Thursday, September 09, 2010

living and dying

Finally, we have come to the end of a summer of extremes, the bulk of which was marred by extreme heat, extremely poor business, extreme sadness followed by restorative extreme elation plus a glut of work and hope. Now I am doing my best to make up for the months spent indoors with the curtains drawn against the fierce summer sun. I went from working not at all to working 6-7 days a week, just trying to overcompensate. One of the most painful parts of the summer was actually not the deficit of paying jobs, but the lack of personal work.

while there is still breath in my lungs
while there is still breath in my lungs © Laura Kicey

Just when I thought I had reached the bottom, I was walking home from the first day of work I'd had in a very long time and I came across a Luna Moth, just barely alive, sitting on the sidewalk. It is most unusual to come across them ever, as they live only a week and generally only come out at night. Though I generally don't put much stock in signs per se, this felt like something of an omen. Something special found me. I was catsitting for my boss at the time, so after taking this photography, I took this beauty - in its final hours of life - to their garden, out of harm's way. The next day I returned, hoping to find her gone, but she had died overnight in the very spot I had left her.

Within days, things started picking up speed with work, such that I barely had time to draw breath. I was hungering for a bit exploration. I was called upon by the lovely proprietress of Peg&Awl/BlackSpotBooks, Margaux, wondering if I knew of a good location with some specific features for a shoot she had in mind. I ended up sending her and her husband Walter over to Peru House... and without going into detail, they ran into some problems and had to leave without ever getting inside.

branching in
branching in © Laura Kicey

merriweather © Laura Kicey

view with a room
view with a room © Laura Kicey

bric-a-brac © Laura Kicey

falling down the stairs
falling down the stairs © Laura Kicey

window dressing
window dressing © Laura Kicey

pokeweed © Laura Kicey

I attempted to think of another appropriate location but Margaux was already headed for one of her old faithful spots, a farmhouse near Schwenksville that she had visited many times but hadn't been in a few years. She kindly invited me to meet them there. Despite the monsoons sweeping through repeatedly, I ventured out. It is peculiar to meet with people who you haven't seen in years, in an abandoned house in the rain, one hugely pregnant, both painting each others' faces. But it was quite a lovely place, especially the windowless porches.

grandmagiggle © Laura Kicey

Only a couple days after this, I got a phone call from my mother. My grandmother was having trouble breathing, she was turning blue and had to be admitted to the hospital. It turned out that she had had a heart attack, her second, and she had a lot of fluid in her lungs. The doctor told her that she had a lot of fluid in her lungs but that she was too weak for any surgery and she was in congestive heart failure. They would keep her comfortable and keep her on oxygen. It looked for a couple of days like they might send her home to the apartment she lived in at a retirement community, but she took a turn for the worse and instead they started discussing hospice or assisted living facilities. It had been a few months since I'd seen my grandma, I think the last time was around Christmas and I wanted to be there for her, should this be the end. Ever since I spent so much time in the hospital, I know how important it is to have company while you are in the hospital. I also wanted to photograph her hands. The women in my family all have such lovely hands and I hadn't photographed hers ever.

When I got to the hospital in Lancaster, my aunt, uncle and one cousin who I hadn't seen in perhaps 15 years were all there, along with my mom. My mom had brought her iTouch loaded with my grandma's favorite dance tunes from the 30s and 40s and she laid in bed with the earbuds in, singing along, "dancing" in bed, and conducting. Though she hadn't had pain meds since the early morning, she was on a very high concentration of oxygen, which made her very euphoric and at times, quite hilarious. Even if she wasn't terribly lucid the whole time, she was still able to recognize us sometimes when she opened her eyes. She would break into a coughing fit every so often, followed with a pause to collect herself, then "oh my!" then, "meedle ba-deedle!". My mom said that she had never said this before two days ago, but we all joked that it was the password. When we asked her what it meant she said she didn't know, but it quickly became our catchphrase for what turned out to be an almost fun last day of her life. I was glad that I got to sit with her, hold her hand, joke with her and see her off. It wasn't easy to watch my last and favorite grandparent dying, struggling to draw breaths. Toward the evening, she was struggling to breath more and more and before we left for the night we asked the nurse to give her some morphine so she wouldn't struggle so much with breathing, so she might get some sleep.

after the ball
after the ball © Laura Kicey

The next morning my mom woke me early to say she had gotten a call from the hospital to say that grandma was going downhill fast and my parents were both going to go in right away. I wasn't allowed to come, my mom didn't want me to see her like this. Before they got to leave the house, another phone call came to say that she had already passed away.

