The last family portrait of Wilfred and Hattie Askew

Updated 2013-08-03: Details of Hattie’s death and burial have been revised. Incorrect details have been left in, but stricken out, and revisions are highlighted in blue.

I received this photo from my grandmother, Harriet (Askew) Prettyman a few years back and it’s one of my favorite family photos.

I love the way the edge of the painted backdrop can be clearly seen on the left side of the photo, and that the bottom of the backdrop sits rumpled on the floor, visible in the gap between a child’s arm and his torso. The backless, single-armed chair upon which the father sits contributes only briefly to the verisimilitude of the family sitting casually in their living room. The sad potted plants that appear to have surrendered all dignity complete the scene. All of this stands in stark contrast to the proud, grounded, and solidly built family that is the subject of the photo.

Compositional details aside, this photo is tragic in many ways. It documents a family together for perhaps the last time. It speaks to the effects that death can have on a family. It also serves as an example of how the decisions we make about where to live and where to work can have large and unintended consequences. Continue reading