Monthly Archives: June 2015

Fiction and life

Fiction and life are different: with fiction, the writer does the hard work for us. Fictional characters are easier to “see”, given a competent novelist – and a competent reader. They are placed at a certain distance, moved this way and that, posed to catch the light, turned to reveal their depth; irony, that infrared camera for filming in the dark, shows them when they are not aware that anyone is looking. But life is different. The better you know someone, the less well you often see them (and the less well they can be transferred into fiction.) They may be so close as to be out of focus, and there is no operating novelist to dispel the blur. Julian Barnes, Nothing To Be Frightened Of

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Becoming Vintage

My theory is that as documentary images get further away from the ‘present’ they become more valuable. You’ve caught a moment or series of moments in time. Seen as part of the present they are ubiquitous and vying for attention with many other moments from that particular ‘present.’

“But as those moments recede into the past, the more they reflect not the ‘now’ but the ‘then.’ And as something that represents a time lost forever their value increases.

“When I first photographed the physical and social effects of the building of ‘the last freeway’ in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, a critic called them ‘prosaic.’ Dull and mundane. Last year a major museum bought the work, in part because they had grown out of their dullness. They became vintage.

Jeff Gates (from here) 

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A white ermine coat

Kate Llewellyn in  a letter describing Christina Stead.

 .. She was ‘generous, encyclopaedic, lusty and full of paradoxes … her husband Bill Blake was in the fur business for a time … can you believe it … and she left money to the conservation foundation … plus had a white ermine coat . . ‘

(from here) 

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Knowledge and ignorance of the same thing

‘I believe I’ll make an experiment with candor here. Now, I say this with all respect. My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.   . . . You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”                                       Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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Abandoned Chinese fishing village

Tang Yuhongphoto by Tang Yuhong

from here


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A painter’s attraction to photographs

What attracted me to photos at first were aberrations, the unintended artifacts they produce, especially for a sloppy photographer like myself.

Alex Kanevsky (from here) 

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Owning the feelings of abandonment

I recall a man who suffered childhood trauma, in this case abandonment by a parent, and largely dealt with it by putting the unpalatable experience out of mind. At one level he knew what had happened to him, having fixed upon a story of his life that included the trauma and was coherent, if limited in depth and scope. But he continued to struggle with the trauma as an emotional experience, in terms of its full impact on him and the extent to which it had affected him at different stages of his development. The abandonment had been too much for him to deal with as a child, and the way he found of rising above his experience seemed to work — to do the trick, as it were. It was later down the line that he found himself in the grip of the repetition compulsion, unconsciously and repeatedly trying to repair the internal psychic situation, but unable to do so. He looked everywhere for love and validation, but was unable to find what he was looking for because the feelings of abandonment and neglect from childhood could not be consciously admitted. In short, he did not really know what he was looking for.

Arabella Kurtz, J.M Coetzee, The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy,

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The expression of rage

Since I had broken the cell phone, I went to a public phone and called the telephone company to resolve the problem. [the landline had been cut off]. I was assured that it would be taken care of as soon as possible. But the days passed, the telephone continued silent. I called again, I became furious, my voice trembled with rage. I explained my situation in a voice so aggressive that the employee was silent for a long time, then after consulting the computer told me that the telephone service had been suspended because of unpaid bills. I was enraged, I swore on my children that I had paid, I insulted them all, from the lowest workers to the chief executives, I spoke of Levantine laziness (I said just that), I emphasized the chronic inefficiency, the small and large corruptions of Italy, I shouted: you make me sick. Then I hung up and checked the receipts, and discovered that it really was true, I had forgotten to pay.

