Light & Time
In our age there is no work of art that is looked at so closely as a photograph of oneself, one’s closest relatives & friends, one’s sweetheart. – Alfred Lichtwark
This is a photograph of my parents from 1988. I saw it for the first time some years ago. A friend of my father’s had uncovered a spool of undeveloped negatives, mostly of my sister and I as girls. In this photo, which was among them, my mother is visiting my father at the COSATU offices in Johannesburg, where he was working at the time. “It looks like you’ve been split in two!” a friend in America wrote to me, after I sent it to her. I was sending it to everyone. Proud to have these cool parents: this woman in her Annie Hall get-up; this man jamming on the floor beside her. Finally, I showed it to my mother, who responded in her familiar deadpan: “Dirk pretending to play the bass guitar, and me pretending to be happy.”
It’s true. My father can’t really play the bass guitar, and my mother can’t really be happy. She can be many other things though: this acerbic and mischievous, but secretly devout woman. My mother is rigorously unsentimental about photographs. She has never owned a camera. She has kept almost no photographs of her own parents, her siblings, or herself as a child. For the most part I haven’t known these people and now I have no faces for them either. Often I forget their names. Sometimes I misspell her surname. I can’t really speak Afrikaans, her first language. She set out to erase her past from me, and she succeeded, and yet sometimes she seems wounded by her success: that this seemingly immutable lineage was not innate, after all; that it could disappear, just like that, by a simple practice of omission.
I’ve seen only three photographs of my mother before she was an adult. In two she looks like a scruffy farm boy. The third I saw only once, as a teenager. I can’t remember what happened on that day to occasion it; only that my vanity had been horribly wounded. She brought me into her room and retrieved a small box from the bottom of her cupboard. She rifled out a photo, which had been ripped into pieces and taped back together, long enough ago that the tape had yellowed. It was a picture of herself from a high school dance. In my recollection something of the scruffy farm boy remained, with the androgynous moon-face, but he was smiling shyly now, and he was wearing dark eye makeup. She passed this desecrated photograph over to me for a brief inspection before taking it back and returning it to the box. See—she seemed to be saying with the gesture— it’s nothing special to be ugly.
Looking back, it was so like the woman to have hated this photo, but to have kept it. Not kept it in spite of hating it, but kept it only because she hated it. Because there was some lesson there, which could never be found in the pictures you admire of yourself. Because if there are any photos you should have with you in a box at the bottom of your cupboard, or that you should keep to show your children, it is the ones you initially couldn’t stand to look at. At some point, the child who could not bear itself becomes the adult who loves the child. And relates more to it, in its elaborate failed pretenses and its humble self-disgust, than it does to the present self, or to the grimacing woman in the holiday photos, or the woman wedged into the group photos on the stoep. The hated image often becomes— if you will only let it (if you have strength enough to wait)—the most tender portrait of the self.
My father’s surname is my surname, and I always spell it right (“Hart with an A,” I explain on the phone, just like he does, “Ford like the car”). We speak the same language and it’s our only language. I have framed photos from his side going back over a hundred years. My grandfather as a young boy beside his mother, dressed in an 19th century frock. My grandmother as a radiant young woman. A professional family photograph; everyone dressed in crisp white formalwear of spectacular seventies kitsch. There was no event but the photograph itself: they had bought these outfits and dressed up precisely in order to be magnificent and immortal. (And unwittingly: in order for history to settle upon them, as it soon will upon me, making them all unforgivable as they smile out from beneath it).
When my father moved out he took all the albums with him, and dutifully scanned each image, so that there was a digital record of each of them; so that they were safe on an array of hard-drives and drop-boxes. When that project was done—it took many months—he returned the originals to my mother. She abandoned them in a trunk untouched for years, and then one day she opened the trunk and spent a pleasant Sunday, cutting the nicest ones up.
We grow up surrounded by iconic imagery. Images of world history, and current affairs; and great moments, and great men. They form part of our collective unconscious, nationally and even globally. But we also grow up surrounded by iconic imagery that is far more personal. Not visions of war, or violence, or defiance, or justice, or triumph. But visions of love, and youth, and friendship. Some of the most iconic images I have encountered in life have been photographs of my parents when they were young.
The most significant of these images are collected in a worn red scrapbook, bulging thick with age and use; its broken spine taped shut at train-track intervals, with porous light-blue pages fading to a dirty shade of yellow. This particular scrapbook documents my father’s life from his late teens until his mid-twenties; my mother emerges somewhere in the middle, after thirty or more pages dedicated to other women.
