Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 6.2 (2004) 35-48
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"Memoire on the Heliographe"
V. Penelope Pelizzon
I then realized that there was a sort of link (or knot) between Photography, madness, and something whose name I did not know. I began by calling it: the pangs of love.
The first heliograph, 1826: roofs and sky—someone has opened the shutters on a day. An egg-white sky, the roof-tiles rough-looking as if someone had captured their mass by rubbing charcoal over napped paper against a gravestone. But this is not a hand's work, nor only an eye's. The sun's rays have drawn this picture as they traversed the yard we see below the window. Someone opened the shutters and positioned a metal plate sensitized for the light's touch. An ordinary corner of a roof, a day just minutes longer or shorter than the one before, and the refracted light off each object through the aperture burning its way onto the plate. The plate, sensitized at last with the correct decoction of bitumen, changing its face as the sun passes over, pulling these shadows behind it.
Sandwiched in their glassine sleeves inside an old metal ammunition box, the negatives arrived by mail. On the box, my mother had taped a label announcing "Claudio's photographs/Old camera/glass negatives (family). Very Fragile!!" Now that she'd finally unloaded the ramshackle farmhouse she'd threatened for 30 years to sell, my mother was, in a spirit of blithely girlish abandon, divesting herself of worldly goods. The casualties of her liberation included most of my dead father's photographic archive. All the boxes of prints, as well as the only existing reels of his two documentary films, vanished in her fervor. But I had the remainder of his belongings [End Page 35] spread out across the kitchen table where I'd unpacked them from the mail. First, remnants of his life before he married and moved from Trieste to the States: his film school diploma; an old German camera with glass negatives; mouse-chewed copies of scripts; a 1949 film festival poster. Then there were the materials from his American years, the difficult decades when he'd outgrown his early flush as an up-and-coming filmmaker/photographer and instead was just a fry cook, or a gardener's assistant, or a psychiatric hospital worker. In these files I found carbons of letters he'd written to film studios, a proposal for a production company that would market "adult interest" flicks, payment stubs from the women whose modeling headshots he'd photographed. Finally, there was the metal box containing negatives for nearly three hundred rolls of film.
These documents, especially the negatives, confirmed my father's past existence while simultaneously emphasizing his absence. They also complicated the mythology I'd grown up with after his death. In familial lore, my father was an artist. His failure to make a name for himself was the product of circumstantial setbacks, including his poor English and lack of financial backing. Based on such explanations, I always assumed that, whatever photographic subjects he'd approached, he'd pursued camera work driven by aesthetic vocation rather than simply as a means to a paycheck. Like all daughters, I wanted to see my father as a hero following his vision with integrity in the face of oblivion.
But the archive I'd inherited was defined by that oblivion: rather than carefully selected photographs illustrating an artist's encounter with the "decisive moment," I had a mess of deteriorating, unprinted negatives. Working my way through them, I was forced to ask, for the first time, if they were actually any good. Furthermore, I was moved to consider again a central question of my own artistic work; namely, how much had my life been a reaction to these images, or to the vanished man I imagined producing them? Most of our literature about artistic development romanticizes the struggle of a solitary visionary. But what if my own spark as a writer...