Thursday, April 12, 2012

Curious Kind Of Knowledge: A Conversation with Judith Kitchen

Judith Kitchen has in her long career published award-winning books of poems and essays (Only the Dance, Distance and Direction), co-edited several heralded collections of short nonfiction (In Short, In Brief), reviewed poetry for The Georgia Review, and taught, most recently at Pacific Lutheran University where she serves on the faculty and co-directs the Rainier Writing Workshop Low-Residency MFA. Now, Kitchen has turned her attention to a subject and form new to her: family photographs and the mysteries that they reveal and obscure. In Half in Shade, Kitchen collects fifty-one essays, mostly brief, a few lengthy, and seventy photographs, mostly of her extended family, a few framing unknown people. Her attempt to make some sense of these black-and-white photographs, to translate and relay their stories, fragmented or otherwise, originated in surprise and survival: the photos albums fell to her to possess and archive, many of them rescued from floods that had ravaged Kitchen's parents' home. Kitchen admits to being a novice at both taking photos (she does not own a camera) and theorizing them; thus, Half in Shade is the work—diligent and curious—of an innocent of sorts, a daughter, mother, and grandmother mapping family stories and myths using grainy images as her guide.

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?

Well, a disappointed innocent. Forty years ago, I was living in Brazil, and I decided to learn photography. I borrowed a camera and went about Rio shooting the most amazing things—sunlight splayed through palms, old men lounging in doorways full of shadow, and I could almost taste what it would be like when I got to the darkroom and could determine at what stage of development each shot would be at its best. But when I got there, it turned out the film had not been winding, and I had nothing. Nothing except the image in my mind—and I decided that I should not let the camera come between me and what I was experiencing. I’ve never looked back. So when I found these photographs—snapshots, really, for the most part, and therefore informal, rough around the edges—I really just looked for details that interested me. Sometimes the most fascinating things were in the places where the snapshot seems to depart from art, where it becomes simply a recording. I just wanted to know more, and I wanted more about something that was, because of the passage of time, unavailable. This, in turn, made me think about photography from my one limited experience—just who was taking that picture, and why?

Judith Kitchen
Michael André Bernstein writes, and warns, about "retroactive foreshadowing," knowledge that we have of a subject's future that the subject, of course, lacks. Were you aware of "retroactive foreshadowing" when you wrote? Did you guard against it? That tension seems to be in play in the long essay about your mother's trip to Europe.

I had never heard that term—but I think I was playing to it, or off it, pulling in my knowledge of the subject’s future whenever I could. I was positioning myself (as writer) as the one with whatever knowledge I had, and whatever questions occurred. I was clearly writing from the future that the subject didn’t know, and with knowledge of the near-future of the photograph, so I saw no reason not to have a kind of triangulation: photograph’s time, writer’s time, history and its inevitable forces at play in all our lives. In the long essay, I might have played off that same kind of knowledge, but in fact I really didn’t have as much knowledge of the future so much as of the sensibility I knew as my mother.  I started lightly, giving her an almost-fictional twist, giving her a posthumous romance that I’m pretty sure she never had. But I kept going, kept finding artifacts and learning more about that trip and pretty soon I got serious, tried hard to follow up on what was forever lost to me. The tension of that piece is the tension of a mother-daughter relationship: my judgment of her youthful innocence, my finger pointed at myself (though some reviewers haven’t sensed that and have called this a “punitive” essay).

Is it possible after essaying family photographs to feel as if one knows less about one's family than before? The idea that there is so much occurring outside of the frame that is irretrievable, creating more questions than answers.

I suppose that is the case, and yet in lots of ways I feel as though I know more—but it’s a curious, more abstract kind of knowledge. I see the family tree stretching backward and sense the patterns of immigration, the various individual hardships that add up to my own fairly easy American life. I see larger patterns of history, and the way my family did—and didn’t—participate in some of the shaping events of the last century. I see a tendency toward perverse individualism that, I now suspect, can be encouraged in a family like ours. And of course some photographs opened questions, hinted at, not secrets so much, but other lives that had their own fascinating trajectories. Most of all, I found lots of photographs that revealed humor—the sheer good spirits in which they were snapped. That honestly surprised me. 

Can you comment on this observation by Sontag: "Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism."

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
How do you respond to the intense proliferation of the photographed image in the last decade or so? In the era of camera phones, laptop cameras, and Facebook/Flickr, millions of images of people are uploaded daily. What does this bode for a future Judith Kitchen, charged with essaying her family's past, who has access to perhaps thousands of images of kin?

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.

I believe that Half in Shade would simply be “essaying my family’s past” were it not for the three essays that punctuate the book: essays on illness. When I added them, I knew I had discovered how we are all half in shade, how every person in the photograph is living in a kind of similar limbo, unaware of what will happen next, how fate will deal its cards. It’s the fragility of the photograph, in the end, that I’m left with. Its solid substance holding all that’s left of what Wallace Stevens said was “what we felt / at what we saw.”  I guess I just wanted to feel about what I saw and leave some kind of thoughtful record of it.


Richard Gilbert said...

Thanks for this interview, Joe. I am a fan of Kitchen's work and find her current project fascinating. There is something abut photos that provokes both memory and imagination.

Fleda Brown said...

This is a wonderfully insightful interview, greatly aided by the great mind of Judith Kitchen. I me
Ver fail to be interested in where her mind is moving, and .how.

Linda Martin said...

I have found delight and common ground in Judith Kitchen's book. Your interview with Judith pleased me very much, as these were some of the ideas that I'd love to discuss with Judith myself.