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Reading Images


Look closely at these two images for a few moments. What aspects of them are clearly similar? What aspects suggest to you that the photograph and the painting have identical settings? What aspects are dissimilar? The visual media certainly differ and elements of the art forms themselves will affect how you view them, but if you had to define the relationship between the two pictures, what would you emphasize? If the positions of the images were reversed, so that the painting were on the left and the photo on the right, would that alter your sense of their relationship? Is there anything in them that suggests sequence to you? Only the images themselves give you any sense of context. Could the setting of the photo have been chosen in homage to the painting, inspired by it? Or could the painting have been prompted by the photo? If we recognize these images simply as a fashion photo and an urban landscape painting apparently drawing on the same setting, we might be challenged to interpret their relationship further beyond comparing artistic elements that both connect and isolate them from one another.


The images were provided by Elizabeth Kadetsy, author of the prize-winning memoir The Memory Eaters, to accompany an essay posted recently online at salon.com. The photo was taken by the photographer Martin Cornel and the painting was created by Solange Langelier, Kadetsky's grandmother. In the Salon essay, Kadetsky tells us of her fondness for visiting her grandmother's house to explore her art room. She thought her grandmother was a "wonderful painter" of still lives and urban landscapes and she was inspired by her to become an art major when she went to college. Elizabeth's mother owned one of the grandmother's paintings, "a view up the hill on cobblestoned Beacon Street in Boston with a red delivery van at the end"—the painting she shows us in the essay. After the grandmother's death Elizabeth hoped to be given more of her paintings by the uncle who moved into his mother's house but, other than knitting needles and yarn, he gave her nothing, except for "a fierce look when I pressed for more."


The essay alludes to a family secret that may be the basis of her uncle's animosity toward her mother and may also be connected to the nature of that Beacon Street painting that Kadetsky hangs across from her bed. The secret had to do with a childhood injury that may have led to Kadetsky's aunt developing epilepsy and dying young. Kadetsky thinks the injury was the result of her grandmother's negligence and alcoholism, not her own two-year-old mother's behavior, but she is also aware that "an undercurrent of blame and shame surrounded my mother" and may have been "the source of my uncle's anger toward her."


In the 1960s her mother had been a successful fashion model in Boston, but eventually her Alzheimer's disease forced her into assisted living, where she died. Kadetsky began preserving many photographs of her mother's work. As she fed that fashion photo into her scanner, she had "a Eureka! moment." She recognized the connection between the photo and the painting. She tells us, "I placed the painting and the photograph side by side. They were a near exact match." She was immediately struck by the absence of her mother from the painting, an absence that she feels was deliberate: "How fitting, I thought, that my grandmother would have literally painted my mother out of the picture. Of the many abuses my grandmother seems to have afflicted upon my mother, this aggression by erasure seemed especially significant."


Kadetsky's essay grounds her conclusion in considerable evidence of family conflict, including her grandmother's alcoholism, the disability and death of her mother's young sister, her mother's Alzheimer's, her uncle's coldness. Here again we recognize that what we see in images very much depends upon what we bring to the viewing of them. As Kadetsky concludes, "One can read a lot into an image. If one looks carefully enough, one just might discover the ghosts of things, the traces one has always suspected of a dormant family secret, the memory of a beautiful daughter twirling in her glee and power before a camera, painted out of a picture but still there to be coaxed from the shadows." This is not what the casual viewer may see but certain viewers will feel the need to go more deeply into the images, and if they go deeply enough, they may experience a personally meaningful revelation. Certainly that happens to all of us with personal or family images of our own.



Note: You can read "A Mother's Vanishing" by Elizabeth Kadetsky here.

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Once Upon a Tender Time


Note: What follows here is an example of an imagessay taken from "Once Upon a Tender Time," a chapter in a memoir in progress by Amanda Irene Rush, presently titled The Gathering Girl. It strikes me as a solid example of the way an image sets off the need for written expression. I thank her for letting me post the manuscript here.


I have no memory of the four of us, as a family, together. All I have is this photograph my sister obtained after our mother's death. The photo had been buried among many other photographs in a box my sister ended up carting from Colorado to Alaska to South Dakota and finally to Ohio. This picture, taken at Christmastime 1973, is a small but epic find. Enduring proof that once upon a tender time we were a family.


In the photo, we are sitting on my father's parents' hearth in their house in Norwalk, Ohio, a red felt wreath hanging above our heads. The wreath -- made by my Grandma Hoyt -- gets as much attention as we do in this throwaway. In our current digital age, it is the shot that would've been deleted straight off. Where's the good family Christmas portrait? The one where we are centered and focused, all smiling at the camera, looking like a family should look? It's nowhere that I can find. Having dug through all the boxes and emptied all the envelopes, having flipped through all the albums and searched every drawer, I have found only three photos of the four of us; and this one -- this dud dug out of a box my mother kept until her death, this dud my sister saved from the trash heap -- this is the only one remotely worthy of mention.


