Ahndraya Parlato – Who is Changed and Who is Dead

“I buy six caterpillars so your grandchildren can watch them turn into butterflies. The company guarantees at least three of them will make it to their final stage of life. They all die. I write and complain. The email in which they offer to send me new caterpillars opens with the line, ‘Living things can be unpredictable.’” ー Ahndraya Parlato 

Perhaps it is too soon to call it a trend, but there is a pattern I see emerging. For the second time this year, Mack has released a challenging, interesting book by a woman defying cultural norms and presenting honest, courageous work with real emotional depth that reveals the complexities of being a girl, woman, or mother in a culture dominated by patriarchy and masculinity. The first was Deanna Templeton’s wonderful book What She Said, which provided an honest look at the painful challenges faced by teenage girls and young women. Ahndraya Parlato’s new book, Who is Changed and Who is Dead, continues in a similar vein, offering a glimpse into knotted questions of identity, control, and faith that come with motherhood. 

Ahndraya Parlato is a Professor of Photography at the Rochester Institute of Photography in New York. Her previously published books include A Spectacle and Nothing Strange, which attempts to question and reconcile different realities based on her experience growing-up with a mother suffering from severe mental illness, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon, a collaborative project with her husband and Magnum photographer Greg Halpern. Her newest book, Who is Changed and Who is Dead, mixes an incredible array of photographs with a written narration that knits together stories about her own mother’s suicide, her grandmother’s murder, and how these traumatic experiences impact her identity as a young mother herself. 

The book is divided into two sections — the first Parlato dedicates to her children, and the second to her mother. Both sections are composed of short written fragments and a smattering of different photographs. Photographically, Parlato utilizes a broad range of styles and subjects. These include pictures of her daily life as a parent: of her children and the flow of their lives together; photograms, made using the ashes of her dead mother; repeating glimpses of selected landscapes; and still lives, made  with different technical strategies and sets. 

As a photographer, Parlato demonstrates tremendous strength in her pictures of her children, which seem to deliberately reference sources as diverse  as Sally Mann and Edward Weston. Often, however,  the range of photographic styles and techniques distracts from her strengths. The photograms are too reliant on the materials used to create their meaning and are not fully realized as visual statements; I’m not sure I’d find these interesting if I didn’t know what they were made of. I am most confused by her still lifes, which have a randomness to their composition. Sometimes they’re  made in a studio under controlled circumstances, and at other times under natural light, but there is no discernible reason for the different strategies. These pictures also introduce a broad range of subject matter, including photographs of Parlato’s collection of ceramics and clippings of plants. The intention behind these photographs is more metaphorical than literal, but ultimately this falls short for me. Parlato’s best pictures don’t depend on the text to describe their meaning because they fully visualize complex emotions and personal experiences.  

The written component is an essential part of the book; without it many of the pictures would not make sense in her visual narrative, as so many of them seem to  require an explanation. The honesty and courage with which Parlato addresses her childhood traumas with her mother and grandmother is moving, presented with a diaristic feel that intensifies her vulnerability, and I admire her willingness to expose herself this way.  

As is often the case with MACK’s books, it is worth commenting on the design. Morgan Crowcroft-Brown is an essential part of the publisher’s success, and this book is a good example of why. For this book she worked collaboratively with Parlato, and together the two do a wonderful job of highlighting the best parts of her work. The photographs and texts are presented in a traditional way, with the pictures and texts alternating, each given their own page, but they utilize different inking and varnishing strategies to give several of the pages a bold glossy feel while the bulk of the book is printed with a matte finish. The cover does a wonderful job of surmising Parlato’s work, with a child’s drawing of a night sky (printed matte) and a glossy photograph of a child shrouded in black set above it. They opted to present the title on the back cover instead of the front, embossed into the boards and overlaid with an iridescent ink that changes color depending on its relationship to light, a lovely metaphor for some of the ideas at play in Parlato’s narrative. 

While I do admire the honesty and courage of this book – to boldly and unapologetically share such personal trauma is as challenging as it is illuminating – in the end my response is more defined by confusion. There are undoubtedly some remarkable photographs (I especially like the pictures of her children and their life together around the house), but it also feels like several different photographic ideas that Parlato attempts to bind together with the written narrative. This works to a degree, and yet I also find myself wanting to see her playing to her  photographic strengths rather than trying to  blend together so many styles and methods of picture-making. Parlato’s  approach feels like target shooting with a shotgun instead of a rifle; when she strikes the target it can be extremely successful, but like a shotgun the pictures feel scattered. Having gone through this book several times, I continually find myself moved by her candor, but also feel unconvinced about her methods of storytelling. 

MACK, 2021 
Ahndraya Parlato

All Rights Reserved: text © Brian Arnold; images © Ahndraya Parlato