Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book #9: Musing on Photography via Sontag

I made a resolution to put together Daddy’s reading list by the end of the week. Just because I was initiating my practical-to-a-fault father into the world of high literature, while desperately investigating every possible alternative career to being an English prof, didn’t mean I had to lose my mind. I was giving myself the summer to get my shit together. If I hadn’t figured out by August how to reinvent myself – flight attendant? speech pathologist? librarian? esthetician? – then I’d be condemned to the gulag of academia for another year.

Ugh. The lecture podium. The thought turned my stomach.

Daddy was trying to snap me out of my malaise by drawing on his life experience. “Remember the two years we spent in Trinidad? That was no picnic.”

He was talking about the job he’d accepted in Port of Spain in the late 70s, shortly after I was born. The company had been building a steel plant there and the opportunity to live in a tropical paradise had struck my parents as a grand adventure.

The first few months were the honeymoon phase, but then reality set in. Power outages. Cultural isolation. TV programming for only one hour a day. The supermarket rarely had onions, cheese and diapers.

Daddy’s point in raising Trinidad was obvious: everyone has to pay career dues. I was paying mine teaching out in the boondocks of Nova Scotia. Things would get better. Think positive.

Yeah, whatever.

I dug up an old photo album. “You didn’t have it half as bad as me.” I pointed at a photo of him lounging on the beach, eating a shark bake sandwich. Mommy was sunbathing in a turquoise paisley bikini.

“Oh, you have no idea what was going on behind the scenes,” Daddy said. “I was losing my hair.”

“No you weren’t.” I pointed at the photo, at his peculiar 1970s hairstyle. Long bangs brushed forward, layers falling over the ears.

“Trust me – the place was a gong show.”

Yet deep down I didn’t believe him.

Later that day, I was surfing the New York Times online archives and I stumbled on Susan Sontag’s brilliant 1974 article on photography. Each sentence hit me with a new insight, illuminating my reaction perfectly:

“Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.” “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.” “Photographs furnish evidence.”

This illusion of utter transparency, as Sontag explains, is a frank difference between photography and writing. Where writing is assumed by its very nature to be an interpretation, photography has the guise of being an immediate representation of reality, a window on fact.

Although I understood on a rational level that this effect was photography’s sleight-of-hand, the photo still asserted its visceral force.

Daddy’s unhappiness paled compared to mine. I had photographic evidence.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

I really like your post. Did you examine any photos of yourself during your crisis?

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

An interesting question. I've held onto a few photos of myself during my breakdown; they are mostly ID photos on university and library cards. I look about as happy as a woman in a mug shot. There are a couple of photos from faculty parties I came across.... I'm struck by the frozen, deathlike quality of my smile. (I also look quite drunk. A steady flow of wine was necessary to get through those ass-kissing affairs).

Mimi said...

I love your description and can relate to frozen social smiles where your cheeks start to tremble. It's such a relief to stay away from such events including some family socials!

L lost in KY said...

Trinidad was always just a was the beginning to so many ends. The pictures from that time are just a snapshot of what everyone wanted to believe was going on.


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.