Social Media

Abendlied: Reviewed by George Slade

Book Review Abendlied Photographs by Birthe Piontek. Reviewed by George Slade "Take time to read these images carefully. Piontek exquisitely weaves visual clues into the sequence of her book. Her narrative curlicues from description to evocation to staged mystery, with an occasional red herring thrown in to undermine complacency."
Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.
Photographs by Birthe Piontek

Gnomic Book, New York, USA, 2019. In English. 112 pp., 70 images, 7x9¾".

Because the minds of people suffering from dementia are inaccessible to anyone, and, because dementia limits one’s capacity for describing their thoughts, those of us on the outside must project ourselves into what we imagine of their brain to conceptualize their sensory arena. We can’t ascertain meaning because they can’t articulate it, except in what seem to be random expressions. Yet, the randomness itself has meaning, and we might be well served to bring our familiarity with the loved one’s history and character to bear on the “meanings” of initially obscure gestures and utterances.

This is all very confusing, I know. It also seems like a respectful way to approach Birthe Piontek’s consideration of dementia in her family. In general, dementia affects more than one person—an entire familial structure shifts under the weight. (As a disclaimer, I should note that my father is in an advancing stage of Alzheimer’s-related dementia.) Relationships morph. The familiar becomes weird; the incongruous and uncanny are normalized. Roles change; adults become childlike, and youths assume a gravity beyond their years. Dislocation rattles the ecosystem.

Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.
What are Piontek’s photographs evidence of? They’re not scientific or documentary; they are more like choreographic notes. It’s not immediately clear who, if anyone, is experiencing dementia. All the cast members appear in anomalous moments. Is dementia even the point of the book? Perhaps we readers are experiencing dementia-like disorientation. It’s tempting to keep the facts secret. In order to encourage the reading of Nich Hance McElroy’s poignant text, printed on memo-sized paper, addressed in first person to Piontek, and bound as if tucked or blown into the volume, I’ll withhold the answer here. No great shakes, one could just Google it. Not knowing something these days is rare and unnecessary. In the case of Abendlied, though, the truth is not the point.

McElroy’s missive is a perfect grace note to this book. Here’s a sample: “When memory unmoors the arrangement of the family, you look to artifacts to act as ligaments, to lash the raft together. No longer bound by the sense of continuity their identities give them, they’re held in tenuous proximity by the familiar objects that alternately bind and cloak them; held together only by holding together, and only where they can—however briefly—touch.”

Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.

He writes directly to “B” and signs his name in cursive. The connection is intimate and nuanced. The web of B’s family members, their “tenuous proximity,” is nowhere near as legible. Even assuming actual related-ness is a leap. Gestures, attitudes, and vague physical likenesses loosely link the dramatis personae. They are all largely devoid of emotional expression—and that absence is a common feature of those suffering dementia. As redemption, notions of shelter and interpersonal compassion are plentiful.

Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.
Take time to read these images carefully. Piontek exquisitely weaves visual clues into the sequence of her book. Her narrative curlicues from description to evocation to staged mystery, with an occasional red herring thrown in to undermine complacency. Clothing flows like liquid; armless sleeves tie limbs to staircase railings and limply arc from one person to another. Garments misbehave, presenting themselves backward or engulfing their wearer. Sheer stockings drape over drying racks, fix a seashell to a thigh, and ingest teacups like a snake swallows a frog.

Using photography to address dementia is a bit like ballroom dancing with an invisible partner. You know that someone is there, and you can sense the direction their physical parts are going, yet so many clues are missing. So much information is being withheld by the disease. What you see bears only tangential resemblance to what you know.

Those unfamiliar with dementia may be unaware of the phenomenon called sundowning, which is agitation related to the approach of nightfall. Then, by extension, the title of the book, German which translates to “evening song,” may have less resonance. The title also derives from a motet by composer Josef Rheinberger, who was 15 when he wrote the piece in 1855. The lyrics are roughly translated as “stay with us, because evening approaches and the day has come to an end”—as poignant an entreaty to a loved one embarked on a dementia journey as I can imagine, one I whisper every day to my father.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

Abendlied (Gnomic, 2019) joins a chronology of dementia-centric photobooks that includes Mark Jury and Dan Jury’s Gramp (Grossman/Penguin, 1976), Partial View: An Alzheimer’s Journal (Southern Methodist University Press, 1998; photographs by Nancy Andrews and text by Cary Smith Henderson), Peter Granser’s Alzheimer (Kehrer, 2008), Judith Fox’s I Still Do: Loving and Living with Alzheimer's (powerHouse, 2009), and Stephen DiRado’s With Dad (Davis Publications, 2019) which conveys moments during his father’s twelve years of dementia decline.

Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.
Abendlied. By Birthe Piontek.

George Slade, aka re:photographica, is a writer and photography historian based in Minnesota's Twin Cities. He is also the founder and director of the non-profit organization TC Photo.

Image c/o Randall Slavin