Art & Photography / Culture Talks

A Tale of Life After Death

Photographer Andrea Tese aims to preserve the memory of her late grandparents by documenting their most treasured possessions in her emotive new tome, Inheritance

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LuggagePhotography by Andrea Tese

New York photographer, Andrea Tese is fascinated by death, specifically the objects and memories that are left behind. When Tese’s grandfather recently passed away, several years after her grandmother, it fell to Tese to clear out their home. It was a fraught task – not only emotionally, but physically – what to do with every tie, every photo, every Christmas decoration laden with memory in this small shingled house in Queens?

Perhaps the biggest problem facing Tese was how to save their memories. If this lifetime of carefully collected objects was thrown away and forgotten about, what would remain of the two people she loved?

The result of her quest is Tese’s first monograph, Inheritance, an intimate and powerful book that uses these objects to chronicle their lives. As Tese recounts in the introduction, ”They were extraordinary people who led unextraordinary lives. My grandfather, Charles Mayer, drove a truck in a lumberyard. My grandmother, Mabel, wrapped presents at a department store. They were devoted to each other and to my mother, their only child. They were smart, with little education, and had good taste but no money. They were curious but didn’t stray far from home and pretty much kept to themselves. They were never in the news or on the screen. They didn’t create anything that would be read or viewed for generations to come. They were not famous and their legacy is humble. They will not last. This thought has often troubled me – all that remains after a lifetime is a collection of transitory things.”

What started out as an overwhelming task that had Tese crying and covered in dust in her grandparents' attic, became an exploration of how she could reinterpret their legacy and breath new life into their collection of objects. 

At turns meditative and almost playful, Tese creates striking sculptural presentations of objects in the house, imposing meaning on the chaos of the items at her disposal. She carefully sorts and categorises all of her grandparents belongings to photograph them – be it a collection of artfully arranged vases catching the light in the kitchen window, leather gloves mischievously arranged on a coat stand, or locks of hair tied with ribbons.

In the end, she has gathered all of these disparate pieces to create the most moving object of all, a memorial to the lives of her grandparents shaped by the things they chose to surround themselves with. A dedication to her grandfather on the final page says, “I told you my first book would be about you.”

We spoke to Tese to find out more about the unexpected discoveries she stumbled across while making Inheritance and how she ended up creating a time capsule of life in America.

On not wanting to let go…
"I started to think about why some things held more value than others. My grandparents kept all of these things for a reason, so in a way it all should be important. Realistically though, there was no way that I could keep it all, so I photographed the categories I created in order to document and, in my own way, keep, everything."

On imposing order onto chaos…
"By rearranging these now useless items into varying forms of my imagination, I could transform my grandparent’s possessions and give them new meaning. Through holding, touching, sorting, placing, I felt that I had acknowledged each and every belonging and hadn’t overlooked anything, which made it easier to let certain things go."

On her favourite objects…
"Photos of Me was an interesting shot to organise. Seeing the amount and type of images that my grandparents accumulated of me over the years made me think of the reasons that we take and keep photographs to begin with."

On re-evaluating her own belongings…
"I’ve stopped being so lackadaisical about the things that I allow to accumulate and have begun editing. I want the things I own and keep to be intentional."

On what surprised her the most…
"I found my grandmother’s boxes of alphabetized index cards where she had written down the title of every movie she ever watched and each book she had ever read. It was surprising to discover a lifelong habit that I was unaware of."

On exploring the after-effects of death through photography…
"I am both fascinated and terrified by death, as it tirelessly highlights how everything we know is irrevocably impermanent. This is something that has fed my work for quite some time now, so to explore my grandfather's passing in a photographic project was a logical choice for me. In the case of Inheritance, it was certainly a mourning and therapeutic process. But even in my current work, ideas of decay and legacy are at the forefront, albeit presented and resolved in different ways."

On why she did it…
"I am proud of the simple and happy life my grandparents led together. It was because I was so close to them that I desired to make this work. I feared losing them to time – I wanted one more document that allowed them to extend their presence forward. These images act as a time capsule that represents a place in America that my children will not be able to see and understand first hand."

Inheritance is out now, published by Steidl.

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