Excerpted from the novel Men and Apparitions
Family photographs were the subject of my dissertation and first book, You’re a Picture, You’re Not a Picture. I analyzed how families picture themselves through their own photographs, what that picturing implies in terms of association, sibling order, gender relations, etc. How does the sociology of the American family—for instance, birth order—affect pictures, and does that “fact” become an image for the family?
Narratives grow with and in time, the family story about what and who came when. If Little Sister had been the oldest, would she have spoken more? Father was the baby in his family, did him no good. The qualities that make the baby appealing just made him arrogant. Mother, though younger than Clarissa, couldn’t be the baby. Clarissa needed so much care, hot-wired the way she was.
Whose “I”/“eye” can be trusted? From what I learned in my family, I don’t trust anyone in front of or behind a camera, but I keep my bias out of it. Kidding.
Is trust an issue in art, and if so why?
I interviewed over a hundred families across America, and chose pictures from their stacks, or they did the choosing. They told me who was who, and what; what was going on, and weird narratives spilled out. I inferred meanings, as an ethnographer, sorting through the consonances and dissonances, and what the gaps meant, if anything. A picture can actually tell you very little, which is why Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) invented by psychologists in the 1930s still appeal, at least in research. The open-endedness of pictures has been utilized to study the mystery of perception, emerging from an individual human psyche, as the subject sees into a picture what is not there. One can’t read an expression as a revelation of character or personality; it is just temporal, an affect, often for the camera.
Behind so many smiles, I see: Eat Shit, Asshole. But then that’s me.
The concept of family resemblance is reasonable, given genetics, but it’s peculiar, because what makes a resemblance isn’t clear, there’s no feature-by-feature similarity. Most of us in families share a resemblance. Fascination with the “family other”—a neologism I coined in an early pubbed article—is dulled by the other’s being related by blood; yet what’s near can be farther (what’s in the mirror is farther than you think), because up close, we’re less able to see each other. I don’t look like my brother, but everyone says I do. I feared Bro Hart. He wanted to kill me at birth. Reaction formation, correct.
Often we hate our siblings, our blood, who might be our murderers. The Greeks, Shakespeare, et al.
A family’s secrets appear as absences and exclusions, erasures and deletions. A first marriage was annulled: no photos. A child given up for adoption, no pix of the pregnant mother. The not-there, un-pictured life—think about it, an un-pictured life—or invisible story, hangs around the edges of albums, obscene, out of sight, off screen, you name it. Still, it functions along with the already-silent conversation of non-speaking pictures.
The incapacity to see—SEE—resides within the self, a condition I half-jokingly call The Fault Dear Brutus syndrome. I’m sampling Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius saying: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Don’t tell Americans they’re underlings.
Where are all the amateurs who do it for love, where have they gone?
In baseball stadiums, couples know, when the camera spots them, they should kiss, and they do. For love. For love of the camera.
I lusted after these so-called unposed moments, ephemera, even a lunch box called “The Remains of the Day,” in the movie Waiting for Guffman. Kidding.
My unguarded moments are not cool.
In found family albums and pictures lent to me, picked up or bought at sites for collectibles and common relics, I studied/saw a quality I want to call straightforward, pictures uncomplicated by ideas about art or self-presentation, some bearing the self-consciousness of their subjects.
When I looked at art photography, posed and unposed, I was drawn to artists who shot families and their familiars, like Carrie Mae Weems, Catherine Opie, Mary Kelly, especially her Post-Partum Document, and Mitch Epstein, his book about his father, which aligned with my childhood obsession. Later on, that entered into my dissertation on family photo albums and amateur pictures creating the family image of itself, and for society.
Artist vernaculars impressed me: Warhol’s photo-machine pix and Polaroids, Stephen Shore’s visual travel diary, Susan Hiller’s Rough Seas postcard collection, and Gerhard Richter’s massive Atlas project, in which he attempted to include every kind of image, or the impossibility of the totality.
When artists incorporate or appropriate unsophisticated or naive work in their work, a double consciousness plays that game. Or, to say it another way, the artists are presenting visual meta-fictions.
Four “amateurs” represent how people pictured themselves—these date from the 1930s through the 1950s—displaying attitudes through their stances, for one, and approaches to being photographed. Two of them feature people and their pets; one, a woman is in front of her house; and the other “stray image,” two men, one in a U.S. army uniform, the other civilian dress.
