On January 30th, 2014, a woman walked into my photography studio carrying a tote bag full of oxygen tanks and jewelry. She smiled at me from under the hose that disappeared into her nostrils and I fell for her instantly.
A few months prior to the day Julie VonderHaar came to my studio for a portrait, I was invited to be part of a group photography show at a gallery called SOHA in South St. Louis, MO. I was informed that the theme of the exhibit was simply AIR. Each photographer (8 total) was to interpret the theme however they liked and create something for the show. As a businessperson, exhibiting in shows like this is rarely lucrative, but the artist in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to stretch a bit beyond my work portfolio of baby portraits, corporate head shots, and wedding documentation.
I knew right away that I wanted to make a portrait for the show, something gritty and strong. I had some “airy” shots of long-haired beauties riding in the back of a truck already in my portfolio, but that seemed a little too obvious. For this assignment, I wanted to communicate something personal and important.
When I was young, my grandmother spent the end of her life battling cancer that started in her breast and ended up in her bones. I have vivid memories of the tall, green oxygen tanks that were connected to her nose via long, clear tubing that helped her breath once she’d come home from the hospital to die. I remember wondering what made the air inside the tanks so much better than the air all around us, but this was a time in our family when one didn’t ask for explanations. This image of struggling for air, of its preciousness, is what I wanted to communicate in this show.
The desire to create a portrait of a person whose life depends on supplemental oxygen posed two unique problems for me: I didn’t know anyone who was on oxygen and I really wanted to get to know my subject before setting out to make their portrait. Sure, I take gobs of photos of wedding guests and random people for work, but for portraiture in its purest form, a relationship with the subject is the foundation of my process. I started asking around to see if I could get introduced to anyone who might be open to my request for a subject. That’s how I found Julie.
Ms. Julie VonderHaar was not an easy catch. First, I had to talk to her ex-niece-in-law and then wait to get a call from her mother-in-law, Julie’s ex-sister-in-law. After a week or so of waiting, I had to place a few calls myself and then spend the better part of an hour describing the project before I got clearance to wait for a call from one of Julie’s daughters who would then decide if I could have access to her mother. This process took a few more weeks but, ultimately, I was granted permission and Julie offered to come to my studio to be photographed.
When you sign up to create a portrait of a woman who has been living with lung cancer and emphysema, you expect a frail, gray person to walk through your door. I try not to pre-visualize too much about my subjects…many have come to me out of the blue for portraits and I can never really know what will happen until we get into it. Julie was bronzed and made up, fully decked out in a bedazzled top and matching earrings. She was a little plump, definitely not frail, and I really couldn’t give you a ten year over/under on her exact age. Her eyes told stories that her voice didn’t have the power to articulate and she had a kindness that immediately made me feel like we had been friends for years. Before any cameras came out, we sat on my second-hand black pleather couches and chatted about life a bit. She told me about her career as a bar manager and bartender, her five children and ten grandchildren, and the fifty-plus years she happily identified herself as a heavy smoker. She said she couldn’t recall a photograph of her where she didn’t have a cigarette in her hand. And, although she’d quit a year before our meeting, she made it clear that when the time came for her to go, she wanted to enjoy one last cigarette. In addition to emphysema and lung cancer, she was also a breast cancer survivor, like my own grandmother, but was sad to report that one of her daughters had recently been battling cancer herself. As a tribute to her daughter, Julie proudly wore pink breast cancer ribbons and marched for cancer research.
While she posed for photos on my black backdrop and simple stool, she told me that she had recently gained about forty pounds of water, a side effect of a Prednisone prescription, and that it was uncomfortable for her to be so much heavier than usual. She wasn’t quite complaining, just expressing that the weight made it hard to find clothes that fit, especially on her tight budget. She also told me about her hip replacements and her terrible arthritis, but not in that negative, crabby way that most old people complain about their ailments. No, Julie had a way of telling you about something ordinary without being boring. Perhaps this was a skill she perfected over fifty years of barroom small talk with folks whom she lovingly referred to as “barstool philosophers.”
After the better part of an hour had passed, we cozied up to the computer to look over the photos we’d taken. She marveled at the ease with which I could tweak the color this way or smooth her fine lines that way, but what impressed me most is that, unlike most older people when they view their portraits, Julie was really happy about how she looked. She didn’t mind me leaving the wrinkles and the few hairs that straggled away from her hairdo didn’t bother her a bit. This, she told me, was the first time a professional had taken her photo since she was a Senior in high school and she wanted me to know that this experience made her feel important. She knew she’d earned every gray hair and all the fine lines and she wore them proudly like badges of honor. What really mattered was that she was still living every day and loving her life, regardless of its physical limitations.
Little did I know that, for the following six weeks, I’d develop a friendship with her unlike any other in my life. She introduced me to her friends and family as “her photographer.” She invited me to meet her for drinks at a dive bar where I observed her celebrating a birthday with friends, meeting up with various family members, or taking in a drag show featuring some of her closest cross-dressing comrades. I would also take portraits of IV tubes in her arms and her yellow socks and sit beside her hospital bed while she got emergency breathing treatments. She told me all about her son and grandchildren and her plans to visit them in California when she got out of the hospital.
When the AIR exhibit finally opened on March 14th, 2014, six weeks after that first day I met her in my studio, Julie and I posed for photos together in front of her portraits, holding hands and making googily eyes at one another. She beamed from her wheelchair as friends, family, and strangers approached her to tell her how beautiful she was and how happy they were to see her. She really was beautiful….so excited and honored to be on the wall and in a room full of people. Her sister and brother-in-law drove up thirteen hours from Louisiana to attend the opening and the whole place was full of her friends and family. She told me how she had matched all her jewelry to her dress and she was pretty sure her doctor was also going to come see the show. Then, once she was out of earshot, her daughters told me she’d been released from the hospital that morning after another emergency visit and she wasn’t going back. This was it: hospice. I glanced past them and saw her smiling with her sister, drinking a beer on the sidewalk in front of the gallery, and wondered how much longer we’d have her.
As Julie was leaving with her entourage to go grab dinner, we kissed and hugged goodbye and she grabbed my face and thanked me again for making her feel important. She told me she loved me and that she’d be sure I got invited to her “going away party,” which she said would be scheduled very soon. I told her I loved her, too, and I wouldn’t miss that party for the world.
The next day, surrounded by loving family at home, Julie VonderHaar went to bed and never woke up.