Every relationship has a photographer. If not in practice, then at least in spirit; the person who makes it their role to document, to record. The first photographs of my mother are the distant surveillance images of a spy or a stalker; crouched behind a tree in their shared university town, watching her walk the path home. The scruffy farm boy has transformed, somewhere in all these undocumented years, into a casually assertive woman; half aware she’s being watched. She is Jane Fonda in Klute. She walks out from oblivion, for she scarcely exists before this appearance, into sepia-washed view. And though she has never owned a camera, and never wanted to, she suddenly falls within the ambit of someone else’s project of capturing.
These photographs were taken before they met, but my father had seen my mother in a play. She was involved with some bad man, also a character in the album, with whom things ended. But in one of the apocryphal stories of my parent’s relationship, she went to the theatre with this ex soon after she’d started seeing my father. As the play seemed to be finishing, a hooded, half-naked man was shoved onto the stage, pushed to the floor, and beaten with a sjambok before being dragged off again. The audience clapped in mild avant-garde bemusement and the curtains were drawn. Only my mother realized who it had been, and what he’d meant by it.
For most of the past two decades I have owned this scrapbook and kept it with me. I have an undue sense of entitlement over it, given that it’s not my life. But then again, these photographs are mine in an important way; for no one is more interested in your young life than your children, and in a way you take these photographs especially for them, even when they do not yet exist. I have been looking at this scrapbook for three decades, and to me the photographs within it sit side-by-side in significance with any other images in history. So much so that I am forced to wonder how much of my own efforts to document—my own notions of what constitutes a photograph, versus a moment to be handed over to oblivion—have been informed by these exact images. Even, I suspect, my own efforts to live. Emerging, somehow, from these pages upon pages of worn blue paper, filled with pods of clear-skinned hikers in floppy hats, skinny-dippers in tannin-stained reservoirs, crushed group shots in photobooths, and artful black-and-white portraits in natural light.
Part of the magic of the snapshot, or the “found” photograph, is the occasional discovery of artistry where none was intended. But the photographs in this scrapbook are no accident. They radiate with intent; with the particular intensity of young people trying to find out, or to demonstrate, that they too are artists. What is found, then, is only their surprising success, which would perhaps have been harder to confirm at the time. What is found is more evidence (should we need it) of the plentitude of aesthetic mastery in private spaces, for private purposes; not seeking, nor finding, an audience beyond oneself. Not requesting critical affirmation.
“Its raw materials are light and time,” John Berger wrote of the photograph. It is a lovely thought: that light itself etches these images. And it is lovely too, to dwell on the centuries that passed—between the invention of the camera obscura and the invention of the silver gelatin print— before we found a material gentle enough for light to achieve its work.
I discovered the epigraph for this piece, ostensibly from Alfred Lichtwark, in Berger’s essay, “Appearances.” But within that text it was itself an epigraph, quoting from Walter Benjamin’s “A Short History of Photography,” in which he was quoting from Lichtwark. There’s something pleasing, in this context, about all this cannibalization and transitivity and replication. And something curious, in general, about the grand canon of photography criticism: Benjamin and Berger, but also Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, and now Geoff Dyer and Teju Cole. I remember my first introduction to this esteemed photography syllabus, and my unspoken surprise that the subject should have been a source of so much fascination for all these thinkers. But I love many of these essays, and I have even bothered to read some of them a few times over. Perhaps because I can never retain what they say. The gentle confluence of the inane and the profound, which seems to be the essential characteristic of photography writing, allows the prose to pass gently over my mind without burning in. I forget them even as I read them.
It’s no longer accurate to say my mother has never owned a camera. If you own a phone nowadays, you own a camera. And with its unwitting possession, she has gradually become photo-curious. There is something relieving about this proliferation; the way it has made narcissists and mythomaniacs of us all. For when people announce that they have never owned a camera, it often sounds like a tacit rebuke. Almost an existential rebuke: that they have resisted some inner compulsion or inner inanity that the rest of us have succumbed to. Or perhaps grander still: that they alone are at peace with the way things end, and the way we lose things.
The photographs here were all originally conjured from light and time. But that is no longer true of photographs in general; their raw material is now pixels. Even in the most elemental way, then, photography is not what it was when Berger was writing about it. When photographs became pixels, they also became immediate: where they embarrass us we immediately delete them; where they affirm us, we immediately broadcast them. They are taken to be shared, and almost only for that reason. So much so that a good photograph is quite incomplete, almost pointless, if kept to oneself. And that once shared, they are quite free to disappear, having now served their purpose. Like so much nowadays, and at no small cost, their worth has become extrinsic, where it might once have been intrinsic. Where we used to take photographs for other selves, we now take them for other people.