Elena Ferrante: The Days of Abandonment

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On not showing the photograph

[Barthes is looking at a photo of his mother after her death. It’s a photo of his mother as a child and he refers to it as The Winter Garden Photograph]

Something like an essence of the Photograph floated in this particular picture. I therefore decided to “derive” all Photography (its “nature” ) from the only photograph which assuredly existed for me, and to take it somehow as a guide for my last investigation. All the world’s photographs formed a Labyrinth. I knew that at the center of this Labyrinth I would find nothing but this sole picture, fulfilling Nietzsche’s prophecy: “ A labyrinthine man never seeks the truth, but only his Ariadne.” The Winter Garden Photograph was my Ariadne, not because it would help me discover a secret thing (monster or treasure), but because it would tell me what constituted that thread which drew me toward Photography. I had understood that henceforth I must interrogate the evidence of Photography, not from the viewpoint of pleasure, but in relation to what we romantically call love and death.

(I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term)

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida


The picture Barthes finds and cherishes is the only photograph he discusses in detail that is not reproduced in his book. Barthes cannot show us the photograph because we stand outside the familial network of looks and thus cannot see the picture in the way that Barthes must. To us it would be just another generic family photograph from a long time ago. He cannot show it because, although it is a picture of his mother and uncle, he claims it as a very private kind of self-portrait, revealing, unexpectedly, the most intimate and unexposed aspects of himself. The picture of his mother provokes a moment of self -recognition which, in the reading process, becomes a process of self-discovery, a discovery of a self-in-relation.

If Barthes can recognize his mother’s essential being in the winter-garden picture of her, it is only possible through the description and narrative in which he articulates his response to her image. In his book, his mother’s picture exists only in the words he uses to describe it and his reaction to it: the image has been transformed and translated into a “prose-picture.”

As photography immobilizes the flow of family life into a series of snapshots, it perpetuates familial myths while seeming merely to record actual moments in family history. At the end of the twentieth century, the family photograph, widely available as a medium of familial self-presentation in many cultures and subcultures, can reduce the strains of family life by sustaining an imaginary cohesion, even as it exacerbates them by creating images that real families cannot uphold.

I would like to suggest that photographs locate themselves precisely in the space of contradiction between the myth of the ideal family and the lived reality of family life.

Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory.

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The unknowable father

“It was a beautiful day, a day of such beauty that it remains stamped forever on my memory,” my father would say to me, telling me of the day his father boarded a boat that sailed to Scotland; it never reached its destination, and so this picture that began in sunshine ended in the black of cold water, and my father’s face, my father’s very being, was the canvas on which it was painted. I was a small girl, eight years old, when he first began to tell me about this important detail in his life, the same age he was when he learned he would never see his father again. I was not physically robust, my voice was weak, I was female, I spoke to him only in English, proper English. He sat in a chair made of a wood found in India, and the arms of this chair, too, ended in the form of the closed paw of an animal whose name I did not know, and so did its two front legs, and I sat across from him on a floor that had been polished the day before and held in a tight grip the skirt of the white poplin dress I was wearing, and the poplin itself was from somewhere far away from here, the room in which we sat was the room that served no particular purpose. His face, as he spoke of the last time he saw his father, became a series of geometric references, regular and irregular lines, sharp and soft angles, the shallow surfaces beneath his cheeks growing full and round; he looked like the boy he had been then, or certainly the boy he thought he had been then, and his voice became liquid and soft, golden, as if he were speaking of someone else, not himself, and had loved deeply, still not himself. His father sailed on a ship called the John Hawkins, but the name of that infamous criminal was not what caused my father’s face to darken, soiled, criminal, that was not what made the light go out in his small boy’s eyes.

Did my father ever say to himself, “Who am I, who am I?” not as a cry coming from the dark hole of despair but as a sign that from time to time he was inflicted with the innocent curiosity of the foolish? I do not know; I cannot know. Did he know himself? If the answer is yes, or if the answer is yes but not completely, or if the answer is yes but in an extremely narrow way, he would have had secret pleasures equal to the measure in which he knew himself; but I do not know, I do not know the answer. I did not know him, he was my father but I did not know him; everything I say about him is only my observation, only my opinion, and this must be a point of shame for all children—it was for me—that this person who was one of the two sources of my own existence was unknown to me, not a mystery, just not known to me.                         Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother, p197

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