At 18, Rana Young drove 450 miles from St. Louis, Missouri to Lincoln, Nebraska to meet her mother for what would be the first time she’d remember meeting her. In his twenties, Zora Murff made a similar trip from Iowa to Chicago to see his father, who’d left when he was four. Spurred by an invitation to participate in a two-person exhibition and by sharing a studio at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the two photographers, both raised by single parents, set out from that shared constellation of what ifs and could bes. Their collaborative project, Fade Like a Sigh, took shape in the form of nearly 40 photographs retracing their absent parents’ footsteps as a means to reconcile that loss. (A selection of these images are featured in the latest issue of Ain’t Bad magazine.) In place of that absence, a tableau of what it means for a boy to need a father or a girl a mother formed.
As he entered the grad program at UNL, Murff’s own marriage was “coming to a close,” he explains, and he’d feared that it was some kernel of history repeating itself, possibly even genetic. Young ended up there specifically to be closer to where her mother had spent her days in rural Nebraska. She called it her “what if” place.
Murff and Young met at a photo conference when the latter was already a year into the program at UNL and the former was frenetically trying to decide on which admissions offer to accept. Once they had settled on the idea, the two photographers noticed the cathartic, therapeutic quality of sifting through the baggage of their own personal narratives. They were learning about themselves, each other, and how loss had hemmed them in and their parents, too.
Young would ask, “What if my mother had fought for custody of me after being released from prison?” And she began to think of how those considerations might molt into visual metaphors for circumstance. Thumbing through the photographs, you find a burnt doorway, a tree in bloom, birds in flight, and rather haunting details interspersed with portraits that seem almost indifferent. Together, the photographs reflect the rather unseemly, uneven landscape that both photographers navigate. Murff tried to understand the squall of forces accumulating like a storm that led his father “to feel that he couldn’t stick around,” and he told me that it’s still difficult to prod at the depths of such a choice.
However, piece by piece, Murff and Young staked the perimeter of their own experiences — trying to get a grasp on a phantom presence that seemed to follow them everywhere. In one image, a family photograph turns unfocused and blurry, with the patriarch staring off outside the frame. In another, a boisterous girl bounds toward the camera. For Murff, isolation and contemplation were threads of solidarity between the two images. Letters and phone calls punctuated his contact with his father throughout adolescence; for her part, Young was visited by her mother once when she was 11, but she didn’t register the memory. But, for both artists, each missing parent’s likeness hung in the air like humidity via mementos, photographs, and, ultimately, absence. Both felt it was quite natural to have this desire to pull on that thread.
As to the vehicle of photography, it’s apt for this endeavor, considering how the medium has buoyed many family ties, and images in the pair’s project seem to push up against that. It’s as though Murff and Young have turned inward, using photography as a means to catalogue their losses, rather than to embalm what they had (as most family photographs do).
In working with Young, Murff noticed that his ordinarily muted palette became richer, more varied, but he also noted that the process allowed him to step back from the narrative that had become so formative for him, learning more about himself and others. For Young, she told me that as the photographs fell together, one narrative bled into the other. They built off each other, and soon enough their distinct histories almost melded together. “Our collaboration provides respite and lightens the emotional labor spent when dealing in isolation,” Young noted. “The process is still fascinating to me.”
After all this time, resentment and abandonment gave way to a kind of ambiguous resolve for the artists. “I wouldn’t say that this project has helped me reconcile or come to terms with any of this,” Murff said. “I think that circumstances in my life, whether that’s my father leaving or my marriage ending, definitely has an influence over what I make, but coping, for me, comes from somewhere outside of my creativity.”
Asked if their work on Fade Like a Sigh had led either of them to an overarching takeaway, or if it had further complicated things, Young offered: “I think I’ll always feel stuck in that gray area of tension between what is and what could’ve been.” Murff added, “We’ll continue to chip away at it.”