The soldier has his arm about the second man’s shoulders. Both men stand stiffly, neither smiles for the camera. They perform a “reluctance to be photographed.” Palpable discomfort especially rests in the body of the civilian; the soldier’s inclination—his capped head inclines toward the civilian—establishes familiarity: these men are “close” or know each other. Grimness, pictured—and resolve. The photographer stands at a medium distance, and has centered the men in the frame, the sloping roof of a brick building aligned with the civilian’s forehead. It is a stark image. Is he going to war? Is the glumness of the civilian significant? Or, is it only that he can’t stand being shot? I can’t know, it’s a mystery no one now can solve.
Their seriousness before the camera arrests me most. The two men, soldier and civilian, mean this picture to count, to represent their earnestness.
Contemporary men don’t pose that way. For one, the ubiquity of images has made picturing selves less significant. With the speed of the digital, a casual attitude arrived: this wasn’t going to be the only picture, loads would come, and many to delete. Our fast images: tossed away, worthless. Also, contemporaries maturing in an intensely pictured world experience the camera like a pet.
A woman in her forties or fifties stands in front of her house, presumably hers, unless she’s a servant, which doesn’t seem the case, because of the modesty of the house (though it could be servants’ quarters): she’s wearing a full, white apron. She has long arms, they dangle or hang next to her body, and settle at mid-thigh. The apron covers most of her short-sleeved, summery print dress. Her shoes date the photograph, probably the late 1930s or 1940s. (Mother will know.) Her hair is parted in the center, flat to her head, no frills whatever about her person; she wears wire-framed glasses, which go in and out of style. I’d call her a plain woman, and this a plain picture. She appears serious, at least about having her picture taken, but her body looks relaxed. Still, there’s nothing casual about her or this picture. It was posed. That she would take a picture with her apron on says something about class, her “plainness,” determination, sense of herself. No fussing for picture-taking. She’s the picture of neatness.
An image: “picture of neatness.”
In a color photo, a woman is seated beside her dog, both on kitchen chairs. A homely scene, the woman wears a half-apron (in the age of aprons), and, behind the two figures, appliances including a coffee pot and washing machine. The dog is holding up one paw, while one of the woman’s hands is raised above the other (that one lies in her lap). To the left of the frame, a part of another figure, an arm, apparently a man’s, in a long-sleeved plaid shirt. What is striking: the parallel pose of woman and dog, their equal status in the frame.
In another, dated on its back “1948,” a kneeling boy of twelve or so and a white kitten sitting on a wooden dinner table chair. My first take: it could be an artist’s. Why? Notice the frame within the frame. The boy stares out, not without expression but one that isn’t legible; his face is poised between the chair’s back slats. The white kitten, foregrounded, sits remarkably still and calm, while the boy looks at it with fascination or curiosity. Behind the boy, a telephone pole, a house with a porch, all indicate a neighborhood. The chair dominates, its top cuts the plane in half. This accidental framing, I imagine it was an accident, makes it a picture, not a snapshot or family photo, but something more. The composition is disorienting, unexpected, with several special elements that call to the viewer’s eye.
“Naive” or amateur shots can be differentiated from current artists’ renderings of supposed unposed moments because of framing, sure, but also by attitudes toward what’s permissible in a picture, what a picture should be, and how people should act for or look in one, present themselves for the record.
Pictures become a memory for which you have no actual memory. Pictures augment memory’s elusiveness, how much more is forgotten than we think. A pictured moment has resonance to me, not as a fact of life but as an impression from a time in which THIS behavior happened, etc. Some artists don’t title works—Barbara Kruger doesn’t. Her work uses text and image (text as image), and, for one thing, the text acts like an internal title. Other artists might number a piece or title it to direct interpretation or a way of looking. A caption or subtitle shapes a picture, but a picture wants to resist finitude.
DOMESTIC VISUALS TOO
I was totally conscious, as a little kid, of life passing, and when I saw a brilliant fall leaf hanging from a tree about to drop, seeing it from a car window, I thought, I’ll never see that leaf again, and felt sad, and I don’t know why, at four years old, I felt such loss.
The French, right, have a smart phrase: nostalgie de la boue.
