
DAH: Oh, that’s right. I was just teaching a class by myself and you were going to do it, then I remember now something happened and you couldn’t do it.
PLD: Exactly. So I was very conscious of the fact that your workshop was going on that week in June. And it occurred to me that I could do an essay on my own at home at the same time, just as if I were in the workshop. So I was conscious of that. On the morning of June 11th, 2008, I was sitting on the toilet and looked down at my nightgown and saw this puddle of light, of sunlight, in my lap and it interested me. I had my camera right there, and so I took a picture of it. Then I looked down a little farther and I saw my bare foot with a lattice-like shadow on it, and I took a picture of that. So that wasn’t unusual because I would take random shots, but what was unusual was my next thought, which was “I think I will go into the shower and take a picture in there”. Now, when I thought that, it was a little above and beyond the norm. And I did it. I did go in there, and I took maybe four or five frames of my legs and feet in the water with the shower pouring down. Obviously the water was not on me. I have a shower chair, so I pushed that back and didn’t get wet. But when I came out of that shower I knew I was serious about this and that I was starting a self-portrait project. So that’s how it started.
DAH: Okay, now wait a minute. Are we sure we’ve got the right year there? Because you said June of 2008, but that was before Burn.
PLD: Oh yeah, I was on Road Trips!
DAH: Oh yes!
PLD: When I signed up for your workshop, I had found you on Google, I had found Look3 on Google. I thought it was time for me to go to a photo festival so I Googled “photo festival” and there it was.
DAH: Okay, now I’ve got it. I can’t remember life in sequence. Thank goodness for photography just for memory. I mean, I look at my Instagram and that’s my only calendar. I think “Oh yeah, I was there and there and there”. Okay, so that’s how it happened. That’s right. That’s why you had the essay a few days after Burn started, because you had already been doing it for six months.
DAH: I get it, okay.
PLD: And with you mentoring me for those six months. Because when you saw the first twelve images…you know in those days on Road Trips we would put up a link to portfolios that we had started…and when you saw the first twelve, you immediately said, “Well my dear this is a book and I’ll mentor you on it”, and you did.
DAH: Yeah, I don’t remember the years, and I don’t remember a lot of the details, but I do remember that when I first saw the pictures I thought it would be an incredible book if you could keep going with me. Now, we’re talking five years later and here we have it?
PLD: Five and a half years, yes.
DAH: Now, does that seem like a really long time, or does that seem like a reasonable time to you? Does it seem like it has taken forever, or does it seem kind of fast in retrospect?
PLD: I think it feels reasonable. It wasn’t like that was the only project I was doing for five and a half years. I did eight other serious projects and I still have some that are ongoing projects. If it was the only thing I had been doing, it would have been forever. But, to be honest, looking at it realistically, I think I was fortunate that it came so quickly. After all I consider myself the oldest emerging photographer on the planet! It isn’t like I’ve been doing this for a long time.
DAH: That’s right. Well, you’ve been an artist. You were an artist.
PLD: I’d been an artist for 30 years but I had only gotten serious about photography in 2006.
DAH: That’s right. I remember that you were writing to me in the first place, telling me that you were an artist and were going to take my class, etc. So that’s how it happened.
DAH: Of course to those of us on the outside it seems like you did the book relatively fast, but of course five years to me looking at your life goes by quicker than five years to you. I know that. It takes a year just to kind of get your act together and then some things work and some things don’t work. But anyway, you got the book and I think I know how you feel, but tell me again how you feel having this actually here.
PLD: I pinch myself. I pinch myself to see if this is real or if I am dreaming. You know, I was thinking about how I feel about the book. First of all I am extremely grateful that it exists, that I can hold it in my hands, that it’s here. And I am very pleased with how it turned out, and I have my publisher David Drake of Fotogallery to thank for that. I mean he was the one that took a chance on this. He first saw my prints and my Blurb book in March 2012 at FotoFest in Houston. Within two days he said he wanted to publish my book, so that was just amazing. David was just marvelous to work with, and then he knew Victoria Forrest, a book designer he had worked with before. Both David and Victoria are in the UK, and he recommended that we hire her and we did. I just think Victoria’s way of presenting this narrative was way more lucid and concise than I could ever have done on my own.
DAH: Yeah, you want to have a good collaborator, and you obviously had great collaborators here all the way around, and you know, you even got new pictures in here that I hadn’t seen before. So yeah, I agree, the sequence and the juxtaposition of pictures is just right. I think it’s the right size. I think it came out really terrific. You should be proud.
PLD: Thank you.
