Will Harris, You can call me Nana

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Overlapse (here). Hardcover (17×2.5 cm), 96 pages, with 120 photographs and illustrations. Includes an essay by the artist. Design by Tiffany Jones. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Philadelphia-based artist Will Harris began photographing his beloved grandmother, Evelyn Beckett, about a decade ago, focusing on the house that became vacant when she moved in with her daughter (the artist’s mother). The house had been in the family for about six decades, and Harris spent a good portion of his childhood in that home. The series became a portrait of that resonant space and of his memories of his family there. But as he was working on the project, he realized that his grandmother was slowly slipping away, as she developed dementia. With her memories evaporating, Harris took the role of her friend, as she no longer remembered him as her grandson. The work became part of his MFA thesis and was recently published in the artist’s first photobook.

Titled You can call me Nana, the book confronts the nuances of his grandmother’s declining health, filling in some of the gaps, and creating a new strange, and as Harris puts it, “painfully beautiful” narrative. A black and white photograph, slightly tipped-in, appears on the blue cover. It is a studio portrait of a young Black woman, and the features are intentionally blurred through pixelation. This photograph introduces the ideas of archives, loss, and the investigation of personal stories. The title appears on the spine, handwritten in gold. The book is of a comfortable size and immediately feels intimate.

The book design plays with the idea of a family album. Harris includes many old family photographs, many of them appearing with photo corners, and there are also inserts with an advertisement for prefabricated houses, other loose photos, and contemporary images by the artist. After the antique marbled endpapers, Harris opens the book with a black and white portrait of a young woman, his grandmother, as she is about to enter her adult life. The photograph has faded around the edges and there are some visible stains.

You can call me Nana doesn’t follow a linear storyline, just like Nana’s fading memories and missing connections. Harris pieces together the story, interleaving fragments of his grandmother’s life, parts of their collective family history, and sharing his own emotional state. The photographs bring to life moments from Evelyn’s family life and marriage to Bill, the construction of their home in New Jersey, and other family milestones. Early in the book there is a black and white shot of Evelyn and Bill inside their house as they smile holding each other’s hands.  

Throughout the book, there are short hand-written excerpts from conversations between the artist and his grandmother, bringing her voice into the visual narrative. “I haven’t seen the inside yet, have you? – No. So it could look almost like anything.” Reads one of them. It is paired with the photograph of a key, and the sequence that follows shows the inside of the house. Harris recorded these conversations and audio collages are also available on his website. 

Harris investigates his family history through images of his grandparents’ home in New Jersey and the house in Pennsylvania where he now lives. The photographs capture a decaying wall with peeling paint, a still clock on a table caught at between 6:56 and 6:57, a broken plate by the window, and a blue dress hanging on a hanger on a closet door, offering glimpses of time passing or caught standing still.

The vanishing presence of Evelyn appears through a number of altered photographs. While some photographs create doubles via multiple exposure or repetition, others have parts of facial features removed. An image of a married couple coming down the stairs inside the house appears without heads, and two passport style photos of smiling Nana appear with the top of her head blurred, with the eyes erased in another image on the right. Harris conveys his range of reactions and emotions by alerting the images.

Almost at the end of the book, there is a photograph of Nana as a ghostly silhouette having a meal at the table. That was the last time she had breakfast without assistance. Harris matched the length of the exposure to the time she spent eating her breakfast. It is a haunting photograph, and the only one that makes a direct reference to Nana’s condition. 

Recently a number of artists produced have books incorporating their family histories and archives in their storytelling. Amani Willett uses his family archives as a starting point as he explores the broader history of American racial violence in A Parallel Road (reviewed here). In her recent book El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (reviewed here), Tarrah Krajnak finds a creative way to examine the circumstances of her own birth and adoption, using archival recreations. And Xenia Nikolskaya’s book The House My Grandfather Built (reviewed here) looks into the Soviet-era history of her grandparents.

As we move through the family photographs and memories, layered with conversations and reflections, Harris’s grandmother is at once present and absent. You can call me Nana is an unconventional re-imagination of a personal history and family archive. This memoir is deeply personal and at the same time quite universal. You can call me Nana conveys both the sadness and pain of witnessing a loved one suffering from dementia, and the warm memories the artist keeps in his heart. 

Collector’s POV: Will Harris does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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