I have my own version of this scrapbook, as many of us do. It is a blue and white striped box that I keep in a wooden chest beside my bed. It too documents my late teens and early twenties, and within those years: a little array of once-best friends, and failed relationships, which were only ever intended to fail. The contents are accumulated quite thoughtlessly, and yet everything becomes sacred once inside. There is a small array of the solicited—photographs of the people you’ve loved when they were children; their ID pictures—but the bulk of it is chance. That summer with the disposable camera. Those few times you bypassed a photobooth with a good friend. Portrait after portrait of forgotten co-travelers from some solo trip, when taking photographs was a way of being with strangers a little more comfortably; a way of elevating intimacy: I want to remember you.
I open this box infrequently, but it would be among the first things I’d save in a fire. This too is a common sentiment. And what’s more, it is often expressed as a noble one: a demonstration that you have appreciated what is irreplaceable in the persistent accumulations of a lifetime. We consult these collections by whim sometimes, or when we are moving homes; but we consult them most deliberately when we are working through something: in times of difficulty, heartbreak, or grief. When we have most cause to reflect on the mystery of self, and its sometimes implausible continuity: that she too could have been me. That she has persisted through so many modes and encounters and fixations; that she existed before they began and she continued to exist after they had ended. There is, at times, boundless consolation in such a simple fact.
The box is also a sort of tomb. It helplessly collects the missed, the unfinished, the lost, the past. And among all their variations and multiplicities, the true subject of these collections (and their true purpose) always seems to be love: where it might have been found, and where it wasn’t. No small part of my fascination with my father’s scrapbook was its record of all these other relationships: my father’s high school girlfriend (her all-American curly brown hair); my mother’s notorious ex. Or more confounding still: an array of once-off cameos; intimate records of strangers. How extraordinary this all was for a child: this matter-of-fact expression of the multiplicity of love; this frank record of the alternative histories besides the one that came to be. And how extraordinary too that I learnt so little from it. That despite everything, I have grown into a jealous woman.
I never quite achieved the vision of youth that was presented to me in these images. (Not for me the first love, the white gown, the cement quay). And now I suppose it is too late, in that, in its impossible way, I am already so much older than my parents are in these photographs. These once-adults, for that is how they seemed to me, transforming slowly beneath my gaze into mere teenagers. Having these images as a reference point all these decades—intermittently consulting them—has made for one of the profoundest experiences of the passage of time, and one’s relentless journey through it. This slow reckoning with these people as independent of you; as preceding you; as obliged to themselves before they are to you. They were so palpably not yet themselves (the shy gestures; the embarrassed efforts at silly expressions), but then they were also their perfect selves, from whom they have only ever been on a long retreat.
There is a photograph in the scrapbook of my mother seated outside in dappled sunlight, a Siamese cat resting by her foot. For children, most of adulthood is largely equivalent; devoid of its nuance and phases. And when I first encountered these photographs my twenty-year-old mother seemed, give or take, the same as the forty-year-old woman I already knew. But I remember being captured by the notion of the cat; that its whole life had passed by before I was even born. When I was older, looking at the same photograph, I had acclimatized to the cat. Pets pass like a kind of season. I had finally became taken with the notion of the woman. With the shoulder length black hair, with the black eyeliner, with the shaded spot in which she chose to sit, with the graceful lackadaisi of her limbs. How did she come to be found, to be formed, to take that place, to choose that style? How was her mind then?
My mother never took me to the farm where she grew up, but she once drove me to a brutal intersection on the edge of the charmless town of Vredenberg. There she allowed the car to idle briefly, and pointed to a public boarding school on the right of the road, and a church on the left. She wagged her finger slowly between the two sterile buildings, and said she had thereby concluded the tour of her childhood. It still seems extraordinary to me that after a lifetime of shuffling between those two dogmas, in 1960s Vredenberg, the woman I now know could have walked away from that intersection. A decade later, and older still, I feel less fascinated by the woman in the dappled light, and more heart sore for her. All that used to matter to me was that she was young and beautiful. I couldn’t really see the child losing her mother from a long illness. Or extricating herself from most of her family, irrevocably, so much so that I must still be reminded, now and then, of her parents’ names.
My father can’t really play the bass guitar, and my mother can’t really be happy. Truth can be fatal to a photograph. But for me the photograph survives the truth, almost, and I am still mesmerized by the lie of it. All of these photographs survive the truth. They survive the years that came after them, and the very different people my parents became. They survive the relationship they eventually had, which was near impossible to reconcile with performance-art declarations of love and betrayal. They even survive the relationship ending, to no one’s surprise, and the decade of accumulated silence between them.
This essay was first published in the September/October 2019 Issue of Kenyon Review Online.