Cancer couldn’t steal Brendan Fahy Bequette’s love of the camera


ALBANY — After cancer had taken nearly everything from 25-year-old Brendan Fahy Bequette and left him emaciated, nauseated and depressed, he chose to pick up a camera.

One thing the terminal disease could not steal was his artist’s sensibility.

“I always said his middle name was gentle and sensitive,” said his mother, Pat Fahy, a Democratic member of the Assembly who represents Albany.

Starting in sixth grade, he made home movies with a hand-me-down video camera. He directed and produced short anti-war films at Albany High School after reading “The Things They Carried,” a story collection about the Vietnam War by Tim O’Brien. He majored in cinema and photography at Ithaca College and moved to New York City after graduation to pursue filmmaking.

When: Thursday, 5:30 pm to 7:30 pm

Where: Opalka Gallery, 140 New Scotland Ave., Russell Sage campus, Albany.

The book costs $25 but attendance is free. All proceeds benefit the Brendan Fahy Bequette Fund.

“Making art was Brendan’s way to relate to the world,” said his father, Wayne Bequette, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

In the face of impending mortality, photography became an act of defiance for their son.

He died Feb. 28 after being diagnosed with an aggressive, rare mediastinal germ cell cancer. A former Albany High cross-country captain, he finished an easy run, experienced chest pains and went to a hospital emergency department. The rare germ cell cancer was found in his chest and lungs, and spread to his brain and other areas.

Over the course of 20 months, he underwent eight regimens of chemotherapy, three stem cell transplants, surgery and numerous radiation treatments between Albany and New York. He was in remission for two months, returned to work briefly and began to train for a marathon he hoped to run with his father.

“We all went through many layers of trauma. This book project gave us something positive to focus on,” Fahy said.

“The Photographs of Brendan Fahy Bequette” will be released at a book event Thursday at the Opalka Gallery on the campus of Russell Sage College in Albany. The 84-page book sells for $25 and contains three dozen images. Many were taken during Bequette’s cancer ordeal. All proceeds go to the Brendan Fahy Bequette Fund, which provides grants to support young artists.

“This was a project of healing,” said Mark Joseph Kelly, a photographer and photo editor who previously owned a gallery in Bethlehem and also works as a brand and marketing consultant. Kelly volunteered to curate and produce the posthumous book, along with wife and husband photographers Agnes Zellin and Paul Tick, of Bethlehem.

“I came to appreciate that this was an art book and not about a cancer journey,” Fahy said.

His parents wished to honor his memory and to use their son’s art to turn personal grief into an act of philanthropy.

“We wanted to find a way to pay it forward,” Fahy said.

In the book’s introductory essay, photographer and arts writer David Brickman wrote: “These pictures will stand as a legacy to Brendan’s emerging creativity and an inspiration to those on a path to define their own visual expression.”

Kelly added an epigraph: “Keep Seeing. always.”

“This is not a memorial book or an obituary book,” Kelly said. “This book puts his art out into the world for people to see and share.”

In his final months, the way Bequette made sense of his shattered world was by pressing his right eye to the viewfinder and composing evocative black-and-white images while walking through Manhattan’s Central Park. The park was a couple of blocks from his apartment and close to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center where he received extensive treatments. His mother and father traded off staying with their son. He had regular visits from his sister, Eileen, 23, an All-American track athlete at the University at Rochester, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering this year.

Their son was also treated by an oncology team at Albany Medical Center.

“Brendan received wonderful health care at every stage,” his father said. “We never gave up hope.”

A physician of internal medicine in New York had several discussions with their son about Viktor Frankl’s 1946 memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which chronicles the author’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. A Holocaust survivor, he wrote that a person’s ultimate freedom is to choose one’s attitude in even the most horrific set of circumstances.

“Working on Brendan’s photography book gave purpose to our grief and reminded us that art heals,” Fahy said.

The seed for the book was planted during a discussion after Bequette’s funeral with Fahy, Kelly, Zellin and Tick. Fahy expressed admiration for Zellin and Tick’s photography book that Kelly curated and produced, a collection of black-and-white New York City images from the 1970s and 1980s entitled “Later Rather than Sooner,” published in 2016.

The three curators pored over hundreds of images from his son’s computer hard drive that Fahy shared with them.

“Brendan had the talent to capture those whiplash moments that make your heart break or skip a beat,” Zellin said.

“We hope that this project creates meaning and makes this sad journey just a little bit lighter for this wonderful family,” Tick said.

The death of a young artist is especially poignant because it cuts short an emerging talent.

As a filmmaker, Bequette was beginning to define a visual style through the creation of music videos, short narrative films and commercial work for political campaigns. His filmmaker influences include Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Damien Chazelle and Derek Cianfrance.

The side effects and rigorous schedule of cancer treatments forced him to take a hiatus from filmmaking gigs. He picked up a 35mm Lumix with a range of lenses and a small, lightweight Fujifilm X100V digital camera. He was drawn to the moody contrasts and stark composition of black-and-white film and collected books on the craft of photography, including his final purchase, a copy of “The Photographer’s Eye” by John Szarkowski.

“He knew he was dying and he kept making images,” Kelly said. “He kept seeing. always.”

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