Amherst Magazine

Scar Tissue

Photographs by Justin Kimball

Text by Emily Gold Boutilier

Fifteen years ago, Justin Kimball arrived in Arkansas to empty out a house—really a “storefront shack kind of thing on the side of the road.” He was there with a friend whose recently deceased great-uncle had lived there alone. Walking into the sparse living area, Kimball found only a chair, an ashtray that was also a lamp and cardboard cut from the insides of Wheaties boxes.

Kimball picked up a piece of the cardboard, which was stacked as high as a chair. It was a journal.

“It said Aug. 23, and he’d written the word ‘Nothing.’ Aug. 24: ‘Nothing,’” recalled Kimball, an associate professor of art, during a recent lecture on campus. “It was a sad and hard life, but the fact that he wrote that at the end of every day meant he thought there was going to be something tomorrow.” Kimball began to think about the traces of ourselves that we leave behind when we die—“this scar tissue of a person’s life.”

Years later, with camera in hand, he began traveling with his auctioneer brother, Douglas Kimball, to the homes of people who’d died or left (often because of divorce or foreclosure). Inside, the professor searched for evidence of humanity: a nurse’s uniform, a stain on a chair, wigs in the bathroom. “The resulting photographs,” he writes, “are my perception of what happened in those spaces: who lived there? What was hidden and what was seen?” Kimball’s new book, Pieces of String, is a compilation of these photographs with an introduction by his brother.

One photo shows a jacket on a wire hanger in a dry cleaning bag. Others reveal a bird’s nest on a table, a list of phone numbers written on a wall and an empty bed frame with a pillow, pair of shoes and cigarette butt underneath.

“This was my first time making photographs that didn’t have people in them,” Kimball says, “except they still did.”

“I prefer not to know my clients,” writes auctioneer Douglas Kimball.

“What you find,” says Justin Kimball, “is that people are often alone at the end.”