I call this picture an epic find as though I've never seen it before. But I'm sure I have. As a child, I spent hours poring over photos trying to make sense of who my family once was, where I came from. Revisiting this picture, I recognize it as I do all of us. I recognize the surroundings in which we're posed. Everything is familiar. If I concentrate, I can even conjure up the smell of my grandparents' house. The woodsmoke from the fireplace. The sour smell of my grandparents' holiday cocktails. The new fabric smell of those matching Christmas dresses.


And yet, everything seems so strange. Is that woman holding my sister on her lap really the woman who will leave my father with us in tow in just a few years' time? Will she really end up developing a chronic mental illness and disappear in ways I never imagined possible? Is that man holding me really the man who will, soon after our leaving, marry a woman who will make it her life's mission to turn him against us? Will he really, after this second wife dies, quietly drink himself to death? And these two girls. Are these the girls who will grow to feel that they never had either parent? That they only had each other?


The picture leaves me feeling as bewildered as I look in it. I find it hard to believe we were ever a family, despite the proof. I find it equally hard to imagine a time when my parents may have liked each other; they were so different. And yet, there's a sense of intimacy about the way they're positioned in this photo. Perhaps it's only a sense of familiarity I see. In the same box, I found similar pictures of two of my father's three brothers, each Hoyt boy staged the same -- on the hearth, beneath the wreath -- with his young wife and children. Although choices would be made in the years to come that would cause all these marriages to fail and the families to scatter like so many seeds, on this day, at least, everybody knew where and what they were supposed to be.


—Amanda Rush

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Essay Meets Image: A Postcard Memoir


The challenge of combining visuals with text may be one of deciding whether the images illustrate the words, as a supplement, or whether the images and words are integrated and interdependent. My favorite editions of James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and Dante's The Divine Comedy have illustrations by N. C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore, respectively, but these images are merely splendid additions rather than integral elements. On the Internet, the insertion of some visual separating segments of text is commonplace. Every essay or article posted in the online journal Brevity has a photograph attached, usually by an editor rather than the author; each article on the digital version of The New Yorker also includes a relevant illustration: a photo of men kissing for an essay on sex in gay novels, a still from a film or television show for a media review. At the other end of the spectrum graphic memoirs like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home or Are You My Mother? or a work of literary journalism combining text and photography like Salt Dreams by William deBuys and Joan Meyers are works in which text and image are fully balanced and harmonious, meant to complement one another. Inevitably much else will fall on different locations along the line that stretches between these two poles.


For me, the term imagessay refers to works in which image is integral to the essay, provided or selected by the author and intimately involved in the generation or the expression of the text. As I've mentioned before, the imagessay is usually concerned with examining the response that an image prompts in the essayist. The writing of Lawrence Sutin finds a quite different source of inspiration than Judith Kitchen relied on. In A Postcard Memoir Sutin's fascination with the way certain antique postcards affected him led him to gather a collection of his own. He claims, in his introduction, that either "certain memories of mine began to seep into certain postcards" or others "challenged me to come out after them and fight like a writer." Eventually he realized "that they were egging me on through the stations of my life." Sutin's "chapters" are usually a page long, sometimes two, with an accompanying photo of a postcard. The images are always antique, usually foreign, and objectively unrelated to the author's life, except for the ways in which they inspire in him memories or personal reflections.


The cover photo shows a young man in suit and bowler hat perched on a crescent moon, its face in profile, and stars in the background; in the prose that faces that image elsewhere in the book Sutin considers himself at the age of the "Man in the Moon" on the postcard: "By the time I graduated from college I was I think what you'd call a fellow who knew what was what." The image of a woman in a theatrical riding costume identified as M'lle Bianca on a postcard labeled "Gruff auf dem Cirkus" makes him consider a short-lived crush on a fellow student named Cara; a photo of "Father Holding Baby" recalls his failure at dealing with his crying infant; a photo of the "Dinosaur Exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition" triggers a meditation on the nature of evil. In a sense the genre-crossing hybrid nature of the book resembles an interdisciplinary version of a haibun journal, with photographs substituting for haiku—the reader continually is drawn to the image despite its apparent distance from the prose and then back to the prose from the image. Over time the circumstantial and the intimate merge, until we feel in the most compelling segments that the personal is always part of the universal and vice versa, no matter how remote from one another they might initially appear.


From our earliest days we react to what we see in the world; it takes us a while to realize that writing can help us understand what we've reacted to. The degree of intimacy or interplay between text and image might be located on a sliding scale on which a point somewhere determines where they no longer function together as an imagessay but have become either a mere illustration accompanying a text (like those random photos on blogs) or a mere prose account accompanying an image (like explanatory text below photos on blogs). In an imagessay the image and the essay are equally essential. Can you read Sutin's texts without the images? Yes, of course, but when you read them with the image facing you, you are drawn more deeply, more intimately, into the mind of the writer. You may even find images of your own emerging in response to the reading.