At her 91st birthday back in June, my grandma told my mom that she was ready to die. She just wanted to go quickly and without suffering. It was something of a relief that she did not suffer long. She held out long enough for us all to come and have a "going away party" for her, filled with laughter and music, and when we left, she let go. I wish she hadn't died alone, but I do not regret getting to see her off when I did. She died on her terms.

soul light
soul light © Laura Kicey

The day after her funeral service my friend Daniel invited Goldberg and myself to shoot in an old North Philadelphia factory space that is currently abandoned but is slated to become condos in the near-ish future. Unable to say no to a good (and much-needed) airing out, we met with Daniel and his lively pit bull Lupita, who we brought to ward off potential squatters for a little private tour.

soup & salad
soup and salad © Laura Kicey

linen © Laura Kicey

white christmas
white christmas © Laura Kicey

the lilac throne
the lilac throne © Laura Kicey

greenheart © Laura Kicey

sledding © Laura Kicey

I for one, was a bit jumpy at the prospect of running into squatters in the former fabric mill. There was evidence all over that people had been living there, and not long after we got there, we ran into a small group of the contractors who confirmed that a group of squatters had been doing drugs and having sex on the roof and he started firing his gun to scare them off.

spatter © Laura Kicey

lupita and the little blue room
lupita and the little blue room © Laura Kicey

release, reduce, repent
release, reduce, repent © Laura Kicey

It is times like these that make me wish I had an army of pit bulls. Lupita is good to have on your side, but she is a total cupcake.

the office
the office © Laura Kicey

receptacle © Laura Kicey

enteral © Laura Kicey

sleepless © Laura Kicey

The remainder of the day was spent driving around West Philly, collecting pieces for a construct. It had been ages since I made one and one might be able to determine how deeply in withdrawal I was by the sheer size of this one.

inheriting the earth
inheriting the earth © Laura Kicey

To see out the worst summer ever, Goldberg and I decided that we should have a Going Everywhere Weekend Spectacular for Labor Day weekend, since we had no other engagements. Saturday we did Everything, Sunday we went Everywhere. Saturday was a bit more successful, we started off once more pointed towards Schwenksville, when we came across a sign for Ott's. I had heard of Ott's years ago - described as a whimsical gardening center/nursery. I thought Terrain had cornered the local market on whimsical gardening, but I was wrong. It was a bit of a tough sell to get Goldberg to go to a gardening store, but once we pulled up to the store we were both taken aback. First, I was struck by the giant mothership-like Victorian onion-dome-shaped greenhouse, surrounded thickly by dense, tall, flowering plants - canna and bougainvillea, all sorts of vines. Instead of going in the front door, we peeked around the side and again, I was stopped dead in my tracks by a very tall manmade mountain covered with a perfect grid of pre-bloom chrysanthemums, topped with three tall slender topiaries.

thrice © Laura Kicey

unrooted © Laura Kicey

And there was a twisty tunnel going through the base of it all. Which ejected you on the other side, a sort of end of the nursery wasteland, which was surrounded with some nearly-abandoned looking greenhouses and outbuildings. Once we made our way inside, it felt as though we had wandered into some crazy botanist's secret backroom of experiments gone awry... and like we weren't really supposed to be there. But yet it was not off limits. The specimen plants they had there were very mature, and the central greenhouse was verging on full scale jungle. I was bracing for howler monkeys and pythons. It was not overly designed, there was not a lot of ornamental *stuff* around, and most of the plants were actually not for sale, so it was more like going to a proper garden. Much more a pure fantastic plant enjoying experience than a shopping/material stuff. It was refreshing to see plants taking over the walkways, poking through windows, dead leaves, new buds...not arranged.

reflector © Laura Kicey

musculature © Laura Kicey

palm to palm
palm to palm © Laura Kicey

It also lent itself to a great deal of handy leaf fondling.

toothsome © Laura Kicey

We took a turn toward Birdsboro and happened upon a railcar graveyard off a windy country road. There were all sorts of signs, a variety of engines, cabooses and cars, a trolley, old steamrollers, small buildings, tractors, all under the intense sun.

