death portraits

i am sixteen and i felt death.
walking into the hospital room, engulfed by confusion, fear, and loss. i see my grandmother standing by my mother’s bedside. i find a comfortable spot with my back against the wall opposite of the bed. i am numb. my grandmother is talking of nothing, words are spilling out and sinking into the floor, never reaching my ears. and yet my eyes remained fixed on my grandmother’s hand – holding my mother’s as she continues to caress and stroke my mother’s forearm in search of her own comfort.
it is in this observation that an impression comes upon me that perhaps i should also touch my mother. that i, being her only child, should also show my affection and peel myself away from the cold wall. i approach my mother’s bedside, reach forth my hand and try to mimic my grandmother’s loving touch. my hand meets my mother’s upper arm and it’s jolted by a cold shock. i retract my hand.
my mother is gone.
a cold lifeless body and shell is all that remains.
i have witnessed the harsh reality of the absence of her spirit.
death is now very much in the room. death is everywhere.
and i felt it, physically felt it.
and how could my grandmother continue to hold her hand and caress her arm?
does she not feel what i felt?
and i slowly back away to find my place of comfort against the wall opposite the bed of my mother. and words continue to fall and sink into the linoleum, running about my feet and teasing me. perhaps all this is a joke.
and i am her only child.
and this is how i show my affection?
and i stay against the wall.
i am sixteen and i felt death.

by no means did i intend to revisit this poignant memory in my life.
“death portraits” began as nothing more than a question which grew into a study. an observation of the relationship of the body and soul and what is communicated in a portrait. little did i know that this question was scratching the surface of something all too familiar. something buried deep within. as i started to unwrap the layers of this personal fabric, more and more of my vulnerable self was exposed. I knew no matter how dark and personal, this journey i needed to travel. to revisit my sixteen year old self as an adult and let my story take flight through my art.

my goal in this project was to photograph a soulless portrait. to take the living and remove that vital element we call life – the element that gives shape, voice, and wings to an individual. to study the hollow eyes and see what is communicated. to allow gravity to have utmost control of the human body, the face, the limbs, the breath, and see what it molds and creates. perhaps these portraits are unflattering, but there is truth. a different window to the soul is examined, through gesture and humility, as the masks have been removed. call it morbid, call it art, call it what you will, but in any case i have become the biggest benefactor to the project and i owe my subjects and assistants a great deal of my gratitude for the journey they have provided of self discovery and healing.

i tribute this project to my mother. there are exactly fifteen portraits to represent the fifteen years since she has passed away.
i live and breathe because of her. i have a voice because of her. i have a family i dearly love because of her…i am…because of her. i thank her for her sacrifices and eternal love that she has blessed and continues to bless me and my family with each day. may godspeed and until we meet again.
with all that i am, your son, duston.


thank you to all my models that participated in this project: josh, justin, john, scott, thomas, matt, kip, turtle, toby, joel, jonas, spencer, jay, randy, and jesse.
and my assistants: karlie, michelle, tiffany, sam, and whit.
without your help none of this would have been possible.
and lastly, again i want to thank all those that came to the show, as well as the many that weren’t able to come but would have. your support and company is very much appreciated.
a very sincere heartfelt thank you to you all…

if you want an idea of what the exhibit looked like, my friend and fellow photog rob d shot some great photos of my studio which offer some great insight to how the prints were displayed.
visit his blog here.

video of the event to come.

12 thoughts on “death portraits”

  1. This project was done by my sister Alanna’s son Duston who is the breavest perrson I know who can revisit a place of so much pain and bring ART to it.. to say something so loud in such a small space. I love him very much.

  2. The one of the guy on the doorstep struck such a resounding chord with me. I will save that story for another time, but it caught me off guard and I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for sharing these online. Sorry we couldn’t make it on Friday!

  3. Duston, all i can say is “Wow!” Once again, your talent speaks for itself. Congratulations on a fantastic exhibit. I wanted to be there but I have to work at the most inconvenient times. I love your art! Love ya!! Your cousin, Suzanne

  4. Hey there brother….. You cease to amaze me with your ability to express yourself through your art. This is beautiful. Mostly because this has been your journey so far. I’m so proud of you Duston. A couple of these did hit pretty close to home for me as well. It would remind me of a certain experience with Scott. Like us, they were on their journey too. It’s so refreshing to know how much we really do evolve as we get older……..
    Love You so much, Kara

    1. thanks kara! yeah, i thought it might be a little too close for comfort, but i guess it’s the getting out of our comfort that enables us to grow right?
      love you too!

    1. why the fish?
      with this project, as with many of my projects, i try to keep things consistent and tied together. i first thought by placing the same object in every shot would add that continuity i was looking for, by placing the same object it would perhaps add to the overall story and perhaps have a connection or relationship with the theme “death portraits”.
      but the biggest reason i threw in the fish was i wanted something abstract that would involve the viewers interpretation. what does the fish mean to you? what does the fish symbolize? “why the fish?” (this is a question only you can answer). good art should be shared, it should welcome the viewer to have an active role in the process. i wanted this project to be open and allow for others to make out their own story and meaning.
      great question. i’d love to hear what it means to you. it has been incredible to hear others responses to the fish and what it means or symbolizes.
      and thanks for following my work!

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