When his mother died in January, Robert Fass discovered a drawer full of love letters. It was bursting with notes that his father had written her during the couples 47-year marriage. Nearly once a fortnight he put pen to paper and reaffirmed his love for his wife.
The couple were not away from each other for long periods of time and his father did not travel extensively on business. "It was just a leave-them-on-the-dresser kind of thing," Mr. Fass said. "They were just in love."
A few months before his father died in 1997, Mr. Fass captured that love on film, shooting a series of photographs of his parents during a vacation in West Virginia.
When his father died, the photos became more than images for Mr. Fass. They became windows. The view showed not just a couple. It depicted a sacred union that is disappearing from today's society, he said.
Those photos became the inspiration for "As Long As We Both Shall Live: Long Married Couples in America," Mr. Fass' photography exhibit on display now until Oct. 10 at the Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale.
The show blends portraits of couples married 40 years or more alongside interviews exploring their history and reflections on marriage. The 20-piece exhibit is at the home's Gilbert Pavilion.
Mr. Fass has traveled as far as Hawaii to capture couples' lives on film. He strives to depict husbands and wives representing every cultural, economic and regional demographic in the country, he said.
His goal is to examine the different perspectives on marriage from people who have committed to each other for nearly half a century.
These are not feel-good photos, Mr. Fass said. In fact, not all the couples' marriages are blissful unions. But they remain together.
A remarkable aspect of many of the couples, Mr. Fass said, is how different they are from one another.
Take Gay and Herb, one of the couples whose portrait is included in the exhibit. Herb, said Mr. Fass, is "a great angry lefty," while Gay is a former military historian from Atlanta with an artist's spirit.
In their photo, Gay is lovingly resting her head on Herb's shoulder, a warm smile lighting her face. Herb stares, stone-faced, in the lens. They seem to be opposites, but that doesn't matter, Herb said. "Frankly, the most important thing is the relationship," he told Mr. Fass in his interview that accompanies the photo. "I've felt that for a long time. I've had a lot of therapy, and I came to that conclusion. The important thing is the relationship. And it doesn't matter if the relationship is in terms of marriage or not marriage."
Mr. Fass said that kind of devotion to a relationship is disappearing from today's society. "This is the last generation to treat marriage as an indissoluble bond. And to me it's a culture that appears to be increasingly marginalized, disappearing," he said.
"I'm not saying that this is a morally bankrupt era," Mr. Fass said. "These people are a reminder of the way it can be."
Anyone looking for the secret to a long marriage probably won't find it in Mr. Fass' show.
His work is, however, certainly a comment on commitment.
"For me it's about taking responsibility for the choices you made," said Mr. Fass. "And there are lessons to be learned from the people who have done that."