the Business of Dying

the Business of Dying

It started simply enough - a shot of a model walking away from the camera, mostly in silhouette. Lately I tend to do this - masking the identity of the person in the shot with a downward glance, a manipulation of the face, a from-behind angle. Why? Well, it's sometimes easier to keep it ambiguous, to lend the viewer some space for interpretation. It is also very anti-model, something I am gravitating to more and more. These are very few shots of someone posed, giving the cheekbones, the attitude and the heavy lids. Most of the time, I tell the models to almost never look directly into the camera. It's an aspiration to capturing a performance, an actor, and actors don't tend to stare directly into the camera when delivering their soliloquies.

That same ambiguity can have a reverse effect on the artist however…


What is this man doing? What is he feeling or thinking? What is he here for? While it's great to have a world of possibilities, it can also be troublesome. There are simply no clues except those I choose to inject myself. And so, like so many do, this image sat unfinished for a few weeks while I pondered this man's role in it.

I have always been fascinated with using cables or strings or chains and working them into and around my models. They are one of the few objects I have come to think of as "ultra metaphors." Strings, keys, doorways, lights, skies, birds, fire…these are all ultra metaphors - teeming with implied connections and meanings. They are also timeless and universal - two elements I look for and prefer.

You will see strings or chains or cables in many of my images - manipulating the propaganda and the destructive force of the boy in "the WarMachine," spreading DNA material in "the Prometheus Primer" and holding someone prisoner in "the Soul Cages." Sometimes though, you feel you have used up these ultra metaphors and grow frustrated with looking for new ones. And this was the case here. I had no plan on using them here - in fact, this image was originally meant to convey the slow march towards death and its working titles was "the Dying Light." I wanted a dim and distant sun and long shadows, a cool palette, and the man's pose seemed one of resignation. A lot of that is still in here - not much has changed  - but a man walking towards a dying light and the mountains isn't really all that interesting or compelling.

It needed IT - that something else, that extra metaphor.

While waiting for it to come to me, I spent some time making the environment, well, beautiful. I chose a never before used sky that I quite like, I dimmed the sun way down, and the mountains, which I have used before in images with this same model, were extended and softened to fill the frame. The ground was one I have not used before - it was muddy, chunky soil with some tufts of grass poking out - it took some finesse to get it dense enough, but I had no other ideas yet, so I spent some luxurious time on it.

I should say here that I long ago categorized and organized my growing image library of RAW shots into, well, categories. I have "Skies" and "Fields" and "Objects." One of these folders that I have used quite a bit recently, is called "California and Deserts." My recent trip to Salton Sea/San Diego/Joshua Tree has gotten quite a lot of use in the images this year, but alas, I was running low on fresh elements even from this large folder.

I was scrolling through it and I found some shots I took from the monorail at the San Diego zoo. I took the camera out to capture some skylines, some aerial shots of buildings, but I did snap a few of the cars in front of us dangling on the cables. These cables happened to be in roughly the same angle as my model and I thought they would go together seamlessly. And they did fit quite nicely…but…

What now does this mean? What do monorail cars have to do with a meditation on death and dying?

Actually, quite a lot if you think about it, and if you happen to make the journey all one way with no return trip cable in evidence! Once I added the cars, I had to manipulate the one good clear shot I had of a car a bit - I painted out the numbers on the car, and I removed the right-hand occupant in a duplicate as well as changing the head position of the remaining occupant to keep things a little less "duplicate." With the cars placed on the cables, I now had passengers heading towards the man, who now appears as a giant (or they are quite small). Okay so, what does that mean?

Well, I am not terribly interested in spelling everything out much anymore. I used to make writing these notes a custom to accompany each image, but lately have veered away from that. It is much better for the viewer to be able to see something and have the freedom to interpret it how he or she sees fit, than have a dissertation on what every element means in the piece.

So, the man, well…he could be death, he could be a preacher or a religious figure, or religion himself, or the sum of man's fears regarding death, or some representation of the passenger's ancestors. He could be the guide towards the underworld or a powerful historical figure - an inventor perhaps. It doesn't matter really, but we see his is the destination, the guide, and he himself appears to be heading somewhere as well - the distant mountains - towards the dying light.

I decided to add lights to the assemblage on the man's head as well as on the cars themselves. The lines of something moving towards light is echoed between the cars, and between the man and the sun.

Death is a one-way trip. We are certainly all moving towards it, but there is no returning from it, no reprise, no second pass at it. We jump in our cars and dangle precariously over the chasm of it, and look all around, and try to enjoy the scenery, but once in awhile we look ahead to where we're going, and realize how short the ride is, and it's rather terrifying. It is to me. While I never intended to add a return car or line, I did want to reinforce this notion of no-return with some empty cars that the man seems to be gazing at. The lights still burn, but the occupants are gone - consumed by the mountain, consumed by time, consumed by the great yaw of death. There is no going back. And what are these cars? How did some of them get there if there is no return? Perhaps they are the relics of superstition, of belief in the afterlife or tales of people returning from the dead? Perhaps these empty cars were put there to give us hope, to imply a possibility on cheating the darkness ahead.

I decided to keep the title the same as the working title because this is indeed about death, and the intent is not morbid, but reaching and trying to grasp the full implications of it. There are a lot of banal phrases and isms in use in our society about death and how to deal with it: Live life to the fullest! Live every day like it's your last! Death is not an ending but a new beginning! Yes well…

It is still the end, the unavoidable end of the only life we know, and it is so final, so constant, so inevitable, that I may never be "okay" with it. I think we all would like to believe there will come a time in our old age when we have "made peace" with the notion of dying, but I don't know. I truly wish it didn't occupy my thoughts as it does now, but when you reach the midpoint, when there are as many days behind you as there are ahead and the light is dimming, thoughts of mortality - with all its poetry, horror, ghosts and fables do indeed visit you more often.

At least they do for me.

Michael Bilotta
September 6, 2014