Stephen L. Starkman – The Proximity of Mortality

Review by Douglas Stockdale ·

We will all face the inevitable mortal event with most of us having an uncertain timeline, while it is life changing to be informed that this event will occur within a short period of time. After that type of alarming news, there is a need to deal with a narrow window of remaining time.  It is about an unintended brief timeline that Stephen Starkman addresses in his photobook The Proximity of Mortality: A Visual Artist’s Journey Through Cancer. His project began during his initial cancer prognosis and treatment, while a subsequent relapse of his spreading cancer was found to be incurable. He states that self-publishing this book was to help myself and others express and deal with mortality.

Perhaps most daunting for an artist is to try to reveal their inner journey, to make visible their angst, frustration, anxiety, hopefulness and maybe even their peace of mind. What results in Starkman’s photo book is a mashup of metaphoric images investigating various states of being that are intertwined with aseptic images of medical treatment facilities. The sequence of these images is abrupt, bouncing from the ethereal and poetic ‘natural’ world views to places that are claustrophobic feeling medical spaces. 

Starkman’s narrative reveals a weird duality that strangely co-exists for the cadence and pace of an individual with a terminal disease. One of the takeaways from this book is that Starkman’s story is similar to those who have a chronic condition requiring constant medical attention or interventions, up to and including surgery. The outside world as most of us know it versus the medical treatment world when those who are in treatment oscillate between the two extremes.

I can now relate to the term of “brain-fog”, which is a frequently chemically induced and occurs post major-surgery, and I realize that until you experience it, this can be difficult condition to both describe as well as find a suitable visual metaphor.  Nevertheless, I can now relate to the Starkman’s attempts to investigate this condition. His photograph of an urban landscape enveloped with fog that has some recognizable shapes for a fence line and distant trees as well as some other ‘things’ is just one aspect of brain-fog.

The photographs from this body of work are not coy or have subtle inferences but are meant to be blunt, and directly experienced. There is a sense of urgency in his narrative, which can be understood as his time is of the essence. Aline Smithson elaborates in her essay that (Starkman) reconsidered his photographs, seeing them from the new perspective of two roads, the internal emotional landscape and the topography of cancer treatment…the geography of these terrains is expressed both allegorically and truthfully, giving us an insight into the magnitude and complexity of the cancer experience.

Included in the book are anonymous individual contributors who provide touching personal captions for the photographs that were made within a medical treatment facility. Their brief testimonial statements add a sense of warmth that augment the coolness of the photographs of uber-sterile medical rooms. 

This is a body of work that should be displayed within organizations that develop the cures and treatments, produce the medical equipment and which provide the patient treatments to help remind everyone who the patients are that will be impacted by their work.

Writing this review was a cathartic act, while I hope that Starkman’s candor and honesty about his current journey fills you with a similar hope to live life in the moment at its fullest extent.


Douglas Stockdale is an artist and Senior Editor/founder of PhotoBook Journal


 The Proximity of Mortality, Stephen L. Starkman

Photographer: Stephen L. Starkman, born in and resides near Toronto, Canada

Self-published, Toronto, Canada, copyright 2022

Essays: Nicholas J. Peterlli, Aline Smithson, Jonathan Blaustein, Stephen Starkman

Poetry: Jonanne Boyce

Text: English

Hard cover, prefect binding, 96 pages, 45 color photographs, Trim size: 12” wide x 11” tall, first edition of 200, printed and bound by Conveyor Studio, ISBN 978-1-7386565-0-9

Photobook Designer: Matthew Papa


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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