The Persephone Series

The Persephone Series  1975-76  / digital revision, 2011

Persephone, Queen of the Underworld    18x18”  inkjet print

I made The Persephone Series in 1975-76 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  It followed two earlier related projects:  The Georgia Woods Series, 1974, and the Atlanta City Series of 1975.  All three projects involve experimentation with multiple exposure in the camera, and local solarization of the print applied to distinctly different subject matters:  the natural landscape, the city, and family-life.  I digitally revised the The Persephone Series in January, 2011, when I understood its relevance to my current project, The Departing Landscape.  (Note: I will provide additional technical information at the end of this document.)

The Personal Back-story
In the fall of 1975 my wife Gloria and I, and our two kids Shaun (age 3) and Jessica (less than one year old) had just moved to Milwaukee from Atlanta, and I wanted to begin a new body of work that would build upon the two earlier projects and involve a more personal subject matter.  So I began photographing my family life.

As this new project evolved it was as if I became an invisible participant in the fantasy world our children created as they played together.  My use of off-the-camera strobe lighting seemed to stimulate their dramatic play even more. 

During our first winter in Milwaukee we all became very ill.  Shaun and Jessica got pneumonia, but I continued to photograph despite how awful we were feeling.  Eventually Gloria, Shaun and I got better . . . but Jessica continued to get more and more sick.

We took Jessica to Children’s Hospital because she had almost stopped drinking.  The doctors started I.V. fluids - a needle was placed above her forehead.  But she kept getting progressively worse and we became frightfully desperate to find out why.  We feared we were going to lose our little child.  

         Persephone startled by Hades, Lord of Death, who is approaching her   18x18"

On a hunch, a nurse took a sample of some fluid coming out of Jessica’s ear.   When it was tested it was discovered that the bacteria had mutated.  The doctors decided that only a new but potentially deadly medication could possibly help her.  Thankfully the medication worked for Jessica, and without adversely affecting her.  (Note: Jessica is alive and well today, 35 years after that traumatic experience.) 

When Jessica came home from the hospital I continued my photographing throughout the rest of that winter and during the following spring and summer.  Eventually, when I started showing this work to others, a friend suggested I look up the Greek myths involving Persephone, the child god who was abducted by Hades and taken to the Land of the Dead.

I was surprised to discover an uncanny parallel between the mythic narratives of Persephone and many of the photographs I had made of the children.  Today, as I contemplate these resurrected photographs once again, I am struck by their continued relevance to me, both on a personal level and in relation to my current larger project, The Departing Landscape.

The Persephone Myth
Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter.  Zeus was King of the gods and oversaw the Universe;  Demeter was Goddess of the natural world, the seasons, fertility and the annual harvests. Persephone was a child god, also known as Kore, and like her mother was a nature goddess, especially associated with spring.  She provided all vegetation with the power of growth so that the yearly harvests would be bountiful.

There are many variations of the Persephone narrative, but here is the basic version:  One day while Persephone was out picking flowers with her friends, she was abducted by Hades and taken to the Land of the Dead to be his wife.  As Queen of the Underworld, Persephone received immortal souls into the afterlife.  But Persephone was held captive by Hades against her will, and she longed to be back with her mother and her friends.

Demeter became terribly distraught when she could not find her beloved Persephone.  She looked, desperately, day and night for her lost daughter until finally the earth became barren from her neglect.  The people of the world were starving, afraid and angry; they pleaded to Zeus for help. 

   Demeter, grieving her lost child, dreaming of Persephone's return   18x18

Zeus made a deal with Hades so that Persephone could be with her mother for part of each year.  When Persephone was with Demeter the earth flourished (Spring, Summer, Fall); when she was with Hades the earth became cold, dark and barren (Winter).

The Persephone Photographs
It seems to me these dark, nocturnal underworld images, with their mysterious flashes of light and vast black spaces, are in part about mythic time and transformation.  They reveal archetypal patterns that exist both within the intense and sometimes aggressive play of children, and in the day-to-day experiences of family life.  They also address universal themes such as longing, the loss of innocence and love, the fear of death and separation.

The Persephone photographs are also about my anger, my fear, my despair, struggle and feelings of helplessness.  In this regard the series constitutes a kind of self-portrait.

A Figurative Allegory for Today
The Persephone photographs can also be seen as an allegory about the violence, neglect and corruption we humans have inflicted upon the natural world . . . to such a dramatic extent that nature is now in a process of dissolution.

The ancient myths associated with Persephone are certainly worthy of our attention and our contemplations today, but is there a Zeus that can bail us out of our dilemma this time?  Bill McKibben warned us twenty years ago about global warming.  In his new book Eaarth he writes that we've waited too long to correct the problems we created in the past out of greed and ignorance.  The best we can do now, he suggests, is learn how to cope, and creatively coexist with the consequences of our actions.  

The increasing and varying forms of environmental pollution and extreme weather events we are seeing throughout the world today show no signs of diminishing.  Nature seems to be raging back at us even as it is clearly leaving us.  Today we are living in a departing landscape.  

Like Persephone, we are being taken down into the underworld; this time, however, not by Hades.  In our modern day version of the ancient myth, we are being swept into the land of the dead by the increasingly powerful and destructive winds of our self-created demons.

 The descent into the Underworld    18x18

            Persephone, held captive in the Underworld   18x18”

  The Memory of Persephone   18x18”

  A god blowing worlds upon worlds into and out of existence . . .     18x18”


Technical Note
I made these photographs with a square format camera, and with a strobe flashlight (on a long extension cord) which I placed into the scenes being photographed.  I multiple exposed over single frames of 2 1/4 x 2 1/4" film sometimes 2, 3, or even 4 times consecutively in a spontaneous,  playful, unpremeditated manner.  My intention was to respond intuitively to each situation with the placement of the light and the number of exposures made and just see what the process would yield. 

The "process" also included working spontaneously in the darkroom during the printing of the negatives.  I would add flashes of light locally to the print while the image was coming up in the developer.  This "flashing" of the print was a very intuitive, gestural act not unlike how I used flash in the scene I was photographing.  The transformed end results were always an unpredictable surprise . . . as if a gift that came from the gods. 

The original 1976 silver gelatin prints were 7 1/2” square.  I scanned these prints in January, 2011, then refined and transformed even further the digital file images with Photo Shop software.  The new inkjet prints are 18x18”.

Related Projects
The Persephone Series is part three of a three part series of related projects exploring multiple-exposure in the camera and local solarization of the print.  I invite you to visit the other two projects:  In the Woods / The Georgia Woods Project 1974  and The Atlanta City Series 1975.    

Faint Photographs

Portraits,  Faces & Figures


In the Woods  

The Persephone Series


Other related projects:

The Persephone Series  1975-76
Color Diptychs  1990-92
Death, Art & Writing, an illustrated essay  2003
The Departing Landscape  2007-2012

Poetry for The Departing Landscape

Welcome Page  to The Departing Landscape website which includes the complete hyperlinked listing of my online photography projects dating back to the 1960's, my resume, contact information, and more.