I was doing a little research on the painter Robert Gwathmey, the social realist painter whose work most often depicted the day to day life of poor African-American culture of the American South. I knew that his son, Charles, was a very famous architect but I didn’t know much about his wife, Rosalie. She was a photographer who chronicled that same rural culture that was the subject of her husband’s paintings. In fact, her photos were often the source material for his work.
Digging deeper, I came across her photos and found them compelling. There were poignant shots of families at work and at home, often in abject poverty. Wonderful compositions of a barn on fire amid the wide flat fields, smoke billowing with an awful ominosity. All very powerful stuff.
Reading some articles about her I came across a terrific article from 1994 and Erika Duncan in the New York Times. It was of an interview with Rosalie Gwathmey, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, focusing on her work as a photographer which, at the time of the article, was being rediscovered as the result of a solo show of her photos. It turns out that she had been an earnest photographer. associated with some of the other great photogs of the time such as Dorothea Lange, from around the mid 1930’s up until 1955 when she abruptly put down her camera, destroyed many of ner negatives and gave away her photos.
“I just quit,” was her description.
Reading the rest of the article, she also simply stopped painting at one point, despite having great promise, and she also abruptly ended a long career as a textile designer. She simply stopped and claimed to have no regrets.
That really made me think. Was this merely a facet of her personality or could this happen to anyone? Could I one day suddenly decide that I no longer wanted to paint? What was it that made her suddenly lose that need to express herself in a certain way? It became a sort of scary thing to think about for me, as though it were some horrible affliction that lay in wait for me somewhere in the future. Maybe never but maybe tomorrow.
I don’t know that there are actual answers here, only more questions. But her quitting is as intriguing an aspect of her life as her wonderful work and makes me wonder how many others have simply walked away from what seems to be a great career.