Footnote: The ideas in this entry and the previous one are drawn from a longer article, "Essaying the Image," in The Essay Review Issue #2 (Fall 2014) 95-106. A Postcard Memoir by Lawrence Sutin was published by Graywolf Press in 2000.

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Essay Meets Image: Half in Shade


Genre crossing happens more often than we realize in literature. Such forms as the prose poem, the lyric essay, or the haibun or prosimetrum blurring or coupling nonfiction and poetry; they fuse elements of one literary, text-based genre with another literary, text-based genre. Another form of genre crossing creates what are sometimes termed the visual essay and the video essay, forms I label as imagessay. Here we're blending disciplines, combining a form of visual media (photography or cinema) with a form of literary nonfiction. We're familiar with nonfiction as essay or literary journalism or narrative text; we're familiar with thematic exhibitions of photographs and documentary films and television shows. The idea of a visual or video essay—an imagessay—a balancing of images with text, shouldn't seem alien. Like an ekphrastic poem in which a poet reacts to and/or interacts with a work of art, the imagessay is often similarly concerned with examining the response that an image prompts in the essayist. Consider works by Judith Kitchen, for example.


In Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, Judith Kitchen, working from a "haphazard collection of boxes and albums [. . .] my mother had managed to save from the floods," set herself the challenge "to give 'voice' to what is inherent in the visual" and "to keep the visual from dominating, making all my thoughts redundant." She used the photographs "as triggering devices," trying, as she says, "to interact [. . .] to animate and resurrect." The cover image is repeated in the book as the subject of "Young Woman on Fence," an interrogation of an image of a young woman in glasses, shirt, tie, sportcoat, and knickers perched on a white fence with her feet resting on a narrow tire. Kitchen examines the composition of the shot, the significance of the pose, the clues to the circumstances. Her mother has not identified the woman or the place or the date and Kitchen speculates about her garb, her attitude, her background and her aspirations. The speculation leads to reflections on her own childhood: "I learned how to be a boy from my books. [. . .] To be a boy was to be free from the eyes of those who told me who I should be." It may be that all ekphrasis exposes the individual interpreting what is viewed, but here and throughout the book the generally short essays repeatedly wonder about the mother's relationship to the people in the albums and reflect on the author's sense of her mother (and other relatives) as well as her own sense of herself. In "Who" she envies an unnamed girl in a photo standing among chickens by the side of a house, with a chicken perched on her left shoulder, and reflects on the farm environment that likely existed "off-lens." "I want this moment," she writes, "but not what it stands for. Want one minute of overlapping shadow, one slapdash second of light. Quick, while she has a perch on pleasure." In "Where" she compares her childhood to that of a young girl in a photo standing with her grandfather in a cornfield—the girl and the author would have been the same age in the same year and their environment but not their family life would have been similar. In other segments she considers photos of her mother and of other family members and eventually one photograph of herself sitting on the bottom of a stepladder with a friend sitting at the top. Throughout the book we need the images to understand what triggers the prose and we need the prose to understand why the images are there. The relationship is symbiotic, harmonious, hybrid.


In an imagessay we can't separate the image from the essay, any more than we can separate the prose from the poem in a prose poem. The aesthetic questions to ask are whether the visual elements enhance the meaning of the text and whether the verbal elements enrich our understanding of the images. In an imagessay the relationship between image and text is symbiotic, each serving the needs of the other, as if ekphrasis might also involve the image's reflections on the text. Whenever we open a site online drawn by the promise of a text, we usually will be presented with an accompanying image. I've had some of my prose published online but haven't always had any say in the image that I also discovered there, something an editor added, perhaps because every site requires a picture. The question I tend to ask myself is, what does this image have to do with the text it accompanies? If the connection is simply random the image is merely an illustration and the work is not an imagessay.


Footnote: The ideas in this entry and the next are drawn from a longer article, "Essaying the Image," in The Essay Review Issue #2 (Fall 2014) 95-106. Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen was published by Coffee House Press in 2012.


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I can't remember exactly when I started seeing family photographs in a different way than I'd viewed them when they were taken. I suspect that most of us have family pictures on display somewhere around our homes or stuffed in our wallets or purses. A generation or two ago my family collected them in albums with large pages inside transparent protective sheets, thick padded covers, each image mounted with black or white corner triangles, sometimes with identifying names, dates, and places scribbled below them. My grandmother's albums were often a little mysterious, crammed with images of people sometimes three generations older than me, friends and relatives I'd never met or even heard of. My mother's albums were more fun to leaf through because I could recognize ever younger versions of people I spent time with daily or weekly or at least once or twice a year at family reunions—grandparents and their siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins, neighbors and their children. My mother and her brothers in high school. My dad and my uncles in military uniforms. People at their weddings lined in front of church altars. Unrecognizable infants in arms below familiar faces. Some appreciation of the passage of time should have dawned on me when I sat scrutinizing those images—grandparents slim and youthful here, stout and definitely mature elsewhere; my mother a little girl in a first communion dress there, a woman in a wedding dress here—but I doubt that it did.


