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More Than Skin Deep

by Elyse Beaudoin on November 10, 2011

A face of Alzheimer’s: McCarty’s Jean.


In today’s society, perfect skin is an obsession. When walking down the aisles of the grocery store, one can find a plethora of products to reduce pimples, wrinkles, age spots and more. Any blemish, scar or sign of age is labeled “ugly.”

Photographer Mark McCarty, on the other hand, looks through his lens with a different perspective. In his Skin exhibit, which is currently on display at the Opalka Gallery, McCarty examines scars, wrinkles and blemishes as an indication of character. His subjects range from his children as babies, to cancer survivors, to Alzheimer’s patients. These powerful black & white portraits have enhanced contrast, line and texture, which bring the subjects to life. At the opening reception of the exhibit on Nov. 4 at the Opalka Gallery (New Scotland Avenue, Albany), McCarty talked about his work.

Although McCarty is known for his commercial work, all of the photographs in Skin are personal images of family and friends. Many of the subjects are Alzheimer’s patients. McCarty was introduced to an Alzheimer’s home through a friend whose aunt was staying there.

“I spent my first three days just walking around and talking to people,” said McCarty. “Eventually I started asking the patients if it would be alright for me to bring in my camera.”

A woman named Bobbie was one of McCarty’s main subjects. The photograph titled Bob and Bobbie, features Bobbie with her husband. His hand is in focus as it touches his wife’s shoulder. The skin on his hand is thin and sagging and is emphasized by bulging veins and age spots.

Bobbie and Her Doll shows Bobbie’s head cuddled close to her beloved baby doll. Gravity pulls her skin down, emphasizing her wrinkles and one can see every strand of white, wiry hair.

“Bobbie and I would have these long conversations that no one would ever understand,” said McCarty, “then she would pass around her baby doll.”

McCarty’s wife and children are also featured in several of the photos. Kate and Vicki shows the back of the heads of his wife and baby. During this time, his wife was undergoing chemotherapy, and the texture of her short, prickly hair contrasts baby Kate’s short, smooth hair.

Along with his wife and children, McCarty also cast his mother-in-law as one of his subjects. Her photograph, Liz M., is the only image that is repeated within Skin. One print is smaller and darker, the other larger and more faded. The deep lines in her face and her wise, caring eyes show inner strength and grace.

“She was nervous in front of the camera,” said McCarty, “but I told her to, ‘Be at the lens.’ I took about ten shots, which she looked nervous in all of, but this one. She came out looking like a statue in an Egyptian pyramid.”

McCarty attributes some of his mother-in-law’s nerves on the massive 8 x 10 camera. He called it a “monster” with its “own presence in the room.” Most of the shots in Skin were taken by this mammoth tripod camera.

“Eight by twn is a cruel mistress,” said McCarty, “but when you get it right, it’s perfect. Every hair, every flake of skin, every pore, and every other little detail comes out.”

Due to the 8×10’s lack of mobility, McCarty also used other cameras for Skin. All of the prints were shot on in film, which McCarty says he particularly enjoys because of the anticipation of development; he is a stationary photographer at heart.

“I’m not really about spontaneity,” said McCarty. “I see one thing at a time and that lends to the intimacy of the photographs.”

Mark McCarty: Skin will be on view at the Opalka Gallery through Dec. 11.