train depot
train depot © Laura Kicey

next stop
next stop © Laura Kicey

Goldberg and I have a very specific dynamic when approaching an abandoned house that we are considering entering. While neither of us throws caution to the wind entirely, our assessments are generally made very quickly - in a less than 10 minute window, usually less, based on 1-3 drivebys, deciding if it is truly abandoned, if there is an access point and if it is possible too conspicuous. More often than not Goldberg will be the one charging ahead and not questioning, I will be the one who will more than likely call something too risky to try. What can I say, I'm very particular! If I am going to get arrested, it damn well better be worth it or positioned in such a way that I can talk myself out of a situation.

putting out fires
putting out fires © Laura Kicey

This house brought out something quite different in us both. Very secluded country road with little traffic, I see the farmhouse with a fence all the way around the property, but there was a little enclosed porch overgrown with ivy, the door open and flapping in the breeze. I could see barn-like buildings behind it, immediately I got a good vibe, we turned around and did a slow driveby and pulled into the driveway. We checked out the main gate which was wrapped in chains, the fence than went all the way around the property had a barbed wire top.

the heated heart
the heated heart © Laura Kicey

roast © Laura Kicey

I walked the road to see if I could find an end to it and we came upon a small gate. Which conveniently was open. When there were no cars in sight we opened the gate and made our way toward the open door. It brought us into a small cellar-like room which lead in two directions towards very dark rooms. Feeling slightly defeated, sans flashlights and tripods, we decided to check the main door all the way around the back and on the other side. We waited until we heard no cars, and started moving around the side of the house, Goldberg in front of me. We had moved pretty much out of street visibility behind some shrubs and trees and suddenly, Goldberg hears a car and starts to panic that he is visible and takes off running. Immediately he face plants having tripped over a rock. What is remarkable about this display is that it is not the first time one of us heard traffic and taken off running at an abandoned house, but the last time it happened, it was me. And I destroyed my knee after getting caught in a thick patch of tall grass.... and fell into the door of the house in question. This was the first time I was the one who was certain we were in the clear, and Goldberg breaks into a run to avoid being seen by traffic and wiped out.

the icebox
the icebox © Laura Kicey

When we checked the main door it was locked. There was another porch on the back side, but Goldberg was feeling a bit shaken and though we were able to walk right in the porch door, I knew we weren't going to spend a lot of time in here. The room we entered had a big old woodburning stove, curtains in the windows, a rotary phone on a shelf and a rather fancy double-sided display case with arched French doors built into the buttery yellow walls. Even though the porch was overgrown with ivy, the house was unusual in that it did not have the distinctive musty odor that most abandoned places possess. It was barely even dirty, though the house was quite old. Every room had a woodburning stove, there were two fireplaces with massive, primitive mantels. The appliances in the kitchen were not terribly old and the wood floors beneath our feet were in fantastic shape - the only signs of decay was a bit of sagging ceiling where the plaster had started to fall. Goldberg chose to not venture up the incredibly narrow spiraling staircase that led up from the kitchen. While I was hopeful, I declined to go upstairs as well as I don't like to be the *only* person going anywhere in an abandoned location.

the ring
the ring © Laura Kicey

We briefly investigated the barn in the back and decided that we should probably take our leave before we incurred further damages. Though that was not the end of the day's adventures, it was the last of the visuals worth sharing.


A couple of exciting bits of news - a few weeks ago I was contacted by a production company doing the graphics for new miniseries that will be premiering on AMC on Halloween called The Walking Dead. They wished to buy the rights to an images I shot in an abandoned house a few years back to use in the opening title sequence amongst a series of images of decaying places. Though I don't know much about the plot of the show, I do know that it is about Zombies. Who doesn't like Zombies? Moreover, who doesn't like being on AMC?! You can read more about it here.

And just today I found out that the shoot I did in APRIL (?!?!) has been published in Iconography Magazine's Fall 2010 Pride Issue

models Laura Sioux Kirkpatrick and Jennifer An finalists from ANTM Cycle 13
wardrobe by Stacey Appel
hair and Jenn's makeup by April Ramirez
Laura Sioux's makeup by Sasha Zavadsky
photo assisting by Danika Smith
Photography © Laura Kicey

The three spreads begin on page 100 (even though it says 96 in the TOC), plus you can see me on the contributors page. Here are some shots (including some that didn't make the spread):

philly fly girls I

philly fly girls IV

philly fly girls III



philly fly girls II





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