Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate
By Judith Kitchen
Coffee House Press
Reviewed by Amy Henry
I became aware of a kind of triangulation: me, the photograph, and its subject(s). From temporal advantage, I found I could supply what my subjects would never know—the future. I found myself in a kind of time warp in which I knew more than my subject, but less about my subject. My interest was not in uncovering a hidden narrative, or in enhancing a known story, or in revealing a specific character. I wanted to ponder how each individual life was/is framed by circumstance, how we are sometimes called to act, and sometimes to merely reflect.Judith Kitchen is going to convince you to dump your digital camera in the nearest garbage bin and head to the attic in search of boxes of old photos. Because while technology now permits us to take better photos and delete the unflattering ones, it has stripped us of a heritage found only in the outtakes, the unflattering depictions, and the failed photographs that never make it into the family album. Her collection of essays, Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, takes an intensive look at the intent behind 20th-century photography in general, with specific reflections on what any photo can tell us. Hint: it’s usually more than we can “see.” It makes us ask, before we click the shutter, what are we trying to preserve?
Kitchen has researched scores of family photos and the notes attached to them, piecing together ideas both actual and fanciful about those depicted. At times using a magnifying glass and at times using only her imagination, she studies the details of the photos that usually get lost, even if they are of someone we care deeply about. She notes that just the way someone folds their hands, or how their clothing is adjusted can be revealing about their character and life story. The placement of individuals within a group shot also can reveal friendships and feuds, and she seems to find the most telling of details in pictures that are considered the least important.
Fortunately, she also shows us the photos that she dissects. In one, “Double Exposure,” she studies a forgettable photograph of an old shop. She goes beyond simply detailing the tin ceiling and phone booths in the back that a casual glance would miss. Instead, she notices the posture (one man had a bum leg), the status implied by a gold watch chain, and the contents of the cases. Is it an apothecary? Sure enough, it’s a drug store in Chicago in 1912. Explaining what she knows about the characters in the picture, she then proceeds to play with the imagination…where is that man going, the one outside the door reflected in the glass, as he strides by on that sunny day? Will he be in the War soon to commence? Kitchen can’t say, we can never know, and she leaves him to “disappear below the surface of the page.”
The photographs and their notes, along with family diaries, are linked together by time as well. Placing each person within their community and family, she also looks to place them in their geographical location in concert with the time period they were living. This is most poignant in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” leading us to contemplate her distant kin in Bavaria. A 1937 photograph shows a boy with his parents sitting formally at a table, fully facing the camera with frozen smiles. With the knowledge of what would soon come to pass in that region, Kitchen’s perspective on the photograph becomes a study of personalities more so than faces. She notices details in what is on the table, how they are dressed, and what these tell us, before she then asks the reader the big question implied:
What will happen to them all?...it’s hard to decide if cousin Karl’s son is called Friedrich or Wilhelm. And what will it matter in a few short years when he will be called nothing at all, when there will be no one to call him? If he comes back, he will come back to a diminished thing…If he comes back, he will come with all he has seen clouding his eyes, carrying that lockstep method he’s learned to look away. If the camera catches him, it will catch the phantom of the man he might have been, staring emptily into a garden gone to seed.
Of course, it’s all conjecture…we have no idea what really happens. But it leads us to ask, as she does, “What were their real lives? All the maybes hurl themselves at me.” The “maybes” are investigated in this collection in a journalistic fashion, with as much research as to factual evidence as possible before Kitchen inserts her own speculation. The overlapping of names and relations, expanding westward across the United States and back again, tells a story of both a family and a nation.
Rather surprisingly, it can leave even the least nostalgic of readers wishing they had paid more attention. The downside of film in the early years was that it was only for special occasions, so few photographs existed. Then, when film photography became a household medium, everyone took gads of photos. It often took many shots to ensure one would turn out, and many of the excess were left in boxes to deteriorate or get shuffled through family members (ironically, most people find them difficult to throw away, perhaps sensing value). Kitchen believes that after an amount of time has passed, it’s these uncelebrated shots that are most telling.
However, with today’s technology, digital photography seems more efficient, as it eliminates waste and offers editing options. If desired, only the “ideal” shots are printed out. Yet, ultimately, this editing capability can deprive us of the secret and flawed stories that may tell the most about the past we are intending to document.