Four years ago I attended a class, “Worth 1,000 Words,” taught by essayist and critic Judith Kitchen, who passed away in fall 2014. At the time, Kitchen was finishing a book that had grown out of a collection of family photos, and she was interested in talking about how photographs and text relate on the page. The class’s title offered an indication of her approach: If you include a photograph next to text, you take away the need for those 1,000 words that explain what’s pictured in the photo. What else could we do with photographs besides describe them?
Kitchen had asked participants to bring to class a photo we wanted to respond to in some way. Of course we assumed that we’d be writing about our own photos, and we did. But Kitchen also had us trade photos with the person next to us and write about that other image, too. Her point was for us to experience the difference between writing about something we thought we knew and writing about something or someone we knew nothing about. How did our approach change, our perspective shift, our stance as narrator transform?
A photograph stops time. It presents a moment, absent of narrative. A photograph may offer hints of context or none at all. Assuming no deceptive digital or darkroom manipulation occurred, a photograph records something, someone, someplace that existed—something real. As Susan Sontag put it, “Photographs furnish evidence.” It’s in part this union of the real and the unknown that intrigues us and causes us to look long and hard at a photograph. And a photograph, unlike life or even the movies, complies; it stands still, allowing us to ponder and contemplate, to ask questions, to return again and discover something new.
In the book Kitchen published a year after the class, Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, she tells us that she began with a “haphazard collection of boxes and albums” containing old family photographs of people she recognized and some she didn’t. With this trove of material, she could have tried to research family circumstance and story, who moved where and when, who married whom and had which children, and so forth, illustrating facts and events with the photographs she inherited. She could have used the photos as verification—see, here’s what Aunt Margaret looked like; here’s my father at age three.
But Kitchen’s inclination has never been simply to get the story “right.” As she wrote in her introduction, “My challenge as a writer was not to describe, but to interact. Not to confirm, but to animate and resurrect.” One of photography’s jobs is to capture, to still, perhaps to preserve. As nonfiction writers, we might work from similar impulses—to re-create a moment, a scene. But Kitchen is suggesting that we’re missing out if we stop there. The most compelling writing doesn’t simply depict; it also interrogates and engages with what’s hidden or unknown.
But how was Kitchen to animate and resurrect when she had little or no access to the inner lives of those who populated those photos, to the answers she really wanted—not just the who, what, when, but the why: the motivations and feelings that drove their actions and non-actions, their choices? The only inner life she had access to was her own, which turned out to be plenty. The story she could tell was her relationship to the photographs, a story built on questions and suppositions, on wondering.
“Speculation was my mode from the beginning—” Kitchen said in an interview conducted after the publication of Half in Shade (and appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle), “a marriage of what I knew with what I could only imagine.” In the book, she approaches this union of the known and the imagined in a variety of ways. In some instances, Kitchen enters the moment of the photo, imagining its context, what might have happened outside the frame in the moments before or after the shutter clicked. In a photo taken when her father was three, he stands between two elderly women in long skirts who sit on the front steps of a house. Writing about the photo, Kitchen adopts a kind of omniscient narration to supply a story and ascribe emotion.
They have managed to keep him clean to this minute, but it’s clear he would defy geometry. Slide quicksilver past those two pairs of solid shoes, sideslip through the sluice of skirts, down the vertical axis and off into the garden before they can stand up, flustered, to call him back. He will return with a smudge of dirt on his shorts where he squatted at the edge of the flowerbed to watch a toad, a tear in the slip-stitched hem of his shirt that will cause them both to “ooh” and “oh” that his mother will be unhappy. And she will. Because she is always unhappy.
Kitchen has taken what she knows of her father and what she imagines of him as a boy and created a scene that breathes life into the people captured in this moment. Her guiding principles for the project—imagination, animation—are words that might summon the nonfiction truth police, but she’s not inventing details to “improve on” the facts; rather, she’s actively and transparently engaging with questions of truth and identity. Who were these people? she wonders.
In his essay “The Wound of the Photograph,” Robin Hemley writes, “A large portion of our lives is spent daydreaming, thinking about future scenarios [or, in Kitchen’s case, past scenarios], about possibilities. If we refuse to allow speculation into the essay then we’re closing a door on an important aspect of our lives, the philosophical realm.” If we’re writing to understand and not just to document, then imagining our way into our material—whether a photograph, a memory, or a physical or intellectual encounter—is crucial to the endeavor.
