For some artists life can take a turn that changes the course of their work. While recovering from a fractured pelvis several years ago, Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick, whose photographs had previously focused on the challenges facing people in developing nations, segued into themes of beauty, memory, aging, and death.
A preview of this new series is on view for the first time as part of “From Durer to Digital and 3-D,” on view at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie through Sunday, April 28, with a panel discussion with the artists Sunday, April 14, at 2 p.m.
Says curator Judith K. Brodsky in the exhibition catalog: “These new photographs evoke aging in a poetic but realistic way, speaking to the anxiety and premonition of non-existence that is a human characteristic.”
Change is constant, Hohmuth-Lemonick notes, and the process of growing older is an inescapable fact. “These images contain traces of a lifetime’s memories,” she writes. “They have to do with the passing of time, moments and people that are gone, love, sexuality, family, beauty, decay, fragility, longevity, vulnerability, sickness, health, and death.”
Before this series Hohmuth-Lemonick spent decades traveling to places such as Uganda to photograph a group of children orphaned by AIDS, or undergoing rehabilitation from having served as child soldiers; to Malawi to document nurses and healthcare; to the Republic of Georgia to show new mothers and their babies; and to China, Guatemala, Mexico, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia, Zimbabwe, Nepal, India, and Brazil to explore blindness and “to show how the sightless live in very different kinds of society.”
“Sight is so important to me as a photographer,” she says, “so I wanted to see what life would be like for those who cannot see.”
To explore these worlds Hohmuth-Lemonick lived among the people she photographed, sometimes sleeping on dirt floors of a mud hut and once in a hospital’s linen closet. There were moments when she woke up and wondered what she was doing there but many more days being grateful for the opportunity to do such work. “I met incredible people. Those days are over,” says the Princeton-based artist, in an acknowledgement of the physical barriers that come with reaching a certain age.
During all these adventures, Hohmuth-Lemonick taught photography to students at Princeton Day School, taking summers to travel. She was named Photography Teacher of the Year by the Maine Photographic Workshops.
Hohmuth-Lemonick is married to Michael Lemonick, opinion editor for Scientific American, Princeton University professor, and author (“The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory and Love,” “Mirror Earth,” “Echo of the Big Bang,” and others).
In answer to the question about how long has she taught at PDS, Hohmuth-Lemonick answers “forever — 100 years,” which is also her answer to how long she has lived in her house. She raised three children here, and three is also the number of additions to the original structure.
There are shelves upon shelves of salt and pepper shakers she has collected (now protected behind Plexiglas from the curious fingers of her grandchildren). Hohmuth-Lemonick apologizes for a non-existent disarray — all her collections are lovingly organized on shelves and bins. She is a passionate collector of nature’s ephemera, and it all comes together in the current series.
That pelvic fracture happened while teaching at PDS. A book bag had been left on the floor in the digital darkroom, and the resulting fall kept Hohmuth-Lemonick out of work for two months. The beloved teacher was showered with flowers, and while in rehab, Hohmuth-Lemonick observed that even as the flowers died they conveyed beauty and the passage of time. While others might compost the spent blooms, Hohmuth-Lemonick instructed her husband to bring the bouquets home and store them in the basement.
While getting around with a walker, she began photographing the dried arrangements against a black background, a portable studio she found on eBay. Soon she was making still lifes with the plant material, combining fresh and dried blooms.
Sometimes the universe contributes — or at least the artist becomes aware of things happening in her universe. A deer had been struck by a car in front of her house, and the force threw the dead animal into her driveway. Animal rescue didn’t come for a full week to remove the carcass. “It smelled bad,” she admits, but rather than dwell on revulsion she found beauty in its gradual decay as it was consumed by vultures and insects. Each day she photographed, up close, what remained — bones and fur.
When she once again became mobile, a fellow teacher alerted her to another deer — or what remained of it, after the buzzards’ feast — along the Great Road. That, too, became fodder for her lens, as she created an abstraction of fur and bone and leaves.
The series is continuing to take off in new directions she can’t yet define as she creates composites of the passage of time in nature, whether in the Pine Barrens or Nicaragua. Disintegrating bark and mud, autumn leaves on the front stoop, cranberries left over from a harvest, water, sand, even those blue-green crystals that melt snow on icy walks — she stitches them together, making proof prints at Costco and laying them out on her dining room table.
“I’ve done more work in the past year than I’ve done in the last 10,” she says.
She saves the black plastic trays that prepared food comes in and uses these to store dried hibiscus, lychees, lichen, peach pits, shells — and it’s a good thing she’s so organized because friends and colleagues are now gifting her with the flowers, buttons, and other odds and ends she turns into objects of beauty.
Sometimes she uses the scanner to photograph her compositions and has even incorporated her own image. It is a bold gesture, enlarging every pore, every vein on her face, exaggerating the idea of age. She has even incorporated letters from her father that her mother had saved, with words such as “yes I fell again” and “I am so utterly disgusted with myself.”
Hohmuth-Lemonick recounts that her father, an alcoholic, left her mother when Eileen was born. Her mother taught third grade in Astoria, Queens, and Hohmuth-Lemonick grew up in Brooklyn and Queens before going off to the State University of New Paltz, New York, to earn a bachelor’s of science in art education.
She has frozen plants in ice, then photographed them as they melt. She has created mandalas of toy soldiers, buttons, leaves, fern, and peach pits. She has incorporated lingerie, painted pink. A dead blue jay proved to be a valuable element, as are butterflies and moths. Even the artwork created by her grandchildren finds its way into her compositions.
It’s almost as if all the work she has done in her long career was leading up to this new series. In the 1980s she created a photo essay on aging for an exhibition at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. She enjoyed making these portraits of people ages 65 and up who were still active because “they weren’t rushed and were very friendly.” And with Lemonick, she worked on photographing the 50th reunion of Holocaust survivors who remained in Germany after the war for a five-page spread in People magazine.
Curator Brodsky became interested in Hohmuth-Lemonick’s work several years ago, requesting several pieces for the healing galleries at Capital Health System.
These days Hohmuth-Lemonick has cut her schedule back to one class at PDS so that she can still teach, which she loves doing (“I love the kids and all my friends are at PDS”), but also have time to concentrate on her work, and to audit classes at Princeton University. “I love being a student, too.” At Princeton Adult School she took a class on birds as artists and is now photographing their feathers and skulls.
“I’m just playing,” she says, “making designs. I have a million ideas.”
From Durer to Digital and 3-D, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Through Sunday, April 28. Includes work by 16 others artists exploring the metamorphosis of the printed image. Free panel discussion with artists Diane Burko, Judy Gelles, Eileen Hohmuth-Lemonick, and Wendel White, Sunday, April 14, 2 p.m. Open Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., Sunday 1 to 4 p.m. Free. 609-989-3632 or www.ellarslie.org