Visions of Johanne statement
Visions of Johanne - Aging of the Greatest Generation
There is a statue called The Pioneer Woman in Ponca City, Oklahoma, my grandmother’s hometown. It serves as a tribute to the frontier women who helped settle the American West. As a child, I fixated on her bronze bonnet and proud stride – family tales of my mother as a child climbing to the top or the family portrait taken at her feet. Born into a family of women, the statue resonated deep within me. And today, the Pioneer Woman stands as a reminder of a similarly fierce woman in my life – my grandmother, Johanne.
As I imagine with most pioneer women, it is impossible to tell a traditional story of a life content. And her story is also a different one. She is a woman, sometimes mean, who pioneered her own path of feminism at an unacceptable time, who fought the traditional female role her entire life and one who, at the end of her life, hesitates to confront the face of mortality. Over the last 15 years, my grandmother allowed me to document her life and then, her death.
Johanne is a part of “The Greatest Generation”. She grew up during the Great Depression, came of age during World War II and gave birth to a daughter of the Baby Boom Generation. At the beginning of this project, photographing her was my way of learning more about her life. From her weekly trips to the hair parlor to her enthusiasm for cooking a good southern meal, my early images depict the daily routines of a vibrant, self-sufficient woman. I came to recognize she was at the forefront of the second feminist movement, albeit not by choice. With outside appearance manicured, on the inside Johanne locked out an abusive husband, the stigma of divorce, and sexism in the office as she built a successful career in one of the few fields permissible for a woman at the time, an executive secretary at Conoco Oil. She was the breadwinner and matriarch of her family - buying her mother then herself a home. Defying all the expected norms of females at the time, she was the American Dream.
As the years passed, my images of her became increasingly macabre. From frequent visits to relatives’ grave sites, to stints in nursing homes for broken bones and breast cancer, the images mark her physical and mental battles with mortality. At times, a bottle tucked away under the sink was her only coping mechanism for the isolation and boredom of a world that was becoming increasingly limited. As her health declined, our roles switched and I became her caretaker. Now in my thirties and starting a family of my own, I was gaining new insight into the meaning of family. I photographed the overlapping cycle of life and tender moments of connection between her, my husband and children. As a witness, a granddaughter and a documentarian, photography allowed me to memorialize Johanne’s life while attesting to her eventual death. The images that remain from this collaborative project depict one woman’s story as she faced an inevitable fate we all must face.