Somehow, eventually, as I myself aged and the time between album viewings lengthened, I was sometimes startled by my reaction to an image. There would be an expression I hadn't seen before on a face I readily recognized, a hint of connection or disconnection between two figures in a photo, a clue about attitude or age or health that hadn't been apparent—to me—before. I recall a photo of me on my father's lap at Christmas, perhaps the first picture of the two of us together ever taken—what did the image record? It was taken in the middle of the Second World War. He wore a Marine uniform and smoked a pipe and bent his head to look at me while I, at 13 months old, stared intently—confused? alarmed?—at the camera. Was my mother taking the picture? What was I feeling then about this guy I barely knew? This guy I'd only just met? What was he feeling about me? What did the picture tell us about our moment together? Was it a photo he'd want to show his comrades when he returned to his unit?


I also remember two photos of my mother with a little girl in a First Communion dress. In one my mother is lively, charming, cheerful and in the other somber, remote, distant; the little girl is solemn and almost expressionless in both. I'm uncertain of the date of the photos, clearly a gathering to celebrate the girl's First Communion. She would become, or she was then, temporarily my stepsister. Do the pictures give me any insight into their relationship? Are they both equally honest images of what both of them were feeling? Do they help me explain why that little girl (and her older sister and her father) were only related to me and my mother and my siblings for so brief a time?


Often now the family photographs I track down seem to invite me to interrogate them. I write a journal entry hoping to explain what they make me feel about the people in them, the occasion when they were taken, what they might tell me about who I used to be and maybe why I am who I am now. Poets sometimes write ekphrastic poems—ekphrasis is a Greek word for a description of a visual work of art—and at least one journal, The Ekphrastic Review, devotes itself to such poetry. I've actually published an ekphrastic essay there, "Perspective." When an album entry in my journal develops into something more formal and polished, I term it an "imagessay," combining "image" and "essay" into one word (and pronouncing it as if it were French, to make it sound more literary). Given our ability to add images to our Internet writing ("blogs" are "web logs," after all), we sometimes simply illustrate what we have to say with a photo or two, and the visual element isn't really essential to the blog. Sometimes, however, the image and the expression (the essay) harmonize so thoroughly that they are equally important and demand the same amount of attention of the viewer/reader, much in the way a work of art demands the same amount of attention as the language in an ekphrastic poem. You need to examine the image as well as comprehend the language. In ekphrastic prose that creates an imagessay.


Sometimes a family photograph needs to become an imagessay.

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What I Didn't Write #2


One of my weekly habits is to sit down with the new issue of The New Yorker the afternoon I fetch it from our mailbox, deliberately ignore the table of contents, and then read every cartoon in order, page after page. If my wife is nearby and I come upon a cartoon that seems pertinent to her, maybe reminiscent of something she mentioned or a conversation we've had, I'll show her the image and let her read the caption. Sometimes a thematic undercurrent seems to run through the cartoons, as if they were in tune with issues of the day or the psychology of the cartoon editor, and sometimes they seem entirely randomly selected, unrelated to one another. Sometimes, as often happens with whatever we encounter in our daily activities, a cartoon will set a chain of memories and reflections in motion.


That happened with the December 30, 2019 issue, entirely devoted to cartoons and to humorous prose. On page 39, a comic drawing by Paul Noth showed two female figures—or possibly three. The young woman on the left seemed etched from a late nineteenth-early twentieth century magazine illustration. The figure on the right was a perfect replica of a classic 1915 optical illusion by William Ely Hill, "My Wife and My Mother-in-Law." It contains both women at once—the "wife" turning to look behind her (in Noth's drawing she faces the woman on the left) and the "mother-in-law" seen in profile. It's a famous ambiguous illusion, like Rubin's Vase, an image from the same year that is simultaneously a white vase in a black background and the black profiles of two men facing one another against a white background. Noth's interpretation of Hill's illusion has one woman telling the other, "I'm turning into my mother." It's essentially an homage to the earlier illusion but it adds a different psychological dimension. For Hill the ambiguous figure is simultaneously his wife and his mother-in-law, as if the illustrator as husband is aware of the resemblances that age heightens; for Noth the speaker is the daughter acknowledging changes in herself, adding another level of ambiguity, since the changes may not be only physical—notice how dour that older woman seems, compared to the fashionable adornment of the daughter.


