Ending by Leif Sandberg is not an easy book. It is not supposed to be. It is a powerful, cathartic work of raw honesty and self examination. It is simultaneously terrifying, heart breaking and courageous.
Coming to terms with ageing, indeed with our own mortality, is something we all do privately. I would probably go so far to say that a good many of us don’t even think about it at all, ……until something goes wrong, or upsets the balance of our well ordered lives. In other words, until we are forced to. This project documents the artist’s thoughts and fears as he deals with a period of his life that we can only pray we never have to experience.
In his mid sixties Leif Sandberg learned that he may have had Pancreatic cancer. Following major surgery, and as result of a stress filled working life, he turned to his long time love and interest of art and photography as a means of therapy. He began to document his emotions and experiences. Not only of the illness, but of the terrors that had plagued him, and also the realization and acknowledgement of just how truly important the relationship with Toni, his wife of nearly fifty years, was to him.
This is an amazing body of work, necessarily sombre and with a distinctly European sensibility. Whilst I’m a fan of the dark worlds of Petersen, Zownir, Sobol, d’Agata and the like, it should be noted that these artists are all observers. They stand on the edge of their respective arena’s and pass comment. Even Antoine d’ Agata, who famously goes to extreme lengths to understand, and even become one of his subjects, does this by choice, and therein lies the huge gulf between his work and Sandberg’s. Choice is a wonderful luxury.
This is the one powerful and inescapable fact that sets Ending apart from other documented studies of loss and/or suffering that I have encountered thus far. With the exception of one that I can think of, they are all produced by a third party. It is important to remember that this is not a writer, director or even a photographer’s interpretation of another persons nightmares. For Sandberg this is Hell, he is Dante. Notably, the late British artist Jo Spence was the other person who also turned the camera upon herself, in a much less stylized approach. to document her own battle with the disease. Two completely different, but intensely personal approaches.
Ending, the book is a simple and elegant production, the cloth boards with the embossed detail of a sutured wound hints at what my be in store, but ultimately gives nothing away. The images inside have an almost cinematic feel to them. Sandberg’s fondness for the arts is apparent. For me Bosch, Bacon, Bergman, Lynch, all come to mind. Nightmarish, surrealistic scenes. A multitude of self portraits, many incorporating multiple exposures. The artist literally laying himself bare. The work, predominantly an austere monochrome, but even the subdued colour images of wrecked rooms, and foreboding woodlands offer little relief. The only light in the darkness represented by the gentle face of Toni, comforting, supporting, cradling. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all need someone.
Although (as far as I know) I’m fine and healthy at present, I have reason to look at this work with a little more attention than many. The cold sweats and dry mouth that the book induces means that it may not be viewed as often as others, but then the images once seen, do not need to be refreshed in the same way. This (believe it or not) is a complement of the highest order.
Leif is already completing a companion piece. he tells me that the summer will be spent relaxing with his family, and that a planned third instalment will be something a little lighter. To quote him “….something easier to put up on the wall behind the sofa”.
It seems that Ending is in fact a beginning. He has fought his demons, and has,I hope emerged, maybe battle scarred, but victorious.
Here’s to project number four.
Ending by Leif Sandberg can be purchased here.
Robin Titchener is a keen, bordering on fanatical photobook collector of thirty years.