In our family’s albums, “leaves” were glued on pages (leafs) or set under plastic, and maybe I experienced something like D.W. Winnicott’s “holding,” far from consciousness. The ephemeral was transformed into a document that turned into a monument to memory and “truth.” There it was, Mother as a girl.
Samuel Beckett: “All art is the same—an attempt to fill an empty space.”
I’d lost nothing, nothing I was aware of, only what everyone loses when the amniotic sac bursts, and you, fetus, drop, get pushed through a tight vaginal canal, and thrust into unexpected environs.
We didn’t know.
Now, always, trying to ll the emptiness.
I spent, spend, hours, weeks, months, from my young life on, with pictures, absorbed by their mysteriousness, there yet not there. WHAT IS THERE?
Ethnography focuses on actual people. “Real” people in “real” situations. That’s how I articulated it to myself. I wouldn’t just be rocking in my own head, limited, but my mind could spread out. Ha.
No escape from patterns and systems, no exits. Nothing, and no one, resides outside a system; that’s the way it is. Nothing outside the inside, the inside is also outside, etc.
The Unabomber, a solitary man hiding in a house in the wilderness, mailed explosives through the U.S. Postal Service. His wish for recognition or “success” led him to publish a manifesto in the New York Times. Theodore Kaczynski, a socalled lone wolf, had typical human needs, and they doomed him. His sister-in-law recognized his writing, his philosophy, and reported him. If he hadn’t demanded publication, threatening to kill more people if the Times didn’t publish it, he might never have been caught and jailed.
Maybe he wanted to stop his murdering, maybe not. Deluded, but horribly effective for a while.
In 2007, Sicilian police reported finding Sicilian Mafia boss Salvatore Lo Piccolo’s list of Ten Commandments for how to be a good gangster.
No one can present himself directly to another of our friends. ere must be a third person to do it.
Never look at the wives of friends.
Never be seen with cops.
Never go to pubs and clubs, etc.
My fave commandment: the people who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra are those who have a close relative in the police. Also, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold moral values.
People delude themselves; but delusions are based in a general culture, and dissension responds to and appears in recognizable forms. Totally disturbing. Sometimes I believe that, with will and effort, I can overcome and think for myself. But what is that, who is it thinking? I think in a common language. Writers will infrequently find unique articulations.
I don’t mean I want to metamorphose into a wild child, which might be cool, but discover what I think, if capable of purging my mind of certain images that determined, even predetermined me.
A THOUGHT is an effect of a speci c education and its environment.
For cohesion, people need to play ball in the same conceptual park, and make systems for survival, structures like eating three meals a day. People follow that here. Some skip a meal. No biggie, really, skipping a meal still recognizes the system.
Individuality is a necessary fiction. But why? Why do people seek to know their own minds, when knowing won’t change them; people think they’re right, right? Outcomes and events are often coincidences, unplanned, and may be appealing or unappealing, but humans imagine they can plan—plot—their lives more than they can. Some schedule their hours as if running an army, this must be done now or then; if a friend changes an appointment on one of these characters, their foundation crumbles. They become enraged at the “un-settler.” (My term.)
People desire the un-plannable: money and success, happiness, love, health. A person’s “fate” is traduced by consequences that are not predictable.
Accidents of fate, and happenstance, make us who we are. Take Oedipus: he knew but could not accept his fate, which crushed his sense of individuality, of opportunity. He couldn’t make his own way. Greek hubris depended upon people imagining freedom from fate, or consequences, from what could be called social and cultural mandates.
There’s a story in my family about Great Uncle Ezekiel, who didn’t know, until he was eighteen and married to Margaret, that women went to the bathroom. It’s always told with that euphemism. Uncle Ezekiel belonged to my father’s side of the family. My father told it to my older brother, Hart, when he was thirteen, then me at thirteen—a father-son rite of passage deal—and his two brothers told their sons, then their daughters, when everyone loosened up about girls.
My parents told loads of stories about their upbringing—up ’til the point when they couldn’t make sense of them, or why they were telling us, which reminded them: they shouldn’t have had children. Three of us shouldn’t have been born. “But we had YOU. We love you.” Sensible people/parents: they waited until the best time, they said, to have the best children. All that pimping their gene-carriers’ supposed exceptionalism, and they bestowed upon us “unique monikers.” I’m Ezekiel (Father’s great uncle, also a sixth-century prophet); Hooper (maternal surname, related by marriage to the Adams family); Stark (paternal German-Jewish-English-Unitarian, or neutralists). In grade school, my name rhymed with everything dumb. Brother Hart Adams Stark glories in his, imagines he’s special, like Hart Crane, the writer. Bro Hart is just a pathologist who suffers from what psychiatrists call taphephobia: he’s totally afraid of being buried alive. No one knows why.