In other places in Half in Shade, Kitchen abandons the omniscient stance and becomes a character in a drama interacting with the photos, actively wondering, questioning, and exploring her relationship to the people and places depicted, some of them unknown to her. “Cut the photo in half horizontally,” she instructs herself in the essay “Young Woman on Fence,” “and you, too, sit on the white rail fence.” Elsewhere she writes, “Try giving the scene a geography.” We can feel her wrestling to understand the significance of the photos to her mother, who collected and preserved them, and by extension, to herself. I picture Kitchen at her desk, photos spread before her, moving her hand to cover the top half of a photo, staring, shaking her head, sliding her hand down to cover the bottom half.
But the shift in perspective signaled by second person and the use of the imperative does more than simply position the author as a character in this search for meaning. As readers, it engages us in the acts of looking and interacting; we, too, place a hand over the photo, bring the book close to see every detail depicted.
As writers, we might also see that Kitchen is instructing us to take another look at our own material: Are you sure you’ve got the right perspective? she asks us. What if you look at it another way? What’s your role in the story? How do you fit in? A photograph exists outside of us; we can hold it at arm’s length. This separation allows us to look at it as other, to see ourselves looking, to understand that we have a perspective. What if we looked at our memories and experiences—those things that live inside us, in our minds and hearts—as separate from ourselves? What if we tried to imagine the photographs that might have been taken of these scenes? Would we change how we write about them? Would we work less to document exactly what happened and, instead, allow more of our questions and bewilderment onto the page?
Kitchen’s interactions with her photos also highlight their physicality, their status as objects with weight, texture, substance, things to shuffle through, flip over, run your fingers across. Photographs are representations, but they are also what Mark Doty might call “worldly things, those containers of feeling and experience, memory and time.” In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty argues that it is the artist’s job “to think through things,” the emphasis here on things rather than through. We see Kitchen doing this as she contemplates not just the scenes depicted in the old photographs, but their status as family artifacts and the condition of the photographs themselves.
One photo shows her family’s house after a flood, windows open to allow air to circulate, a huge tree tipped over in the yard. The photo itself was damaged by a later flood, and “rough circles puncture the wide front porch, trailing off like puffs of smoke in front of the house my mother left so she would never have to live through a flood again.” Kitchen continues:
I stare at the ragged perforations that spray the paper like gunshots, trying to penetrate the past. And they gaze back, with their flat white eyes, as though they could open the aperture on the present, look through each unplanned moment to where it slips into and out of significance. As though they could see me now, peering past my childhood home … probing time’s fluidity. From a second ruined living room, a second hellish need to wash away what is carried in the river’s seething center, my mother wages her uncivil war…. She makes no fretful peace as she tugs at the pages of her life and they resist—leaving multiple wounds that will fester here in yet another century, record of what might be called regret, what might be legacy.
The essay that accompanies this picture of the flooded house is titled “Punctum,” after the term Roland Barthes coined in his treatise on photography, Camera Lucida. “A photograph’s punctum,” he wrote, “is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” The wound in this photograph is physical and multilayered (literally)—one flood damaging a photo of another. Loss layered upon loss. The wound is also personal, the result of individual experience and intimate knowledge of family history. Another person could look at this same photograph and, not knowing this legacy of floods, make different meaning of the white smudges splotched across the paper or be struck by something else entirely, some detail available only to them.
Isn’t the punctum what often prompts us to the page in the first place—whether we encounter it in a photo, a memory, or out in the world—the thing that wounds, that arrests, that captures us? What we choose to look at and what we see there reveal who we are, an individual consciousness interacting with an object, a memory, an experience. Doty writes, “[T]he eye suffuses what it sees with I. Not ‘I’ in the sense of my story, the particulars of my life . . . But ‘I’ as the quickest, subtlest thing we are: a moment of attention, an intimate engagement.” Kitchen’s writing reminds us that it’s this intimate engagement—a writer’s idiosyncratic examination of that which wounds or pricks, and the concomitant questioning, wrestling, and imagining—that animates and breathes life into our work.
Jennie Goode works as an independent writer, editor, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Water~Stone Review, Slag-Glass City, New South, and elsewhere. Her work was awarded the 2014 Judith Kitchen Prize in Creative Nonfiction and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Seattle.