As it turns out, the Noth cartoon didn't simply remind me of those ambiguous illustrations of the past; it took me back at least seven years to a time when I downloaded the Hill and Rubin images to add to a slideshow I planned to run in a summer residency writing class. The images were really background, establishing the tradition of optical illusion art before projecting images from a video of eight young women dancing onstage to a German polka-rock recording titled "Tanz" by the group Hiss. The women are dressed in alternating outfits with one white side and one black side, the white of one linked to the white of someone next to her and her black side linked to someone on the other side. They have to coordinate their movements even coming on stage since they have their arms behind one another and their costumes are all connected at the hips. When the music starts the dancers have to move their legs, all white legs together, then all black legs together, but since different dancers have those colors on different legs, some left, some right, their movements create an optical illusion. The audience cracks up all through the number. Since then I've discovered a number of other performances like this from different groups, some male, some female, some mixed-gender, and I get the feeling that this is a popular amateur chorus line act.


When I put the talk together, I'd been focusing on the idea of ekphrasis, the art of writing about images. I would start with famous poems like Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," William Carlos Williams' "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts," and Patricia Hampl's "Woman Before an Aquarium." I would also show music videos to reinforce the possibility of ekphrasis extending into other forms, such as visualizing a poem or a song lyric. I located the German lyrics to "Tanz" and found a translation, and it inspired me to try writing my own poem about the "Strumpfhosentanz" video. Google Translate tells me "Strumpfhosentanz" in English would be "Pantyhose Dance." I think I'll stick with the German title. This is my ekphrastic poem:


Strumpfhosentanz: An Ekphrasis


schwarz und weiss.

How elusive the illusion
when made so vital—
and by now viral—
as if strobe lights
had come to life,
become Rockettes
for polka-rock.


Was ist gut für den Korper,
für die Seele, für den Geist?
the singer asks.

Der Tanz! The dance!

Shifting focus without
the blink of an eye,
repeatedly startled
by what I comprehend
that is at the same time
what cannot happen—
and happens,

as if, in Hill's cartoon,
the old woman suddenly
smiles while the young woman
turns ever so slightly,
as if Rubin's vase becoming
the faces becoming the vase again
were somehow animated.


My allusions elude me,
my optical ekphrasis
mere delusion.

Strumpfhosen auf schwarz und Weiss
tops and bottoms don't align
within the chorus line.
"Hebe deine Beine"
and their legs lift
and what cannot happen

Strumpfhozentanz auf
Schwarz und Weiss.

How elusive the illusion;
my ekphrasis applauds delusion.


This is something I've only done once, to this song and this video. I think this is the way ekphrasis works—something in what you see sets off something within you and you give voice to it somehow, in a poem, a song, an essay. If you watch the video linked to the image and listen to the song, I hope you'll sense the way they inspired my response. They may even inspire a response from you.


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One recent morning another one of those coincidences I tend to notice occurred at breakfast time. In the May 18, 2020 issue of The New Yorker Peter Schjeldahl reviewed an exhibit of Dorothea Lange's photos on the Museum of Modern Art's website, one of those virtual tours our pandemic times encourage. Over twenty years ago I'd read about Lange in Robert Coles' splendid Doing Documentary Work, then examined online holdings of her photos at the Library of Congress and began using some of her images, including the "Migrant Mother" photo Schjeldahl discusses, in writing courses I was teaching. He devotes a paragraph to Lange's pictures of Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II, "work that was commissioned and then suppressed by the federal government."


"One of the best known is a shot of children, Japanese-Americans and others, with hands on hearts, apparently reciting the Pledge of Allegiance," Schjeldahl tells us. "Lange's images show the detained as regular people who had to cope with an outrageously unjust confinement—and who, in doing so, were buoyed by being together, at least." He claims that "Lange was a poet of the ordinary but imperious human need, under any conditions, for mutual contact." When I closed the issue, I saw again the cover display of a dozen separate images of young people in graduation dress all wearing face masks—"Class of 2020" by Anita Kunz. It made for a timely juxtaposition.


Ordinarily, such a review would simply send me to view Lange's photos online, but I'd also been reading sections of Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, edited by Simmons Buntin, Elizabeth Dodd, and Derek Sheffield, a collection of "letters to America" published since 2016 at Terrain.org. After breakfast I happened to open the anthology to "Aperture: A Photoless Photo Essay" by Traci Brimhall. Her essay consists of a series of eight short segments each composed of two paragraphs, the first subtitled Image and the second subtitled Caption. The Image paragraph describes a photo and the Caption paragraph explains and reacts to the picture. No photos are attached to the essay. Her third segment at first startled and then engrossed me—it centered on two of Dorothea Lange's photos of the WWII Japanese internment project.


