Bomb scares, lost film and life lessons. Mark Mahaney’s session with artist Thornton Dial

Mark Mahaney for TIME
Mark Mahaney for TIME
Thornton Dial at his home in Bessemer, Alabama. Surrounded by family photos and his drawings.

At the end of February, I visited Alabama on assignment for TIME to photograph artist Thornton Dial for Richard Lacayo’s article on Dial’s retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Before heading south, I got some bad news. My grandfather, Bill Mahaney, who had been ill, had taken a turn for the worse and had gone into a coma-like state. I’d spent time with my grandfather a few weeks before, so after talking it over with my sister, I decided to go ahead with the shoot and join my family immediately after.

When I met up with Dial, 82, at his home outside Bessemer, Alabama, I found a family that where possibly the kindest I’ve ever encountered in my young career. As Dial sat for his portrait, his sons, daughters, and grandchildren watched. The love they felt for each other was palpable, and the tenderness they radiated for Dial was incredibly touching. Naturally, it made me think of my own grandfather. I was wondering if he would make it one more day, so I could get one more moment with him.

After we finished, I found saying goodbye to Dial’s family really difficult—they’re the kind of people you end up saying goodbye to multiple times, because you don’t want to say goodbye at all. But I could feel my own family was waiting for me.

Delayed by an odyssey of bomb scares, canceled flights and mechanical difficulties, I did finally get to Albuquerque in time to hold my grandfather’s hand, and say good bye. But while I made it, not all of the film my assistant Josh took charge of—including shots of Dial holding these gnarled paintbrushes I’d found at his studio—had made it back to New York. I love pairing portraits with detail photographs, so I was upset at the thought of losing them.

The days after my Grandfather died were filled with tension. But I kept thinking back to my experience with Dial and his family, and felt inspired by the love they expressed to one another. As Dial says, “all truth is hard truth. We are in the darkness now, and we got to accept the hard truth to bring on the light. When truth come out in the light, we get the beauty of the world.”

Sometimes that truth means death, loss, confusion, and chaos. Sometimes that truth is full of canceled flights, bomb scares, and lost film. But Dial taught me, you can’t hide the truth. We can only accept it.

As it turns out, we were able to find those two missing rolls of film in a couple of camera backs and publish them here. Every shoot has a story.

Richard Lacayo’s article on Thornton Dial ran in TIME ‘s March 14th Culture section.

Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial is up at The Indianapolis Museum of Art is on view till September 18th.

Mark Mahaney is a portrait photographer living in New York City. His series After 67  Years, made in the days following his Grandfathers death can be viewed here.

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