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Visual health

Ruth Adams' photo diary of cancer treatment tells an unexpected story

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Photographer Ruth Adams received her diagnosis of Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 37, in November 2002. Adams, who had previously spent six months documenting her grandmother's death from cancer, went in search of books on the subject. There were plenty of books about cancer, but none that she felt showed what someone goes through on a day-to-day basis.

Adams set out to create just such a document of her own experience, vowing to take a picture of herself once a day for the duration of her year-long treatment. The result is unremarkable, an exhibit of her photographs now on display at the Center for Documentary Studies. The exhibit's title is the medical term that indicates one's test results show nothing out of the ordinary, which is what one hopes to hear.

Originally, Adams assumed she would be recording an inevitable physical decline--making visible the disease that would first be invisible to outsiders, then defined by the inevitable hair loss caused by chemotherapy. "I looked like a healthy adult on the outside--the treatment would tell the world what was happening to me," Adams said at a recent gallery talk at CDS.

The show's concept is simple, stark and effective. Three hundred fifty Polaroid Type 59 4-inch by 5-inch photographs, replete with their ghostly negatives and handwritten dates and captions, are alligator-clipped to a metal cable line that runs horizontally around the gallery's walls. Because of space limitations, a portion of the works are double-hung, and read up and down, by date. The intimate scale of these images insistently demands our close inspection. Their stripped-down straightforwardness accentuates the physical delicacy of the Polaroids themselves--not being archival, the works of art are themselves vulnerable. (Adams is currently in the process of making computer-scanned copies to preserve the images.)

We witness the artist going through all stages of reactions to her illness: There are serious stares into the camera. She first cuts shorter, then loses, her dark locks. She grimaces, screams, gives the finger to her disease. Then she's smiling, glamming it up in a blond wig to attend a friend's wedding. She seems to try on different identities through this process.

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Ruth Adams' self-portraits from six different days make up a small part of unremarkable.
Photos courtesy of the Center for Documentary Studies

We are privy to daily injections, the Sharpie marks on her body that will align equipment for radiation, the wigs, scarves, hats that disguise the most visible marker of her illness, her bald head. Through it all, there are vacations, family reunions, friends--in short, the stuff of life that goes on anyway, whether or not one has a diagnosis--and in which Adams stoically partakes, seeing life through the filter of her grave illness.

She said she tried to make each picture emotionally true to how she felt each day. This document of what she calls her "visual health"-- began in December 2002 and continued into early 2004 after she simply "forgot to stop." Some days, she said, she forgot to take her picture. Other days, plagued by an artist's self-doubt, she felt the futility of the endeavor. Sometimes process mirrored her state of mind, as in the blurry photo that records a day on hydrocodone, or another photo where the emulsion failed to take hold in the center of the Polaroid, leaving a white rift that splits her visage in half.

Despite the pain and self-doubt, there is plenty of joy in these images. Adams celebrates the halfway mark of her chemo, then its last day on May 30, hugs her new puppy on June 9, has a birthday, visits with her family. "The project took away from me what I had been carrying. I think probably the pictures took a lot of the 'yuck' out," she said of their healing effect. When she embarked, she did not know that "The journey was going to be a lot different than I expected. It was really just a beautiful catharsis for me."

At some point in our lives, all of us will be touched by cancer in some way, she says. "This is what happens on a daily basis--you have good days, you have bad days."

Amazingly, Adams' bout with cancer inspired her to become a triathlete. She now trains with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training Program and has participated in eight triathlons, two of them fund-raisers, since July 10, 2005.

Now healthy and in remission, Adams says, "This body of work will show everyone how beautiful and strong the soul is even when fighting for its life." To that end, she hopes to turn unremarkable into a book.

unremarkable will be on display through Aug. 27 at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, 1317 Pettigrew St. in Durham. For more information, call 660-3663 or visit cds.aas.duke.edu.

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