DAH: So this works and I think when a book works, you want to sell the book mostly because you want the publisher to be happy with their investment, right? Yeah, you want it to get out there.
PLD: I want it to get out there and you knew from the beginning this was more than just a photography book because of the subject, so it doesn’t fit into any real defined niche. There is a broader audience than for most photography books, and luckily David Drake was also very conscious of that from the beginning, and so was Victoria, my book designer. So all of us were conscious of attempting to create a document that would not only work in the photography world…where we hoped it would…but also in the wider world. I mean I really intend for this to go to university libraries…which is already happening…and to health care professionals and disability organizations. I’m already getting presentation and exhibition opportunities at universities and I love that! Now a bank is asking me to talk about disability to their employees. Unbelievable things are happening.
DAH: Yeah, I can see no limit to that and I think that the photography world is no longer the photography world anyway. The photography world encompasses all things. It’s a universal language and so it goes out beyond where people would just buy a book of photographs. And it does absolutely have a wider audience because for sure you are an inspiration to people and people are always looking for inspiration.
PLD: Well I have to say, it always makes me a little uneasy when people say I am inspiring to them. I guess maybe that’s partly why I did the project in the first place. When I would see essays or films or books on persons with disabilities, or articles in newspapers, they were often pushing this idea that she’s so brave or she is so inspiring and it kind of turned me off. These were by non-disabled folks, a way different perspective from mine.
DAH: Yeah, I can see how that would be.
PLD: You know, I am not brave or any such thing. What I am doing is dealing with what came my way. This is what my life has become, so I am either going to curl up in a ball and spend my life moaning about it, or I am just going to get on with my life, which is what I do. So I am the one who is inspired. I’ve been inspired by you and what you do. I think the model that you offer is an amazing model of don’t sit back and be satisfied with what you’ve already done. Your model is to keep pushing the boundaries. Keep moving on to new things, keep expanding your horizons, keep learning more. I remember when you were changing from Road Trips to Burn. We were a little uneasy because we loved Road Trips, it was very intimate, and yet you were so right about that.
DAH: Well, you do things, and you don’t know if you’re going to be right about anything, but you do it anyway. If it feels right then you have to do it because you can’t stay in the same place. But I can kind of understand that discomfort because, for example, I absolutely do not think of you as a woman in a wheelchair. That is not how I see you and if I don’t see you that way, then I doubt that you see yourself that way. In other words, you deal with this, you deal with that, but it’s not the main thing on your mind so I can see where you might be slightly uncomfortable with being inspirational when you are just doing your thing. But at the same time you are, so you just have to accept your fate.
PLD: Thank you, I accept it.
DAH: Well listen, even if in your own head you see it in a slightly different way, your book is out there, you’re going to be talking to young people…well, people of all ages I guess…so if you’re inspiring then don’t worry about it so much for youself, just think about what you’re giving to them, right?
PLD: Well, what I have come to with this book actually…because I have now taught some university classes on disability…and what I am finding from these young people who are teaching me so much, is that this book is not about disability and it’s not about me. If this book has a message, the message is that everybody has something to deal with and usually it’s invisible. My issue is visible which in many ways is easier to deal with. I have asked many young people, “How many of you have dealt with a tough issue that was invisible?” Almost all hands go up. And what this says is that you go ahead, you go ahead with your life, you live as full a life as you can, no matter what, and that to me is the message, so it’s not really about disability at all.
DAH: No, you’re absolutely right. Because as you may recall from the class that you finally did take, I always try to get people to look in the mirror. Now you literally are looking in the mirror in a very obvious way, but I try to get everybody to do that. Mostly it’s a psychological thing rather than a physical thing, so in that sense, yeah, it’s easier to understand what it is you’re talking about in this book. Somebody can pick up the book and immediately figure out what Falling Into Place means. So it is comprehensible in that sense, whereas a psychological thing that somebody might be dealing with would perhaps be more difficult.
PLD: Yeah, some people wanted me to have text. Some people wanted me to tell the stories of the different images and I resisted that from the beginning.
DAH: Yeah, that would have been a bad idea.
PLD: This is not my story. I want people to look at the pictures and see their own stories in it. Tell themselves their own story, not mine.
DAH: Yeah, that would have been a mistake to have text on every page and to tell every story because the picture tells enough of a story and then you’re done. You do that and then you’re done.
PLD: I hope so. That’s what we wanted.
DAH: I think the beauty of Falling Into Place is that its manageable, it’s something you want to pick up over and over again. You can flip through it, you can go through it in sequence, go through it not in sequence. You know we look at books backwards half the time, most of us from the middle back. But I think it reads really well in every direction, from front to back, back to front. I can start in the middle and go backwards and it still has power that way.
