A few weeks ago I visited a dear friend and photography colleague, Jerry Irwin, who was placed in hospice care. He tasked me with a great project, to gather his slides and do a few things for him with them. The return of cancer had recently paralyzed him from the waist down (“It’s a bitter pill, I tell ya,” he said) and I accepted the project because I felt maybe it would be something to help keep his sharp mind going.
“I have a business proposition for you young lady,” said a very special man from his hospital bed- of course whatever came out of his mouth next would not be anything I would turn down.
And so I went to the studio where I gathered some of the best of his life’s work that had been stored there in slide form, and brought them with me to my drawing desk for cataloging, archiving, plan-making.
Hopelessly optimistic me didn’t fathom that we wouldn’t have months to work on this together, that we wouldn’t have many more conversations peppered with his nuanced vernacular, many more milkshakes from the Charcoal Pit, many more laughs. I was able to visit him just two more times before he passed away yesterday morning, four months and some days shy of his 81st birthday. I came to see him on Valentine’s Day and the doctors already had him in an induced “twilight state”; I just squeezed his arm softly and left, in shock at how quickly it was all happening, stunned that I couldn’t come to him with my questions about our project anymore, that that was it.
Jerry’s work is iconic. Quintessential. He lived amongst the Amish for years and gained their trust to the extent that they allowed him to take photos of their children. He traveled the world. He rode with the Pagans and he did thousands of sky dives, even lost an eye to one. And because his ashes will be spread during an “ash jump” by his best buddies in skydiving in lieu of a formal memorial service, I will share my favorite memories of knowing this plucky Irish guy the past five years here, in my space. (And please forgive my scattered thoughts; the experience is still moving through and changing me.)
Four of us went to see Toots and the Maytals at the Tocadero in Philly a couple of summers ago. Two left Jerry and I in the balcony to go get a round of drinks for us all before the show started.
Looking after them as they walked away, Jerry turned to me and asked, “Where are those two off to?” and I answered, “I think they’re going to the bar.” “Well, …why?” he said, reaching down to his ankle where he pulled two little airplane bottles of liquor out of his sock! Ha!!
He was my absolute favorite rockabilly punk and his work will not only live on, it will also educate and inspire the next waves of photographers. It’s been an education sitting at my desk here with some of his greatest work in front of me the past three weeks and I’ve learned a lot from him at the studio (and on the birthday sushi dates he would take us on each fall.)
His pragmatic views on life and passion and dedication to his subjects- the way he would live with a subject for years and really get inside of it- so much meat and marrow there the rest of us as documentarians, historians, social anthropologists, and general observers can learn from. Jerry to me was a national treasure and those who knew him know he was far too humble to ever hear me when I said it to him. Grounded, salt to the earth, decent, completely open and generous with whatever he had. He’d leave two pieces of the best carrot cake on earth in the fridge at Northbrook for us to find when we returned from travel as a thank you for letting him stay when actually he was the one doing US the favor keeping an eye on things while we were away.
I don’t know why everything feels like it’s a Grand Canyon away and also like it’s right on the other side of my cheek sometimes, how my raw heart could feel like it’s made of wood at the moment with this small hollow place inside of it, but I know that Jerry’s next grand adventure involves much bluer skies than today’s, and that this profound body of work sitting in front of me that allows me to see this world through his eyes has even more gravity and beauty, is even more vivid and eternal, and blessed.
So put on some Mott the Hoople, crack open a beer, and think of our friend Jerry for a bit this eve.