|companions and icons||words||the image-repertoire||ephemera||wherever you go|
Paradoxes and Oxymorons: the observed
|In 1978, two children sit on the lap of a man wearing horn-rim glasses and a beard with a white nylon sheen, to have their picture taken. The boy, who is blond and two, looks up into space as the photograph is made, but the girl, whole six-year-old face exposed by pink barrettes, looks back into the camera and smiles. Their father says, "say cheese!," and snaps the picture. The girl trusts the photographer, has not yet learned to fear the camera.|
If the man in the beard isn't really Santa, is anything else real? It is a photograph "of me," but how is this girl, or the image of this girl, "me"? Something about her seems to draw me in, but it may simply be that I believe that I was once her. There's not even a striking physical resemblance: if I showed this picture to a recent acquaintance, they wouldn't be able to put "me" into the image without prompting. My brother, who is now six-three and getting a degree in Physics, is trapped there with me. Perhaps this is then a photograph "of him," not "of me," in which my six-year-old image appears.
This picture is faded, has a line of ink curved like a hair across the face of "Santa." Like the time it documents, the picture is impermanent. My memory has already lost this moment, and I have grown taller and stopped smiling at the camera. This moment can be lost completely, with the loss or destruction of this piece of paper.*
Before photography, there were no "moments" in our memories. My recollection is fragmented, catalogued by image. Somewhere, in a yellow box in the drawer my parents have reserved as an archive, there may be a negative of this photograph. My mind, on the other hand, has no back-up. This photograph is more real than my memory.
I don't have pictures of myself between the ages of seven and seventeen. The gap begins with the onset of my "awkward stage" (which hasn't so much ended as been ignored). My teeth went funny, I wore my bangs very low. Pictures of this time exist but only in a dusty cabinet at my parent's house. Later, around the time I started growing breasts and hips and being looked at in a whole different way, I wouldn't allow photographs to be taken at all, except the obligatory school photos which I would later attempt to toss out when no one was home. Photographs of me during this time feature a common pose- my hands in front of my face, or my hands blocking the camera lens. (As it turns out, my hands are quite photogenic).
Page from New York Newsday, October 18, 1993: behind a set of turntables in a radio studio, a girl leans sideways into a desk chair. She has long hair, wears a dark dress and lipstick, looks to be about 20. The grainy newsprint black and white gives her perfect skin, high contrast. The caption below the photograph gives her my name. Can I look at this person, this image, and see what someone else saw, opening up the Business section over their bagel and coffee? Everyone brings their own history to everything they see. Maybe it looked like an old girlfriend, maybe someone thought, "I like that necklace."
I went to a show at
CBGB's later that October, and as I walked through the smoky dark corridor
next to the bar, I heard someone shout, as was necessary in the din, "Hey,
it's Laure from WNYU!" I met a lot of people in my job, so the fact
that I did not recognize my greeter was not really unusual, and I just
smiled and kept walking. Then it happened again, and again, and I knew
that I was either a very early victim of Alzheimer's or I was being "recognized."
I knew then that there were people, people familiar with WNYU, who had
now put my face to my voice, or to the music that I chose for the station,
even if they had never seen me in person. I wasn't sure how to feel about
my newfound prominence, all for four lines of copy in a three page article.
The image eclipsed the thought.
|For me the photograph is rarely comforting. So often it seems to magnify the "flaws" I have recognized through years of photographic analysis. I "look fat," look awful, look like my head is made of greasy, lumpy pudding. The face is very hard to understand as a rule. It won't stay put, changes every moment, goes from doughy to chiseled without any warning. The camera fixes my face in expressions I could never duplicate in the mirror: double chins, neon-red pupils rimmed in green, mottled skin. If I'm not careful, the image of my face is fixed this way in other people's cameras, and then they see the photograph before I do. There's something childishly simple about my next leap of logic: if another person sees a bad picture of me before I do, they'll know the truth: that I am flawed, a failure. Once they know, it becomes fact; it becomes real. I can not fulfill the most important qualification for a woman in our culture: I can not look good. If someone else finds out, I'm done for.|
The picture of my brother and I on Santa's knee, like so many of my childhood images, is fading. Yet there is a permanence to the image that makes us aware, each time we see a photograph, that the image surpasses death. I look at a photograph of a young tomboyish girl, perhaps eight years old, standing beside a yellow-haired woman in a wheelchair, with a white-haired man behind them. The man and woman are smoking; in the background sun glints on a motorboat moored at a worn pier. The girl, whose clothing I remember wearing, is stuck forever in a bowl-cut. The man and woman are forever alive, though it's been more than a decade since I saw them buried.
In his book Camera Lucida, the French semiotician Roland Barthes says, "ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me... is Death." And later, "with the photograph, we enter into flat Death" (his emphasis).
|Perhaps what disturbs me so about the fixing of my image is not that I look terrible so much as that the photograph becomes more real than me. I am transient, changing, mortal. The moment captured in a photograph is gone; it is the fix on a moment that has passed, yet is eternal. Barthes's Death is the image that may surpass its referent, and who would have thought that I would someday be exceeded by all those awful shots of bloated and fat-looking me?|
It is spring, 1976. A woman with dark, glossy hair kneels next to a small blond girl in a red jumper. This is the child's first visit to the Butchart Gardens. The woman is pointing at a tulip, which is red and open, streaked with yellow. The girl peers into the flower, bending at the waist to get closer. Beside her, another tulip is as tall as she.
Again, a moment is gone for me, preserved
only in this still-bright print. Yet there is something in this moment,
in this image, that catches in my throat. The apparent curiosity and trust
of the girl I once was fills me with something like love, like infatuation.
I was she; I am she. In moments I am this child, open and inquisitive,
and here is her image. Something about her little hand clutching her mother's
wrist with two of her fingers, her blurry face. The image summons her
into my consciousness, until I feel the girl under all the grown-up layers.
I laugh after all; that is me.