Brimhall introduces the first image as "Rows of barracks and a dust storm moving through them" and then starts the next four sentence fragments the same way: "Dust through . . ."—floorboards, broken windows, "the unfurled American flag straining at the pole," "the clothes of the two Japanese Americans running through the dust roads between the barracks." She describes the second image this way: "A father posed with his family. A tag looped through his coat buttonhole, the child next to him, tagged. The child in front of him, tagged. And the other child. And the other child. Each one staring unsmiling except the smallest child who watches someone the camera cannot see. Their bags labeled with their surname and a symbol to reunite them someday." In the Caption section Brimhall explains how the War Relocation Authority, which recruited Lange to take the photos, impounded them after they were submitted and stored them in the National Archives. Brimhall surmises, "When they realized the photos were sympathetic portrayals of Americans moved into horse stalls, standing in line for hours for food, weaving camouflage nets to help the war effort, the WRA realized the images must remain unseen." They only resurfaced in 2006. Brimhall asks, "Dear Unlooking America, it embarrasses me, but when a mirror teaches us who we are, do we ever believe it?"


Other segments in the essay treat images from the Manzanar Concentration Camp in California and the Gila River Concentration Camp in Arizona, built on a reservation—she calls it "A prison on a prison." Fort Sill in Oklahoma, she tells us, has been a relocation camp for Native Americans, a concentration camp for Japanese Americans, and, recently, a detention center for migrant children. In one more contemporary segment, the image paragraph details drawings by children released by the Border Patrol from a detention center and asked to draw their experiences before being transferred into a "respite center." "The Smithsonian expresses interest in acquiring their drawings as artifacts." Brimhall claims to be "disturbed that we need images to make us pay better attention," which partly explains why this is a "photoless photo essay."


And yet the words Peter Schjeldahl and Traci Brimhall find to describe the images they've scanned closely don't simply recreate them but interpret them in ways that reveal how the images affected them. Consequently, their accounts of those images impact their readers by making them visualize what these writers were viewing. If we were to view those images after reading their accounts, we would likely see them in much the same way. The question is, if we had seen them without those descriptions, how would we have understood them?


An aperture is an opening in a lens that lets light pass through. The images are apertures that let our history appear and, like any image, what we see depends on the setting of the aperture. It changes when we no longer see the image in isolation but view it among others, perhaps across time, in an album. Or even in a photoless photo essay.


Note: Dorothea Lange's Dust Storm image is viewable here.


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Imagining Images

One nice thing about being addicted to reading as a writer is finding yourself inspired or provoked to start writing about memories or ideas that your reading has somehow triggered. Over a period of a few days I happened to read a posting on Facebook by Leslie Carol Roberts, a writer whose work I like, author of The Entire Earth and Sky and Here Is Where I Walk. She asked her readers, "Tell me about the first book you wrote" and mentioned writing and illustrating a book at age 8. I responded at once with a story I've written about a couple times before. Here's what I told her:


I haven't been able to find any copies of my earliest writing—a good deal of it was destroyed by mold in our basement—but I have vivid memories of coming home from a matinee showing of Superman and the Mole Men with my neighborhood friend Bobby Hall. We both were excited about the movie—it later was shown in two parts on The Adventures of Superman television series—and when we got to my house we pried open my mother's typewriter and sat down on the living room floor to write adventure stories. At the time, in addition to reading superhero comics and faithfully following adventure series in the Sunday newspapers, I was also a big fan of the old Flash Gordon serial being shown daily on local television. All that influence came together that day in my creation of several one-paragraph action stories about Tiger Boy. He had superpowers and lived on the Tiger Planet, modeled on Flash Gordon's planet Mongo and ruled by an evil emperor like Mongo's Ming the Merciless. The various civilizations in peril were all part human, part tiger, like Tiger Boy, whose secret identity I've forgotten. Bobby and I had a good time—his stories were more sports related, I think—and when my mother read my typed tales, she eventually got me a toy typewriter of my own so I wouldn't break into hers again. I've been a writer ever since.


Around the same time I responded to Leslie's post, I read an essay titled "Dear Me" by Ann Napolitano in the New York Times Book Review. Starting at age 14 she'd been writing letters to her future self to be opened ten years later, her most recent one at age 44. I've blogged about that essay before, but along with admitting that, at my advanced age, I might not be around to open such a letter ten years from now, the convergence of Leslie's post and Napolitano's essay set off something else in me.


Revisiting that Tiger Boy story again I realized a couple of things about it that I hadn't thought before. One is the way the story might have shifted its emphasis. It's an autobiographical narrative about something that happened to me that I remember fondly. It is also a personal anecdote about the influences of popular culture on a young boy (I think I was eight years old) and it could lead in a couple of directions, towards the idea of private creativity arising from public creativity or towards an argument about the nature of contemporary culture influencing the creation of further popular culture or towards a memoir of a young writer's interactions with his family (my mother wasn't always supportive, as I mentioned in my memoir Happenstance). It's also a tale about learning how to use a typewriter.


