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Family Affairs

The Girl in the Photograph


I’ve read that there are still some tribes of unspoiled aboriginals somewhere in Africa who live so completely in a world of things–and without photographs of things–that their eyes are simply unable to see a three dimensional image on a two dimensional surface. What these people see of a family snapshot is just a small flat thing that they hold in their hands. That’s all.

I have a photograph that I see in that way, actually. It is first of all a haphazard square of some sort of stiff stock, its surface wavy, its corners uneven all around, trimmed impatiently, without the jig. Only gradually does a grainy black-and-white image emerge, and then not very much. Eventually I do see it, it’s true. I’ve had a lot more practise with snapshots.

The image itself is more a narrow range of continuous grays than either black or white. It’s more vaguely-dark and vaguely-light, except for an unfortunate pinpoint of bright white suspended over an otherwise dark patch. That, of course, is the footprint of an obstinate fleck of dust that once drifted stubbornly in the developer bath. Well. It’s an early effort of the earnest young photographer.

But now, to my surprise, my fingers jump to flick away that bit of dust and let me get on with seeing the ghosted image behind it. Of course the thing doesn’t move. It isn’t dust. It isn’t a thing, and it’s there for good. How can it be that I, with my modern mind and practised eyes, am confused by the same illusion that baffles those African aboriginals? Maybe it’s just a perspective thing.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s really that fleck of dust that so vexes me when I try to see this photograph. It’s as difficult for me to see today as it was when my sister made a gift of it to me twenty-two years ago.

The girl in the photograph is a beautiful girl, and that’s what I would say even if I didn’t love her. But though the eyes in the photograph arrest, they do not respond. So I tear myself away–which is what it takes–and find my gaze upon the mouth, which is wide, the lips plush and defined. Has she pursed them just a little? But why? Does she pout for us? Or is it for herself? Is it possible that she knows not what she does? But her grave jaw is level–even slightly inclined–for the cords of her beautiful neck, though not long, run taut and powerful into her naked clavicle. She knows. Of course she knows.

And in a moment, so do I. For now I’ve followed the line of her gesture to where her fingertips meet her fingertips, ginger as they are graceful. I feel myself draw back ever so slightly, surprised that the picture plane is so much closer than I’d thought. Fooled again! This time by the mirror–it happens to me every time, with the mirror in the photograph.

You see, this is the thing. This beautiful girl looks not at me, and only more or less toward me. Her eyes look, as they say, through me, and far past me, into her own eyes. For this is a self-portrait. She seems to want to deliver herself not to me but to herself. I suppose she wants to know what her own eyes see. She’d like to know what she sees in herself.

It’s no easy task, that is plain to see. The face on the dark side is all hauteur. The eye is wide and dark, as though what it sees it has seen a million times before and that’s not good enough. The arch in the wide brow is a fil di voce and exquisite as it tails impossibly away into the shadow of the backlit pose.

But doesn’t the nostril flare just a bit? Isn’t she holding her indrawn breath?

The filtered chiaroscuro of the side by the window traces a bold cheekbone that flattens to the deeply bowed lips, and here the wide brow has no arch at all. This almond eye is narrowed, and for some reason just now, I think of both resignation and defiance. The long hair gathered carefully up from the low temple is here swept away and way back, in wildish flying, wayward ropes. Here on the wanly lighted side, the face is of a warrior maiden. A New England protestant warrior maiden, who will not be owned–even if she can be found. And she herself is searching searching searching.

What did my sister mean for me to see here? What did she mean for me to say I’d seen? Why do her eyes fix so far beyond me? What does she see when she looks into her eyes looking into her eyes?

How long ago is twenty-two years, anyway? Twenty-two years ago she wanted me to appreciate her technique, which I did, and yet….She wanted me to value the gift of her gaze, which I did, and yet….It’s a wonderful portrait, as I told her then….

And yet…


--K.E. Watt
Brooklyn, NY
Summer 2000


© 2004, K. E. WATT. All rights reserved.



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