Eric Johnson: A tribute to my grandmother
This is an American family. It is a story we do not hear. A story of five generations brought together in honor of the life of its matriarch. Idell Marshall, born on April 14, 1915, died on July 16, 2011. She was 96. For all intents and purposes, she died of old age. When she began to get weak, her daughters reached out to all members of the family and they came to her bedside to say goodbye. One of her grandsons is Eric Johnson, a photographer whose works are ingrained in popular consciousness. But in the presence of his family, he is just Eric, one of the 91 members of Mrs. Marshall’s family.
Johnson had been on a job in Miami when he received the call from his mother. And he began shooting as he came up on the train. He documented his journey as part of a larger story, the story of a family brought together by a woman whose success few can claim: 14 children (8 alive today), 28 grand children, 38 great grandchildren, 11 great-great grandchildren—a veritable clan is Mrs. Marshall’s legacy.
But this is not just the story of a family, it is the story of a place. Charlotte County, Virginia. The South. The American South. Charlotte County was formed in 1764, and was the second governing body in the 13 colonies to declare its independence from England. During the Civil War, a ragtag group of Confederate old men and young boys beat the odds and held off an assault by 5,000 Union cavalry soldiers on Stauton River Bridge, which was of strategic importance to General Robert E. Lee.
Today the population numbers over twelve thousand, with Caucasians accounting for 65% and African Americans accounting for 33%. And of that 33%, Mrs. Marshall and members of her extended have lived here their entire lives. Mrs. Marshall and her now-deceased husband had purchased a large tract of land in 1968 that now is home to five families of the clan. And in keeping the family closely connected, Mrs. Marshall and her descendants have accomplished something very rare.
Our idea of family has become plastic. Time begets progress and progress begets change, and where families were traditionally tied to each other and the land for countless generations, it is now common for families to be in so many ways estranged, most notably from each other, but also far from the town that was once known as home. And it appears to be normal, if not acceptable and encouraged, if we are out of regular contact with the world in which we are from.
But with the ownership of land comes the opportunity for a greater investment, not just in the self but in the long-term viability of the family. And so it is that when Mrs. Marshall passed, her family of 91 was easily united, and so it came to pass that the funeral was to be held three days later, bringing together not just her descendants but all the people whose life she had touched.
Johnson’s pictures tell the story of a family, of a people united by blood and shared experience. It is a story of stories within stories, so many layers that in each of these photographs there are histories untold. We see individuals, people whose lives are interrelated in ways that we may never know. But with each frame Johnson gives us access into the heart of a family united around the woman who made it so.
One of the most striking images is Mrs. Marshall before her death, gripping Johnson’s hand. The image is evocative in revealing the strength that life holds, even as it is slipping away. In complement is the photograph of Mrs. Marshall lying peacefully in her coffin in perfect repose. In looking at her face we feel assured that one can pass peacefully into the next world. We can look at Mrs. Marshall as a woman who not only lived a life like no other but we can aspire to have the peace in her heart, the faith that has guided her through life and made her death an expression of grace and dignity.
What is also striking is a small backstory to this image. Growing up Johnson recalls seeing photographs of deceased family members in the photo album, and being uncomfortable in the presence of these images. He remembers turning the pages quickly past these pctures, as a way to avoid the feelings they raised. It is then that this story is all the more fitting, that he should take this photograph of his grandmother and be able to observe death, both in person and through his lens, as something that is serene and natural.
But this is not a story about death; it is a story about the eternal continuum. For the circle has no beginning and no end, and so in these images we return time and again to the lives of all Mrs. Marshall has left on earth. And each of these lives tells a story, and each of these photographs offers a glimpse. And the greater story has yet to be told because this is just the beginning, my friend.