Half in Shade tells two stories, really, Kitchen's family's and Kitchen's battle with breast cancer, with which she struggled in real-time while composing her essays. Her mortality brought stubbornly to her nose, she reckons with urgency her own family's ghostly past. At the heart of Half in Shade is Kitchen's fraught relationship with her mother, a woman she knows that she doesn't fully know and of whom photos hide more than they share. In "Trueheart," a brilliant extended essay in the middle of the book, Kitchen explores a long trip to Europe that her mother took when her mother was young and unmarried: romance; self-expression; adventure; looming fate, Kitchen wrestles with all of these dynamics as she attempts to understand her mother's circumspect temperament and her hesitancy to disclose. (Kitchen quotes liberally from her mother's travel journal as well as scribbled notes on the back of photographs.) Throughout Half in Shade, Kitchen wonders on our tendency to fill in the blanks in photos, or to wander beyond the frame, aware that the answers we seek—about family members, about ourselves, about conflicting memories—are rarely found where we look. Photos, even of loved ones, can speak in foreign language, and a translation often yields less than we might hope for, or need.
Literal and imagined absences in photos required of Kitchen a necessary dance between truth and invention. "I did not and do not have any theories about photography," she told me, "but have a whole lot of opinions about writing. I'm in the nonfiction camp that wants nonfiction to be as accurate as possible, and yet I was looking at artifacts about which I could not be accurate. The whole project was a nonfiction project—looking at photographs of real things taken in a real time—and yet sometimes I needed to come real close to fiction to open up that nonfiction project. That interested me. I was probably always more interested in the devices I could use to probe than in the thing itself. I hate to admit that, but there it is."
Recently I virtually sat down with Kitchen and asked her about photography and Half in Shade.
You claim to never have owned a camera, having, as you write in the intro, "relied on memory to call up [your] personal images of the past." Can you talk a bit about how your lack of experience with cameras and photographing affected your attitude toward or understanding of your family photographs? You're writing, in a sense, as an innocent?
I probably could, and I read a lot of Sontag at one time, but in the end I kept mentally disagreeing with her about so many things. It felt as though, given the same phenomena to think about, she and I kept coming to different conclusions. I feel that way about how she responded to her breast cancer (something we also share). We just think differently, react differently. I end up with such a divergent perspective. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a camera, but it still seems to me that “the norm for the way things appear” is how they appear—to the eye. Where there is no frame. When I write I am looking for the frame, using the negative space, stopping time, briefly. But it’s a shifting frame, not defined by the limits of photography. In other words, instead of squinting into the lens, I use words to frame the moment, and since I’m wedded to a nonfiction that keeps “reality” in mind however much I play with words, I think I am trying to capture the elusive nature of reality and, at the same time, examine its layered complexity.
|Kitchen's mother Lillian Randels, blossoming|
I know what you mean. It seems as though we look, but we don’t penetrate. See, but don’t think. I suspect it will change the way the brain actually works. Probably already has. But actually I had thousands of images tucked in those boxes, most of them as fleeting and formless as anything on Facebook. I sorted and waited for something to call out to me, something that seemed to offer up its mystery for further examination. Like a girl with a chicken on her head. Or a couple who seemed to be negative images of each other, locked in a stance that keeps them forever apart. So my guess is that anyone could use this method as a model for producing a family portrait. But I didn’t just write about the photographs. I used them as an active part of the text. I let them stand in for the thousand words they were worth. I wrote around, and to, and from, and within, and without. I experimented with placement, wondering how long I could withhold, or how I could digress, or where supposition might take me. I was in search of something larger than family; I was testing the forces of history. Testing the way we, too, could be caught innocently crossing a bridge the way the guards at Auschwitz were dancing that day. The way we, too, could be judged at some later date. Who drew that sketch of my Aunt Margaret in Paris in 1938? What side was Rosa on? How did she fare? And all those peripheral lives, the people for whom I did not know their “living names”—yet, look, so solidly there. Alive.