But, possibly because I've been thinking about writing with images more often lately and have done a certain amount of such writing, I realized that every time I've told about Bobby and me typing our one-paragraph stories, I have re-entered that "first living room" (as we called it), the room at the entrance to our house, and seen the two of us on the floor not far from the coat rack and the front door and the front wall mirror opposite my mother's piano and the staircase leading to our bedrooms and the hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house and the open archway into the "second living room," the one where we watched television and listened to records and read. I could go on. Just mentioning any one of those features sets off memories of many more of them.


Mostly when I think or talk about writing from images, I think about the ways we can find an old photo and imaginatively, psychologically, enter it, walk around, check out the nature of the place and the personalities of the people in it, re-acclimate ourselves to having occupied that space at one time or, more challengingly, assess how the living presences in that space interacted even if we weren't there at the time. But I also think that it's possible to reverse that process—to re-enter a scene through memory and by writing about it re-inhabit it fully. In my writing classes I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves as a time-traveling drone that can approach their home from the exterior and look through a window into a family room—perhaps the living room or the kitchen or the bathroom or their own bedroom—in order to first of all describe what that drone would see and only later interpret what the things being viewed might reveal about the occupants. If you could take a photo of that room from one angle, what would be in the picture? What would a casual viewer realize about the people who used that room? What does examining that picture do for you?


We carry a wealth of images around with us all the time and they offer us abundant entries into memory and imagination.


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Sequencing Words and Images


It's been a habit with me to take photographs in a sequence whenever I experience a new place—hike an unfamiliar trail, for example, or visit a forest I've never been in before. Since I often write about place, sequences of images have been a useful way to revive memories of where I've been. I take a photo at the trailhead, often with my wife in it if we're hiking together, and then record changes in the terrain or interesting features that crop up: certain trees or clusters of trees, certain rock formations, certain meadows or prairies, a bridge and a stream, a boardwalk. Later, particularly if I've decided to write about that experience, examining the photos in the order they were taken can revive my memories of being there. I not only recognize the location recorded in the photo but I can close my eyes and project an imaginary video of my progress between each pictured place. Sequencing the images lets me re-walk the walk in my imagination.


Not all projects work that way, of course. I once wrote short essays for radio, virtually composing scripts while doing whatever I was doing. I noticed the world around me as I experienced it, sometimes taking photos but mostly narrating—silently—whatever I was doing and whatever I was seeing as it happened. A nature-writer friend told me once that he needs to hike alone so that he can speak aloud as he walks and record whatever he reacts to as he notices it. His recordings also pick up background sounds of birds and breeze and the crunch of his bootsteps. It's the most immediate way to compose. My habit is to write a log or journal entry after the experience as soon as I can, just to get something in motion, on record. Writing extemporaneously—what we used to call "freewriting"—opens up your thinking in ways that impromptu speaking or formal composing can't quite achieve.


Everything I've been saying here suggests that tackling an experience in image and language is best done within a limited time frame. Nowadays, of course, I take my photos on my phone and can share the sequence with my wife as soon as I get home, but when I first began photographing scenes from a hike I had to wait until I'd taken the roll of film into my favorite developer and picked them up days later before I could react to the sequence I'd recorded. The more slowly—weeks, perhaps a month or more—I got around to getting film developed, the wider the gap between the experience and the examination of the images, the more challenging the comprehension of the sequencing became. Sometimes in the frantic pace of living my log entries were very slight and my opportunities to peruse a sequence were slim. With enough distance between experience and examination I sometimes couldn't remember what I was viewing or how I happened to record it. For a nonfictionist of place that's embarrassing as well as frustrating.


For example, nearly two decades ago I embarked on an ambitious project: to compare the Hudson and Rhine rivers in both literature and onsite journeying. It took a lot of time and a lot of travel to gather the written and visual materials for the book I hoped to write. But by the time I'd done that, the long-term press of other projects and the complications of relocation and re-employment distanced me from everything I'd collected. I never wrote that book. Lately, no longer immersed in those other (very rewarding) activities and wondering whether I could revive that project, I leafed through the material I'd accumulated. My notes and journals generally seemed insufficient and the photographs, though plentiful, seemed remote and vague.


And yet I found myself returning to one brief sequence of images. My wife and I had taken a cruise on the Rhine and predictably I'd photographed various sights along the shore and occasionally on the vessel itself. One photo showed the two of us against a shoreline background with a castle on the highest point. A picture centered on the castle itself came next and then one of a smiling man in a deck chair. The sequence brought certain moments back to memory. The castle was the Marksburg, an iconic fixture along the Rhine, and the photo of the two of us was taken by the man in the deck chair, whom we'd been talking to on the cruise. A German a few years older than me, he'd learned English from American soldiers at the end of World War II.


