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The dead outnumber the living in Totowa, New Jersey, the birthplace of Laurie Giardino. Totowa, population 10,000, has five cemeteries, the largest of which, Laurel Grove, has more than 86,000 internments. Cemeteries were a large part of life for Giardino and her friends in the late ’70s and early ’80s—places to goof off, make out, get high, and escape the monotony of suburbia. They were also places that many of Giardino’s friends and family took up permanent residence in sooner than expected—victims of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, car accidents, cancer. Totowa Book of the Dead began as an informal project by a high school student who started photographing her immediate surroundings, but it became a document of a doomed era. Spanning the years 1976 to 1984, Totowa Book of the Dead is Giardino’s portrait of a downwardly mobile generation stranded in the economic doldrums of working-class America. First published on her website (www.lauriegiardino.com) in 1998, the photos and accompanying reminiscences of Giardino’s hometown developed a cult following in Totowa, culminating in her first photography exhibit at Clementine Gallery in Manhattan, which will be on view through January 6. Giardino now lives in Tillson and is a photography and technology instructor at Poughkeepsie Day School. Her work came to the attention of the gallery owner through her husband, a Totowa native. Not so incidentally, perhaps, Giardino’s “other claim to fame” is located in Laurel Grove Cemetery—her electrician father’s black marble headstone, which Giardino designed in the shape of a light bulb. Portfolio at www.clementine-gallery.com.
An uncanny amount of untimely deaths I wasn’t necessarily making a photo essay of Totowa at the time I shot the photos. I was doing freelance photography for local newspapers, and I would come home from a job and I didn’t want to waste film and start processing a job right away. So I’d bang off a bunch of pictures of my friends. A lot of these were taken on the tail end of bowling banquets, check-receiving ceremonies—all that crap I used to go on assignment for. The series wasn’t anything until my sister’s death. After my sister’s death in 1994—she was killed in a motorcycle accident when she was 28—I went through my archive of negatives, trying to find photographs of her. As I was going through all the negatives, I was thinking, “Oh, here’s a shot of Kenny, and Kenny died. Oh, here’s a shot of this one, and he’s passed away.” And then I realized that there was an uncanny amount of untimely deaths, and I had pictures of them. That’s when I decided to reprint a lot of the work and write everybody’s stories—how I knew them, and how they died. The cemeteries of Totowa There weren’t a lot of parks in town. Totowa’s cemeteries provided a wide degree of ritualized initiations into adulthood. At age 8, you play hide-and-seek amongst the tombstones. At 13, you smoke your first joint behind them. At 16, you sneak kisses. At 26, you put flowers on the graves of friends who didn’t live through high school. At 35, you help your parents buy their plot and sometime, hopefully much later, you pick out your own. You go through all these stages of growing up in the cemetery. Afraid of trees Totowa neighborhoods didn’t have many trees. I think working-class people are afraid of them. Trees make too much mess in the fall and cause cracks in the sidewalk. Someone might slip and break their neck. The biggest threat of the blue-collar existence was directly related to trees because someone might sue and take your house away. My father had a chainsaw, and our neighbor across the street helped him cut down both trees in front of our house. Then, just for the hell of it, since he was also sick of dealing with leaf maintenance, the neighbor asked my dad to cut down the two trees in front of his house as well. My father and the neighbor were so proud, standing there among the barren wasteland they had created, shirtless and sweaty. The ’70s In 1975, my mother started dating a biker. My parents had a terrible divorce and my mother flipped out a little and started dating this guy who was 15 years younger than her. A typical visit to my mother’s would consist of her boyfriend, a Vietnam vet, taking out his guns for us to play with. Originally, she was an Italian-American housewife, married in 1957, Catholic Church, mother of three, the whole thing. And then all of a sudden in the ’70s she let her hair down—no more beehive—got tattooed, and started running with this motorcycle gang. Universal appeal This was a personal project that I would pick up, work on it, and then shelve again until a year later. I never envisioned it going out into the world because it’s so personal and so tragic. I didn’t know if I wanted to talk about the drugs and other’s people’s deaths. I had ethical issues with going public with it, but I’ve since resolved that. I think it has universal appeal and can help people in the long run if they’re made aware of these stories. I hope these pictures communicate a cautionary message to people so they don’t make the same mistakes my generation made. Ravages of fate I can only theorize that it had something to do with the times. There was a horrific recession and you felt like you were hitting a dead end. You couldn’t work really hard and buy the house that your parents did. Houses were $5,000 apiece in the ’60s. There was no way we could fulfill the American Dream the way our parents did. I’m wondering if that only added to the idea of “Let’s live life in excess”—and that’s what did everybody in. Reefer Road Reefer Road was the only road in Totowa that resembled a country road. On one side was a hill with a cemetery, on the other side was the Passaic River. A winding, country road. We called it Reefer Road because if you lit a joint at the beginning, you could finish it by the time you got to the end. So when kids got in their cars and went for a cruise, they would “go blow a bone down Reefer Road.” That was the terminology. Danny Smith, 1957-1979 Danny was a strong swimmer, but the quarry got the better of him. They had to dredge the bottom to find his body. Undeveloped pictures of him were still in my camera—I had shot two rolls at the baseball field behind Washington Park School two days before he died. I was nervous and scared when I developed them later that week. I thought Danny was going to send me a sign. When the red light was on and the first image began to appear in the developing tray, I was afraid he wouldn’t show up in the photograph. I imagined a ghostly white image where his body was supposed to be. Fading pictures Even photographs have a life and death. You can make a picture, wash and store it in an archival process, maybe even keep it for a hundred years, but inevitably a negative and a photograph will fade away. Still, I never expected that the people I loved would be the ones to fade away.
click to enlarge _Next Generation_, 1976.
  • _Next Generation_, 1976.
click to enlarge Photo of Laurie Giardino by Hillary Harvey.
  • Photo of Laurie Giardino by Hillary Harvey.
click to enlarge _Kim Giving the Peace Sign_,1976.
  • _Kim Giving the Peace Sign_,1976.
click to enlarge _Mike in Braces_,1976.
  • _Mike in Braces_,1976.
click to enlarge _Mike Raking Leaves_,1977.
  • _Mike Raking Leaves_,1977.
click to enlarge _Mom's House_,1984.
  • _Mom's House_,1984.
click to enlarge _Pinball at Cozy's_,1984.
  • _Pinball at Cozy's_,1984.
click to enlarge _Schmedly at Pappy's_,1984.
  • _Schmedly at Pappy's_,1984.

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