Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos. —Susan Sontag
Magic hour. Golden hour. Illumination of indirect light. The first and last hour of sunlit day: brewing coffee time, firefly catching time. The cinematographer reads the light, celluloid landscape bathed in nostalgia, where natural world and characters become memories of a time before time. Pathos is invoked through a quality of light that pulls the audience back.
In the photo of my father and me at the apartment complex pool in South Carolina, we’re characters in our own lightshow. The sun, low and unseen in the sky, casts a diffuse lemon light into and through my father’s white shirt, as though his torso is lit from the inside. My father slants his head toward the camera. He is outlined in a pencil stroke of sunlight that also radiates in fine tendrils through the loose white parts of his button-down shirt. His mouth opens just a little in half-smile, half-smirk. Eyes squint behind huge glasses. The hazy outlines of trees behind us mask what I know is beyond them: an idyllic ditch replete with tadpoles, red clay, and trickling water—where I’d spend many hours of my childhood collecting treasures—and beyond that an off-limits golf course where teenagers drank and made out at night.
Light and shadow play over the photographic world.
Ultimately, having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it. —Susan Sontag
At the horizon line, diagonals cross. Stars cross. Children cross streets without looking, as do men with demented brains. I could never have seen then what I see now: I carried a lot of sadness as a kid. In a poem in my twenties, I wrote, “Sad shark, are you my mind?” I could have been speaking to the little girl in this photo. We’d moved from Connecticut to South Carolina in brown-and-tan a Volkswagen Vanagon. I could stand up in the van. My brother was five months old. Our little dog, Rags, panted in the back row. About halfway through the journey, I became obsessed with speaking proper southern. What if I didn’t fit in? I attached myself to the word triangle. Would a real southerner pronounce it tri-angle or the more elided version, trongle? I practiced the two versions on my parents, who chuckled.
A child feels the displacement of a sixteen-hour move to a place where she knows exactly no one. A new, strict Catholic school—in another photo, I sit on a kitchen stool in my navy and white uniform, my head bowed, hands posed in prayer. The dog watches behind me—new apartment, everything new and glistening. Displacement is the enforced departure of people from their homes, and I was a refugee.
But were there darker, earlier pockets for my sadness? My mother’s night-visions, which became mine. Her cancer, which did not. Demons hiding in my closet. Migraine, the progenitor of sadness—or its manifestation. Another symptom of word-sickness: at seven, left alone with my grandfather while my parents went out, I cried and cried—secretly so Poppy wouldn’t see my weakness—when I couldn’t spell acorn correctly on my acorn-shaped homework page. It was a fireball in my sternum.
I frowned in school photos.
Migraines kept me locked away midday to dawn the next day.
I asked for bedtime poems about murder and death.
Age four, I asked my aunt to tie my hands and feet at the bottom of the basement stairs so I could practice escaping up the stairs just in case I needed to.
A child holds danger just beneath her skin’s surface. She holds and holds and holds until it blooms into something entirely other.
Only that which narrates can make us understand. —Susan Sontag
As if through a window, I watch the photograph stuck to my desk, where my father and I posed thirty-two years ago in the dying light beside our apartment complex pool. I see the water behind us, reflections of white and dark blue spooning each other in half-moon crags and shards on the water’s surface. The reflections of trees are a frantic EKG. I see the deep-end mark, a black tile 8 licked by chlorine. I have my own memories of this place, things my father couldn’t know: in this pool, the first boy to rub his hard penis against my body. We hovered in the deep end, he against the wall, me treading water because that’s what I was good at. Our bodies touched and then repelled each other, as if sparring. My boney knees thumped his ribs. His wet hair flopped in fisty curls over one of his eyes. He had a gap in his front teeth, like me. He was cool, unlike me, but we were both awkward new-teens, touching and not touching, feeling the pin-pricks of hormonal surge against each other’s bodies. He pulled me toward him. I grabbed onto the wall behind him. Other, smaller, kids played in the shallow end. He wrapped his boy legs around my torso, and that’s when I felt him small and hard against my pelvic bone. We might have kissed, I don’t remember. He’s as nameless as the pool in the photo is empty, an aqueous premonition of a brief encounter years later. But here in the photo the pool casts the shadow of the yin and yang in their eternal embrace, as my father and I pose at its lip.
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself—a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. —Susan Sontag
We’re standing by the pool, and I’m leaning against my father’s stomach. I’m six or seven, which makes my father around 31, younger than I am now. His hair’s already salt-and-pepper. Our bodies occupy the left side of the photo. Someone has thought about composition, the fence line creating depth, the flowerpot behind my father’s left arm, the deck slats point the viewer’s eye toward the pool and reflect sunlight onto my father’s back.
But me, I’m protected from the world. I’m shaded and sheltered by my father’s body. I’m not looking at the camera, rather down and away to my left, my head resting on my father’s torso. I’m not looking at anything at all: my congenital sadness, the far-off stare that accompanies it. My arms hang limp at my sides; I’m wearing a delicate, thin white short-sleeved dress shirt. Though the photo doesn’t show them, I remember the shirt’s eyelet accents.
Composition defines us. Out of the silence, there we are.
As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure. —Susan Sontag
In the world of the apartment complex photograph, we lived two buildings away from the pool: apartment A201. We lived up a flight of narrow stairs in a two-story condo. In a storage closet atop the stairs, I kept caught ocean things: coquina clams, tiny fish, sand dollars in buckets of seawater—until they died. I was afraid in this apartment, of my glow-in-the-dark rosary beads and Madonna figurine. I was afraid of the punk-rock babysitter’s stories about a ghost-woman who walked our roof on rainy nights looking for her lost love. I was afraid of the space beneath my bed, of the cracked bathroom door, of the clock’s tick-tock, of shadow and shadow and shadow.
Can a photo portend a future of sadness? It would be my father, when I was twelve, who’d carry me out of my parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night, lock the bedroom door, pretend not to hear as I begged to be let back in.
What photography supplies is not only a record of the past but a new way of dealing with the present. —Susan Sontag
What invisible rope connects father and daughter? I did not come into being connected to this man by umbilical cord. I didn’t eat his placental lunch for nine months, nor feel the underwater warmth of his womb. I didn’t suck and chew on his breasts until they bled. I never told him in a fury that I hated him.
My father told me episodic bedtime stories about a boy named Little Eagle, endured my obsession with Duke Blue Devils basketball, drove me to church volleyball tournaments across the state, hours in the car together when we listened to Tommy James & the Shondells, singing “Crimson and Clover,” in our untuned voices.
My father smelled of sawdust and Listerine.
My father bought Sunday donuts.
My father smoked in secret.
My father was always in the room, even when he wasn’t.
Beside me, holding me up, at the pool in an apartment complex, in a new land.
Fathers and daughters speak in an unspoken language. I never needed to cut the rope that bound us, nor did my father need to assert its existence.
Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. —Susan Sontag