PLD: Thank you, David. Well I am sure you noticed that it begins with your Foreword. What you wrote…and this would have been in 2009 for my first Blurb book…I reread that over and over and to me, that is inspiring, what you wrote as the Foreword, because it was like you got it. You absolutely got it from the beginning and I felt so seen and heard and understood in terms of what I was trying to do and say. And you articulated it in a very personal way and very professionally too. I am really very grateful to you for that.
DAH: Well, I really didn’t do anything. The only thing you can do as a mentor is two things…you look at the work they’ve done and then you try to just say something or do something that will inspire somebody to do something. You can’t tell somebody how to do it. I mean, it’s not a how-to process.
PLD: In terms of your mentoring though, one of the things I learned from you, a really important thing, was about editing because that was the main function that you served for this book at the beginning. It wasn’t that I was so much a part of the process, it was seeing how you did it that has served me so well and that was my hands-on learning. It was almost by osmosis that I was able to learn.
DAH: And then you learned how to edit yourself and then you learned how to see how other people edited. I remember because we had the pictures all spread out on the table under the Williamsburg bridge there one time. So anyway, it has been a process. How much do you think the fact that you’re a long distance runner had to do with you being able to finish this?
PLD: That came to me all the time. I say that five and half years wasn’t a long time, but when you’re in the middle of it and you don’t know when the end is going to be, it can seem like a long time. There were moments where I really doubted myself and the project and doubted that anything would ever happen with it. But I am not kidding, it did remind me of when I had decided I was going to run a marathon. I saw these people run in front of my house during the Detroit Marathon at about the five hour mark. At that time I had only run six miles, but I looked at some of them and said to myself, “I am in better shape than them, I can do this”, and so I worked for a solid year and I was obsessive about it. I read the books, I ran every day, I did the alternate hard day/easy day, all of that. Well, after I ran my first marathon…I ran two of them…I said to myself, I now know I can do anything I set my mind to.
DAH: Yeah, once that sets in, once the idea clicks into your head, then you’ve got it made for life in general, don’t you think?
PLD: Oh, I do.
DAH: Once you realize that eventually, somehow, someway, if it’s the right thing to do, you can figure out a way to do it.
PLD: And you just stick with it. You become a bulldog. I figured that was one of my best qualities in working on this, just being a bulldog.
DAH: Yeah that’s right, just sticking with it, getting back up on the horse and riding again, that’s right. Because there are going to be so many times when there is self doubt or a variety of impediments. It’s really simple when I talk to young people, I tell them the same thing, I say listen..it’s two things, just deliver what you say you are going to deliver to people, and then be a bulldog on it. If you have talent and everything else that’s all great, but like Darwin said, its not the strongest or the best that survive, it’s those that can adapt. Those are the species that went forward. Not the biggest and strongest ones, they didn’t make it.
PLD: That’s interesting. Actually I found that in the process of turning the camera on myself…and I mean I have pictures of me on the toilet, I have pictures of me in the shower, getting dressed, it’s very intimate, things that no one else had ever seen except maybe my husband, and things I was ashamed of, that I didn’t know I was ashamed of until I put my camera on it and saw the pictures. What this whole process did was help me come to terms with being disabled in a way that I had never come to terms with it before. Because it was in my face. I could no longer ignore any part of it because I was taking pictures of it all. And before, what I had tried to do was wear blinders and just bull straight ahead, but now I was always looking for photo opts. So, I was seeing everything very differently. It helped me.
DAH: Well there you go, that’s the perfect kind of project. You helped other people and you helped yourself, so what’s not to love about that, right?
PLD: Exactly, that’s win/win.
DAH: It absolutely is.
Patricia Lay-Dorsey was born in 1942 in Washington, DC. She received her MSW from Smith College School for Social Work in 1966 and ten years later studied fine arts at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. Patricia and Ed Dorsey have lived in the Detroit area since they married in 1966.
Patricia’s book of self-portraits, Falling Into Place, was published in November 2013 by Ffotogallery in Cardiff, Wales. It is available at the ICP bookstore in NYC and on Amazon globally. This award-winning project has had solo exhibits at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA and Fovea Exhibitions in Beacon, NY. It has been featured in Newsweek Japan and New Mobility Magazine, and online on Burn Magazine, the NY Times Lens blog, The Daily Mail (London), ABC News, CBS News and Slate Magazine’s Behold blog. Patricia is currently giving slide presentations and facilitating discussions about disability & creativity in universities, disability organizations, corporations and community groups.
Falling Into Place Book Info
Burn Essay, 2008