At first the pictures seemed to inspire simply a slight memory passage, little more than an anecdote, and my first draft was only about the image of the two of us and the solitary image of the castle. But I couldn't stop thinking about the personable German who'd taken our photo, his pleasant interaction with us two Americans, and his youthful experience with American soldiers, as my father-in-law had been at that time and in that place. The contrast between his life experiences and mine made me aware that he and I would never see the Rhine or the Marksburg in quite the same way. The sequence of images urged me to deepen my understanding of that moment in our travels, an understanding I might not have had when I was actually there but now couldn't avoid thinking about. And couldn't avoid writing about.


Note: My essay titled "The Marksburg Photo" was published online in the November 2019 issue of Ascent at https://readthebestwriting.com/the-marksburg-photo-robert-root/


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Learning from Coincidence

April 30, 2020. This morning, looking out my study window to appreciate how green the grass across the street has become and to watch the swaying of the trees that tower beyond the condos opposite ours in insistent gusts of wind, I caught a movement in front of a neighbor's garage. I noticed robins bouncing around the driveways, suspected goldfinches and purple finches and mourning doves and chickadees might be visiting our feeders, out of sight from my window, but knew at once the movement I'd seen was not a bird. I leaned closer to the window and saw a rabbit scurry past white garage doors and condo entrances and small bushes and then beyond more garages and bushes and parked cars until it disappeared into a well-manicured hedgerow at the end of the buildings. I look out at six two-story condos in a row and the rabbit scampered past them all.


A few minutes later the rabbit made a second run past the condos, as if it had circled others behind them to complete the circuit. This time I watched it closely, trying to see if it was nibbling anything in the flowers below the shrubs and trees, but it moved on quickly and slipped in between the bushes in front of the final condo again. Almost before I could remember what I was doing on the computer the rabbit returned to run in the opposite direction and veer off toward the back near where it had first appeared. And then it was back a fourth time, partly retracing its last run but suddenly turning onto the blacktop driveway, crossing lawn and sidewalk and curb and bouncing across the street toward our complex, only a few doors down from me. I hurried into our bedroom for a closer view but by the time I opened the blinds it had vanished. I wondered if it had run through my neighbor's flowers and herbs or past our patio and garage. For the rest of the morning I kept flicking my gaze up from my laptop screen to scan the scene before me but saw no sign of the rabbit again.


Ours is a pretty suburban neighborhood, our condo complex sprawling across two sides of our street, pretentiously labeling itself as Townhomes of River Place. The Fox River runs through wetlands beyond the condos behind ours and a bike path lets us walk near it and through a forest. From time to time deer emerge from the woods to venture into the neighborhood, Sandhill cranes stalk parkland close by, a blue heron wades in a pond near the bike path, and foxes have been seen near the Fox River, so the rabbit wasn't entirely a surprise visitor. But it especially activated my attention this morning because of the images my cousin had posted on Facebook that were taken from her bedroom window in Arizona.


She lives in a retirement community and often displays the lively activities of her friends and neighbors, though of late the need for social distancing has limited the interaction she's been reporting. This morning, however, the photos and videos she posted were all of javelinas (collared peccaries) strolling through her patio at sunrise. She counted twelve, including at least three babies, and sure enough her videos show them wandering through cacti and ferns and wicker chairs and small endtables, munching on acorns that have fallen across stones and patio flooring. In one photo a javelina close to her bedroom window looks in at her.


My cousin's southwestern wildlife is more exotic that my midwestern ones but the coincidence of us both noticing unfamiliar animal activity the same morning put me in mind of images I've been seeing lately on internet posts from far-flung acquaintances. All of them seem to suggest that, during these days of lockdown and human isolation, wildlife have felt freer to roam suburban and urban areas. It's not entirely unusual to hear of cougars wandering in Boulder but this year their wandering has been a little more wide-ranging—at least one image showed a cougar passing a department store. Coyotes have been more visible in San Francisco; a kangaroo was filmed hopping down an empty thoroughfare in Adelaide, Australia; herds of deer, sheep, and goats have been grazing more readily on suburban lawns in Britain, Japan, and North America. Given how empty the streets of my neighborhood have tended to be over the past several weeks, I shouldn't be surprised if local wildlife didn't range more freely around here, especially with the grass so green and lush. My wife and I have noticed birds in the street uncertain about how to behave in regard to oncoming cars.


But then, now that the traffic is so light, my attention has more often been drawn to the birds and the squirrels and that rabbit, delighted to see the heron, hoping the cranes will show up soon. I look at those swaying trees a few blocks east and am aware of how seldom I attend to them. On cloudless days I remember images people have posted of smogless skies above LA, clear skylines in the distance in Chicago and Detroit, free-ranging animals having Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone all to themselves. All those creatures going about their lives as if they barely know we're here.


Or maybe it is that we barely notice they are here and have been and will be. Given our own losses and our isolation in this pandemic, our awareness of sharing something simultaneously intimate and universal, our altered sense of our existence, gives us the chance to remind ourselves that this world is not ours alone. In the weeks or months to come, the other creatures we share it with will likely keep reminding us. We ought to pay attention.

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