Little Sister doesn’t dwell on her signifying handle: Matilda (Tilda) Hooper Stark. Not publicly. (Matilda was the name of a great great great Hooper aunt.) She doesn’t mention a lot, because she suffers from selective mutism, so she can talk with us, family, close friends, otherwise she’s mostly silent. She couldn’t speak at school and with strangers—now she says mostly she doesn’t choose to. She talked when she was moved to talk, like a Quaker. When we were kids, I believed she chose not to talk.
Her shrink believes she suffers from alexithymia—trouble experiencing, expressing, describing emotional responses. Which may be one reason she speaks selectively, or the reverse. A while ago, I read about it in the Times. “People who are confused about the sources of their own emotions . . . tend to report little benefit from a burst of tears, studies have found.”
When Little Sister cries, it doesn’t sound human, more like she’s choking.
She’s six years younger. Ten years younger than Hart. That’s the spread. I understand her better now, identify more, though identification can also be mis-identification. In some way I always felt close to her, though she blames me for talking too much when we were kids, and not giving her a chance, which is probably true.
Little Sister is another twist or tangle in the family wiring.
I’m the middle child, so I blame top and bottom, squeezed and dislodged by both. I can play that card.
Yeah, I’m cool.
* * *
Ethnography isn’t a nineteenth-century discipline anymore. There’s rigor, or solemnity, about approach and methodology, sure, but there’s a restive criticality in our fractious field about subject/object relationships; objectivity itself, challenged especially by postwar theories, e.g., post-structuralism; and, straight up, the field’s been upended, blasted, or maybe for some lies in ruins. Optimistically, it’s been helped by its contradictions and differences, and these might lead to more Ph.D.s, which is cool, because it keeps everything moving (primarily for jobs).
My focus on images in, by, and of the family includes sexual and gendered behavior and relationships as understood in those pictures. I’m thirty-eight, an assistant professor in an Eastern university. I’ll get associate, tenure, if I don’t piss off the department stiffs by being “too clever.” Have to walk the walk, then like everyone else who’s tenured do the big fade.
Cultural Studies scored during the 1990s; since then, the academy’s star is like life in Warhol’s Factory, who’s up, who’s down, a guessing game. There’s been lots of theoretical work on masculinity, which probably got me thinking about men my age. Many moved into it, and some have shifted to transgender studies—Humanities, that department is disappearing, a sideline to the main game, Tech, Science, Abject and Obesity Studies. Sort of kidding. Let’s say, the older fields are in as much flux as what they study, transitional objects and subjects. But strangely we proceed, no Sundays off in the post-1960s academic and not-so-academic civil wars.
A cultural anthropologist reflects on differences, similarities, patterns, problems, gathers information, takes notes, keeps a journal—makes field notes—is an observer and a writer; we look at how human beings act and collaborate or not. We try to make sense of “why.” We study others and increasingly ourselves, and what customs and behaviors do for the society that enacts or supports them.
According to Geertz, ethnographies are also interpretations: “We begin with our own interpretations of what our informants are up to, or think they are up to, and then systematize those.”
Ethnographers study commonalities among cultures, societies, the essentials, the basics: people need to eat, find shelter, procreate, etc. The differences in values, rituals, kinship relations are works of creation, born from, in part, basic needs and social conditions, etc., but adaptations and specifics range widely. A multimillion-ring circus, in Venn diagrams, unreadably dense, subsets and sub-subsets crisscrossing, is seemingly infinite. An ethnographer, again following Geertz, makes an intellectual effort toward thick interpretation (see later). I interpret with as much complexity as I can bring to the worlds I observe.
Culture is only the pattern of meanings embedded in symbols, thus spake Geertz. Primitive doesn’t mean “primitive”; “we,” “they,” all pronouns have begun to act the way pronouns are intended: they shift. They, them, us, we, you can be anybody—we can all be subjects and objects of investigation, and are. Everything and everyone’s being studied, from Tokyo post–3/11/2011, senior centers, the Sydney beach scene, London clubs, Borneo mating habits, Brazil’s plastic surgery industry, Samoan society since WWII, NYC’s gangs, etc. Et cetera. Almost anything goes under the knife.
