Driving Legacy Forward: Erik Kessels’ “Unfinished Father”

A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Spring 2016 programme, we have invited students from the Department of English at the University of Westminster, London. Here, Jennabeth Taliaferro selects an image of Erik Kessels’ Unfinished Father, which features in our current Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition


Installation view of Kessels’ Unfinished Father at The Photographers’ Gallery. Image: Kate Elliott


‘You have to carry the fire.

I don’t know how to.

Yes you do.

Is it real? The fire?

Yes it is.

Where is it? I don’t know where it is.

Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.’

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)


Legacy is defined as something that comes from someone in the past, an intangible part of a life given to someone else to carry with him or her. Every father leaves a legacy and children must decide how to carry it forward.

In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), a father and son wander aimlessly through a waste-ridden, post-apocalyptic world. They rely on each other and survive the threat of attacks, starvation, and the constant fear of death in a frozen, chaotic realm. Throughout the novel, the father protects the son, ensuring his safety and his psychological well being. In the denouement, the father encourages his son to carry a “fire” that is lit within him. That fire—his father’s legacy of veracity and survival—ultimately drives the son forward.

Legacy can also dwell in darkness and drive a child to improve. In the 2013 film Locke, Ivan Locke’s motivation for providing for his child—not mothered by his wife—is directly related to his father’s detachment. His father’s past absence is the reason Ivan wants to provide for his new baby. Unlike the son in The Road, Ivan makes decisions based on his negative experiences and memories, and as a result rewrites his father’s legacy of abandonment.

In each of these, a son’s memories act as the catalyst for emotions and actions, braiding together past and present. Like legacy, photography is an overlapping of the past and present. In Erik Kessels’ work, Unfinished Father, the artist achieves simultaneous representation of these seemingly separate ideas. His father’s dilapidated and gutted Fiat Toppolino is juxtaposed with photographs of car parts orderly displayed. The viewer sees an old car whose former life and purpose are a mere memory. Yet because the images exist, the past is brought forward to the present. We can almost smell the oil from the car, and feel the wind through an open window. By responding to his father’s unfinished project, Kessels portrays the literal efforts, an unfinished car, and figurative efforts, a legacy, which fathers leave to their children.

A father’s work is never done. He plants seeds of legacy that bury deep within his children’s lives, even if neither are aware of it. Once a father is gone, it feels like all that’s left is a framework, a skeleton, or the shadow of a life. The soul is gone and the body no longer functions. Children must decide how to refill the framework, to make it work again, or to change and improve it. Kessels’ work asks: what do we do with the pieces of a father’s life?

One carries on a legacy by doing exactly what the artist does here. By carefully examining the pieces of a car’s “life” representing his unfinished relationship with his father, Kessels provokes the viewer to reflect on experiences and emotions to make decisions about the future. He uses pieces of his father’s work to create photographic artwork as well as an experience for viewers. In this way, the medium of photography is uniquely suited to study a father’s legacy, capturing images from the past and evoking emotions in the present.

Kessels’ work also portrays the distinctly human desire to find order from chaos. It is a natural necessity to find a structured way to order the emotional turmoil and unbalance that we feel as a parent ages. The old car is cared for and profoundly considered as Kessels takes up the gauntlet of his father’s work. In organising the parts of his father’s car, we see a process of organising disarray: Kessels turns bedlam into stability, and by reflecting on this process, a sense of peace emerges for the artist and the viewer.

Displayed in Kessels’ work are more than the pieces of a father’s unfinished project. He brings awareness to the complicated pain and sadness of daughters and sons who watch their parents change from the person they’ve been our whole lives. Some of the world’s chaos is brought to order. Honing in on a father’s unfinished work slightly dissipates the pain, wrangling the ache through structure. It provokes viewers to contemplate our own fathers’ legacies, and what we might do with the pieces he leaves us.

Jennabeth Taliaferro is a writer currently based in London. 

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