Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man

Mirja Maria Thiel

"Every 65 seconds, a new brain develops Alzheimer’s" (Bob and Diane Fund)

This series tells the life of Fritz Dressler (1937-2020), a landscape and travel photographer who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease during the last years of his life. Dressler was formerly a Professor of Photography and Moving Images at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany. Before the onset of his dementia, Dressler resided in the artist village of Worpswede for more than 40 years. He was known for his influential and creative personality.

In
2016, I met Fritz Dressler at a photo festival in his home village in Northern Germany. For my personal development as a photographer this was a life changing meeting. Over the course of two and a half years I photographed Fritz in his house and his village. I had the chance to spend most of my time alone with Fritz, which is something very rare considering that I was not his partner nor a family member. That is why the “facts”, sorrows and joys of Fritz’s life were conveyed to me mainly by himself. For me, this opened an undisguised view into his diminishing world. Permission to photograph him was given by his children; Fritz never had intellectual insight into my actions and motifs. He was nevertheless always my irresistible emotional counterpart. I became completely committed to the emotional reality of my charismatic protagonist: his intensity, vulnerability and resilience define the portraits of his soul.


What had originally begun as a documentary on living with Alzheimer’s transformed into an emotional reflection on challenging stereotypes about this disease by emphasizing ’ability not disability’. Falling back on taking pictures himself, however demanding the technique, reassured Fritz of his identity.


Inspired by the lecture of "Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out“ by Richard Taylor, the first Alzheimer’s activist who was affected himself, and by the writings of Michael Schmieder, one of the most influential dementia pioneers and ethical experts in Germany and Switzerland, it is my ambition to spark a compassionate dialogue in society about issues concerning more respect, participation and empowerment towards people affected with Alzheimer’s and dementia.


By the time Fritz and me met, he was no longer able to call his illness by its name, but could only resignedly acknowledge, "Actually, I don’t know anything anymore." But his self-awareness – as someone who saw himself as an artist and thus preserved his presence – was still very much alive:

"I am not dead, I’m still walking!"

Past, Present, Future


During an afternoon walk in January Fritz’ solitary figure with the impressive ushanka spoke of his vulnerability as well as of his resilience. He knew the path we had taken by heart. These broad, magical lowlands were a famous motif for the impressionist painters residing in Worpswede at the end of the 19th century - and about a hundred years later for Fritz’ seeking camera. Suddenly, for a split second, he gave me this intense glimpse of his old strong and confident self.

The Hermit


"On this picture I look like a hermit“, Fritz comments. Every time I rang the doorbell I hoped to be recognized as the person I was. He opened the door, or more often the window of his sleeping room on the first floor and smiled at me: "Oh, how comes you happen to be here? Come in!" In case of the window, I did remind him that I was not a bird who could fly. He seemed to be surprised then. He started to offer me books, glasses, and other items in front of him to open the door with. I tried to explain how his key looked like and where he might find it. He took it with humor. This was kind of a ritual we both enjoyed. Him because he loved my company, me because I was reassured, I had not lost him yet.

Riversong


This image dealing with "love“ I had in my mind for a long time. It captures Fritz and his last partner Renate after they went bathing. She lived a one-hour-drive away and visited him several times each week. They knew each other for more than 40 years, and she helped him a lot to reconnect to past times. His intellectual abilities faded, but his emotional life and his empathy were as spirited as ever concerning Renate. One thing they had always done together was to go swimming in the little muddy Hamme river next to his home village. In August 2017, when Fritz strength already dwindled, the three of us made a photo session there.

Snowfall


Fritz sits on his bed, in a sudden moment of confusion and distress. He mumbles: "I don’t know what’s happening with me right now.“ We sit there for about five minutes. Very close. In silence. Then he turned towards me and gave me a frail smile. Later, he called this situation a "snowfall."

Companions


When visiting Fritz’s daughter, we always took her dogs Alma (5) and Nika (12) out for a walk. Fritz used to take care of them in earlier years. He enjoyed the dogs’ unconditional love for him.

Hello! I’m Still Here!


"Always look me in the eyes while speaking. Enough people have ignored me or changed their focus upon learning that I have Alzheimer’s that I am extremely conscious, and self-conscious, of how people look at me when they are talking to me." Richard Taylor PhD, Alzheimer’s activist and affected by dementia himself in his book Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out. Fritz’s life had become lonely in his home village Worpswede, this famous artists’ community. The more so as he had been a very social character all his life. But no friends visited anymore. Slowly his house turned into a place of retreat and equally of loneliness.

Travelling


Cranes flying over the nature reserve Devil’s Moor close to Worpswede in northern Germany on October 2017. In 2016, when I got to know Fritz, he had been still unsettled about his future, especially when he felt sad, exhausted, and tired. Later he forgot such a thing as "future". But for two more years he waited for the migrant birds to come back, he knew their pattern well. In the past, Fritz had spent uncountable hours in the Devil’s Moor, on October 2017 this was no option anymore. I went by myself with a farmer’s wife to show me this place where the cranes would exactly fly in. Thinking of Fritz these symbolic migrant birds remind me of his love for travelling, nature’s everlasting life cycle and man’s mortality.

Tree Under Thunderclouds


According to his son, Fritz Dressler loved to call this photograph one of three good images he had made in his whole life. In the light of his disease this photograph became particularly symbolic for me.

A Birthday Present


On the 8th of March 2017 Fritz celebrated his 80th birthday in his house in Worpswede. This is his birthday cake which oddly enough does not name his age making it even more suggestive in photographic terms. I use it in my series to individualize Fritz, the person in danger to lose his identity. Furthermore, the birthday cake demonstrates life force.

Winter Morning


Looking back this beautiful winter day stands out in my memory from all our nature walks. Fritz had found immense pleasure and pride in himself by falling back on taking pictures himself.


In January 2020, Fritz died in his children’s and my presence in a special needs residency for demented people where he had lived for the last year of his life.

About the Artist

Born in Hamburg in 1971, Mirja Maria Thiel is a German photographer with a background in literature whose approach to photography is rooted in the fascination for storytelling as a means of rising to challenge, living with change and showing compassion with humanity’s and her own vulnerability.

"During my four-year-stay in Switzerland, I rediscovered my delight in photography while documenting my three young children. Aged 42, I decided to study Photojournalism and Documentary Photography in Hanover, Germany. As a visual author I feel indebted to the documentary tradition, but at the same time I pursue a subjective and modern approach through in-depth-engagement with my subjects. So far, my long-term work focuses on the elderly: the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the emotional landscape of caregivers in Farewell Sonata and the affected individual in Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man. The series All This Love explores eroticism in old age couples."