I view society through images, in words and pix, in how individuals see themselves, in past and present tenses, and with what they identify, which are also images. That’s my gig.
I started out in the field, I mean, got name recognition, presenting a paper at a conference: “We Are the Picture People.” I began: “I name us Picture People because most special and obvious about the species is, our kind lives on and for pictures, lives as and for images, our species takes pictures, makes pix, thinks in pix. It exists if it’s a picture and can be pictured. Surface is depth, when nothing is superficial.”
Brought down a shaky house.
LOOKING FILLS TIME
Pictures demand mental space and time.
In photographs, unguarded moments lend themselves to interpretation, and also to obliquity. An unwitting gesture doesn’t reveal the person. Maybe there’s more paradox to unposed moments, though; I hope to make something of those. But to pin down ambiguity, how weird is that. Ethnographers toil there, our milieu, especially those of us dedicated to thick description, where meaning exists in situ.
It’s ineluctable. A picture describes, say, but never defines. An accidental pose can tell more, we often suppose, than a studied one; Freud made a lot of the unconscious of the accident, especially a word slip. But subjects in a candid shot, accidents—not the same. Think about “truth” or revelation in Warhol’s Screen Tests, his silent or oxymoronic still movies: he focused on a person for a three-minute 16mm roll, and dared the poser to drop the pose (like a fetus through the birth canal). He didn’t make posing easy, he wasn’t looking for poise. His subject must breathe, creating movement, though each sitter was challenged to perform stillness. Weird, as if each sitter might be an Empire State Building. A psychological experiment, sure. Doing this kind of film, Warhol invoked early photography that required posers to sit still for a long time. Neck guards were invented to hold the poser’s head straight, immobile. Warhol’s poser had no guards other than his or her guardedness.
OK, the pose drops, but no essential truth is revealed. Unless one thinks that beneath the pose or the surface lies a greater truth. We’ve been led not to trust people’s appearances, because, it’s suggested, an essential truth about people can’t be seen at all or easily on the surface. A lie is different from an appearance. Conscious liars know they are lying. But everyone has an appearance, which can’t lie, even as appearances change and are chosen. They are not lies. A surface is not a lie.
About a photograph: its surface is its depth; there can be no single, correct interpretation; its depth rests on the surface, and, when you recognize that it can’t be read absolutely, it opens up as its own thing. Not revealing anything but itself. Another paradox.
G.E. Moore’s famous paradox: what can’t be said in the present tense—“It is raining, but I believe it is not raining”—can be said in the past tense—“It was raining, but I didn’t believe it was raining.” A photograph indexes the past, and is viewed in the present. This means it can be raining in the picture, and not raining when a viewer sees it. A photograph is a fact, an object; but the picture is an experience, not a fact, for a viewer.
I’m no realist, but I live inside a reality, a world that isn’t completely mine or consistent, and I share aspects of it with other people. I can delude myself, and also, I like some illusions, they soften hard edges, soft-focus my days. Without illusion, life would be stripped of fantasy’s plenitude.
Plus, I wouldn’t look at art if it held a mirror to life, especially my life. Kidding. Not.
Editor’s note: Lynne Tillman’s remarkable new novel, Men and Apparitions, is an intensely voice-driven piece of writing. That voice belongs to Zeke Stark, an ethnographer fascinated with images, especially anonymous ones, and families, and masculinity. Zeke’s musings are cyclical and discursive, progressing through polemic and asides rather than narrative. Which isn’t to say there’s no story in Men and Apparitions, or world. There’s a lot of both, but they acquire depth only over the course of pages and pages filled with what are, from one point of view, endless digressions and interuptions, and, from another, the meat of the work, for which the Stark family history is a kind of frame or Macguffin. It’s a book that flouts a hundred novelistic conventions, yet in flouting them admits their pervasiveness, and plays with readers’ expectations every step of the way: on the level of the sentence, the vignette, the subject itself. We have chosen to excerpt it at some length less to convey a sense of narrative completion than to give readers a feel for the book’s lengthy rhythms.