(Chose Commune, 2021)
Tucked away in the sleepy Midwestern suburbs of Sioux City, Iowa, between golf courses, shopping malls, and the meandering Missouri River, there used to sit a red ranch—the place photographer Deanna Dikeman’s parents had decided to retire and live out their final years. One sunny late afternoon in 1991, as Dikeman was backing out of their driveway, they came out to wave off their departing daughter. “What if I never saw them again?” she suddenly pondered. Hastily loading her camera with some Kodachrome—destined to capture the green of the grass, the blue of the sky, and the pink of her mother’s best-loved blouse—Dikeman wound down the window and took a shot. Little did she know when driving around the bend—her parents’ swinging arms slowly shrinking in the rear-view mirror—that this would be the beginning of an epic journey; one measurable not via car mileage, but rolls of film.
Dikeman’s new book, Leaving and Waving, narrates their 27-year-long goodbye game. Leafing through these pages, it is impossible to not be charmed by its two smiling, and ever-synchronized, stars. In the summer months, they come out to the curb in short-sleeves; in the winter months, they stand behind heaps of snow in scarves. As the seasons turn, the lines in their faces deepen. Occasionally, we are privy to the dramas of the car’s interior. In one frame, Dikeman’s shaggy dog is ousted by the booster-seat that carries her son (05/1998). Years later, now grown up, he has seamlessly switched to Dikeman’s previous spot behind the wheel—Dikeman now in the passenger seat (08/2015). And sporadically, along with off-kilter crops and blurry dashboards, accidental glimpses of the side-view mirror reveal the photographer-daughter herself. The disappearance of the once-glinting wedding ring from her camera-clutching hand reminds us that life resumes behind the lens too (05/2016).
Inescapable here is the perpetual thrum of time’s undertow, taking us towards the end, one wave at a time. Mid-way, Dikeman’s mother appears by the window; never before have we seen her so close, and never before alone. Her eyelids are droopy, and she smiles with closed lips, suggesting affection touched by sorrow. We can almost feel the words in her mouth that she cannot bring herself to say. Late in 2009, a few days after Dikeman’s father celebrated his 91st birthday, two became one. Though we witness Dikeman’s widowed mother once more this summer (08/2010), the next time she is seen venturing outside is in 2012. Whilst constituting one of the book’s more dramatic jumps through time, the moment also marks Dikeman’s jolting return to color photography, with all farewells up to this point—save for the first snap from 1991—rendered in black-and-white. Although part of us instinctively rewinds to the beginning, reviving the idyllic image of Dikeman’s father waving beneath the green of the maple tree, the shift simultaneously transports us into a distinctly contemporary chapter, albeit one in which old habits live on.
Yet, it is not the enduring devotion towards ritual that makes this chronicle so captivating, but the casual, unfixed air of inevitability in which it unravels—setting it apart from the conscious choreography of, say, Masahisa Fukase’s two-decade-long family portrait, Kazoku (1991), perhaps photography’s most famous. Indeed, Dikeman’s book could have been burdened by retrospective insight, as there may be but one conclusion. However, miraculously, with its serendipitous and near-spiritual unison between family-album amateurism and a more profound snapshot conceptualism, it roves freely with open-ended nuance. We can’t help but wonder, in an age of instant photo-sharing, when social media users feel impelled to broadcast the most infinitesimal insights into their lives for likes and clicks, what is the fate of this kind of photographic venture that reveals its fruits only over the long haul?
After all, Dikeman’s indelible photographs were made not with the purpose of projecting a perfect picture of her love for her parents. Instead, they were part and parcel of the evolution of that love; a spur-of-the-moment snap turned lifelong. The penultimate photograph in Leaving and Waving depicts Dikeman’s mother in October 2017, emerging not from the door of her red ranch, but from the door of her care home, her crimped fingers uncurling to produce a goodbye wave. And, finally, later that month, a shot of Dikeman’s memory palace: the empty driveway. Herein lies photography’s ultimate paradox: it can catch time, but never stop it.