Photographer Stephen DiRado’s first art teacher was his father. A professional artist, Gene DiRado showed his son the fundamentals of line drawing and perspective and kept him stocked with crayons and encouragement as he made his way in the art world.
So, it was not surprising years later that they would collaborate on an unusual project, chronicling Gene in his later years. They did not know when they started that it would become a story of Alzheimer’s and how the disease changes a man and his family.
Stephen’s decades-long project – With Dad — was recently honored by the Bob and Diane Fund with its annual award. Gina Martin, a photo editor at National Geographic who lost her mother to Alzheimer’s in 2011, created the fund. The contest aims to bring new awareness and humanity to a disease that affects 5.7 million Americans and still has no treatment or cure.
Stephen’s series includes images of his father and his family from 1980 until Gene’s death in 2009. Each image was shot in large-format, black and white film.
“The work brings softness, dignity, respect and tenderness to people living with Alzheimer’s,” said Chip Somodevilla, a senior photographer at Getty Images News, who was a judge on the panel that decided the award.
Stephen grew up in the suburbs of Boston in Marlborough, Mass., the eldest of three siblings in a large Italian family. His grandparents lived next door and cousins were nearby. His mother used to set an extra place at the table in case someone dropped by.
Stephen kept his close-knit family central in his work as a photographer. From early on, he documented family events, friends in the neighborhood and scenes unfolding around the dinner table each night.
His father spent his career at the Massachusetts Department of Public Works as a graphic artist. It was not long after his retirement that Stephen started noticing changes in his dad’s behavior. “Disconnections,” he called them. He seemed more distant, disengaged, more forgetful.
One day stood out to Stephen as a turning point: his father came to his studio to help him wrap some images to take to a gallery. Gene singled out one of his pieces for criticism. Then not long after, he singled out the same piece for praise. “That scared the hell out of me,” Stephen said.
Stephen thought his father was depressed. In his drive to understand and help him, he told his father that he wanted to make it his job to photograph him.
“My art world is based on some phobia or some fear,” he said of this plan. “The more I want to run away from something, the more I run towards it.”
His father was agreeable. And from that day on in 1993, Stephen began to travel two or three times a week from Worcester, where he teaches at Clark University, to Marlborough to be with his father and to photograph him.
It became a kind of pilgrimage. On the drive there, Stephen would be anxious, never knowing what he would encounter that day or what kind of picture he would make. Then later, in his dark room, he would process the day with his father as he made his print.
In the beginning, his father is pictured in the places he knew and loved — at the beach, around the dinner table, or in the home he designed and built and “treated like a museum.” Over time, he becomes more removed.
In 1998, Gene had a stroke, and a doctor diagnosed him with Alzheimer’s. “How long do you think I will have it?” Stephen recalled his father asking him.
In the years that follow, Stephen enters the frame more often: Feeding his father, touching his cheek, holding him.
In 2004, after another stroke, Gene moved to a nursing home where he would spend his last five years. There we see him asleep, seat buckled in his wheel chair, blurred in motion by a nervous tick, wearing a paper crown in front of his birthday cake.
The final image is of Stephen’s father lying in bed, in a fetal position, a white bedspread over him. “This is full circle,” Stephen recalled thinking when he made the last photograph of him.
Stephen wants to put his $5,000 grant from the Bob and Diane Fund toward creating a book of his photos. “I want to show people what this disease looks like five years from now, 100 years from now,” he said.
The project is not over, though. He has begun making appointments with his mother, who is living in his childhood home, to photograph her. It’s harder to find time to meet with her. She plays Mahjong, goes to the grocery store, keeps busy. She is full of life. And he wants to be there with her, documenting it.
You can explore more of Stephen DiRado’s With Dad series at his web site.
Michael Alison Chandler is managing editor at MemoryWell. Previously, she was a staff writer at the Washington Post for 13 years.