May 2015 - Comments Off

Emily Gaynor

Tempt Fate

I believe that, no matter how hard one tries, thinking about an event will never make it materialize.

My friend once told me that when she wanted to cry on command she would think of her mother dying. We were in second grade. As an aspiring actress, I too desired this skill. Thinking of every way my mother could perish, I tried to squeeze tears through my eyes.

Nothing.

I felt like a bad person. How could I not be sad at the thought of her death? Then it occurred to me that perhaps my friend was the bad person. Who thinks of their parents’ death for fun?

My acting professor tells me that people are afraid to fantasize about the worst thing that could happen to them, a common technique for emotional preparation. The reason I couldn’t force the precious tears from my eyes was because I couldn’t really think about how my mother would die; I couldn’t picture it.

“People are superstitious. They’re afraid that if they let their mind go there, it will actually happen to them,” she said.

I know this not to be true. I have learned that thinking about you won’t bring you back. Cycling through every possible way I could apologize won’t make you forgive me. Desperately insulting you in my mind won’t lower your self-esteem enough to make you want me again.

A simple fire will do the trick. She will shoo us from the house, rid herself of distractions in making her perfect Thanksgiving meal. In our unrenovated kitchen. Our little time capsule of the 1990s. Formica cabinetry, buckled hardwood and memories of my parents’ faded love. The place where she has been trapped since the home’s purchase. Grease will set fire. Fire will encircle her and her flesh will burn and bubble. And she will give in. Release herself to the flames charring her thin, pale skin, feeding the flame that was meant to feed us. Her freckles and moles, the soft folds of her stomach will melt together in the heat. Into this world she came, out of the world she will leave, alone.

Be careful what you wish for.

Why? What good will wishing do? What harm will I suffer from wishing? Stepping on a crack won’t break my mother’s back. I have learned that my tears mean nothing to you anymore. I’m sure that eventually I’ll realize it’s for the best. Until then, I’m not afraid anymore to tempt fate.

 

 

You and I Are Not Safe

"There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture," wrote Susan Sontag in her collection of essays On Photography (1977).

When thinking about being preyed upon, getting photographed is not at the top of my list of my concerns. I’m much more inclined to fear serial killers harboring Freudian hatred or lingering stares on public transportation or the man checking my driver’s license as I buy cigarettes before the break of dawn. I hope he didn’t memorize my last name.

***

"To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves; by having knowledge of them that they can never have..."

Sontag proposes that the camera’s ability to violate is akin to a gun’s. But, she writes, “The camera/gun does not kill.” Ultimately, the pull of the gun’s trigger is the violator, but the gun must be manned in order to operate. So who is the real predator: the photographer or his machine?

For example, take Garry Winogrand’s 1972 photograph entitled New York City (Woman in phone booth, leg up). Several elements of this photo are immediately notable. The woman central in the photograph is physically confined in a phone booth; its beams are reminiscent of a cage or cell. One beam blocks the majority of her face. Her left leg is bent, almost revealing her crotch, which is placed nearly at the center of the photograph. She is surrounded primarily by men. By photographing a woman making a phone call, an intimate act, Winogrand toys with the concept of privacy in public. The way in which she covers the phone with her hand gives the impression that she is telling a secret. Possibly, Winogrand is mocking her presumed privacy in a communal space. The photo’s canted angle is haunting, suggesting that something is wrong. Perhaps this is Winogrand’s attempt to demonstrate the violations committed against women’s personal space. His career-long obsession with candid, anonymous street photography, however, leads me to believe that he is a peeping Tom, willing to intrude on women’s personal space without hesitation.

“I think she was inviting it,” a classmate of mine says regarding this woman’s desire to be photographed.

An argument can be made that the camera itself is the predator, for it cannot see as a human sees⎯ even if I photograph myself, and control every conceivable aspect of the photograph, the image will still be mediated through the camera’s lens. The violation lies within the camera’s limitations. I find this depressingly true while on evening walks. A beautiful, dusky Vermont landscape might lie in front of me as I ramble up to Jennings, but when I attempt to snap a picture with my phone, I am left with nothing but ambiguous dark shapes; a mere semblance of the scene I see. The camera is objective. It records pure data in the form of light hitting film. Is this why Sontag writes of its predatory nature? The camera does not flatter; it makes no niceties, because it makes no choices. That is the photographer’s job.

What happens when the photographer and subject are one and the same? One of the main devices I have used in my time as a photographer is self-portraiture. A key detail in my photographs is that the pneumatic trigger that sets off the cameras shutter is always visibly in my hands, evidence of my control over my portrayal.

I follow in the steps of many female photographers who decided that they would not allow others to deem whether they were worthy of occupying the space within the frame of a photograph. Tina Barney uses self-portraiture throughout her collection Theater of Manners. This series is a rumination on the lives of her wealthy family members. As an audience, we are invited into the photographs by saturated colors and familiar family customs, yet alienated from her upper-crust world. The subjects of each photo display a mix of spontaneous emotion and simultaneous awareness of their audience⎯ much like our daily social interactions.

I find myself consistently returning to Sheila and I, taken in 1989. In it, Tina Barney sits next to Sheila, who is featured in a variety of her photographs from this particular book. Both women are seated in separate plush chairs that look as though they’ve been moved from their ordinary position in the room; they are pushed close enough together that their arms touch. The room is filled with rich jewel tones of red and green. This is merely a cursory description of the photo’s various set pieces.

Sheila leans slightly towards the camera while Barney sits back in her chair, one hand propping her head up. Shelia’s mouth forms something of a half smile— maybe she has been caught in the middle of a sentence. Her hands join together in her lap; if her habits are at all like mine then she had just been playing with them in the moments leading up to the photo being taken. Her fingernails are neatly manicured and painted red. A gold watch adorns her wrist and she wears blue socks, no shoes. Barney holds the release cable in her left hand. She looks straight into the camera, through the lens and into the world. Her expression is stern; she is thinking about something particular, but… what?

Although the photo is clearly staged, the photograph appears a true documentation of the relationship between these two women. In this way, the photo is different than the average family photo. It is a snapshot of them, existing together, unlike a vacation photo in which a stiff smile is plastered across each family member’s face. This tension between what is real and what is staged is exemplified within the image. Which is more “real” or “true”? The photos from this collection that give the impression of spontaneity? Or the photos in which the subjects address the camera and the audience is under no false impressions that the photo is staged? Barney’s intentional blurring of the line between performance and reality begs the question: in some circumstances, is the viewer actually the one being preyed upon?

Published by: in Issue 1: Fall 2014, Prose, Volume 71

Comments are closed.