Not Losing Her Memory: Stories in Photographs, Words and Collage
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Not Losing Her Memory:
Stories in Photographs, Words and Collage*

I write about my own word/image work, first shown at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in 1992 in an exhibition entitled Not Losing Her Memory, Stories in Photographs, Words and Collage. The exhibition, now scheduled to travel, will be on view at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College in Fall 1995 and other venues for which arrangements are underway.

Not Losing Her Memory was drawn from work made over the past five years. This project has entailed an exploration of photographic meaning, female identity, family, and layered, autobiographical storytelling. I’m interested in non-linear narratives: disjointed, multi-voiced, ambiguous as is memory and impossibly positioned in time, a narrative that resists “sentencing” (Ezrahi 126). The work tells a personal history while it also suggests the struggles of giving the story a public form.

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Front Cover. From the photocollage series, Not Losing Her Memory, by Joanne Leonard.

Figure 1. Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, (Florence Thompson with her daughters), 1936.
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Figure 1.

Dorothea Lange. Migrant Mother, (Florence Thompson with her daughters), 1936.

Figure 2. Bill Ganzel. Florence Thompson and Her Daughters, 1979.
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Figure 2.

Bill Ganzel. Florence Thompson and Her Daughters, 1979.

Photographs, like memories, are ambiguous; their stories usually remain unclear, merely hinted at. Consider two photographs: one is a photo by Dorothea Lange from 1937 of Florence Thompson, a baby daughter and two other daughters (Figure 1). This famous photograph is most often referred to as Migrant Mother. The second, from 1979, is also of Florence Thompson and her daughters (Figure 2). In this later version, Thompson looks quite aged, and all but the youngest daughter appear to be middle-aged. Groups of students to whom I’ve shown these two photographs rarely conclude that the 1979 photograph is an image of [End Page 657] mother and daughters, and never, without background information, make any connection to the earlier image that is so well known.

Photographic images are often thought of as transparent. We feel we might be looking right through them, just as easily as at them. The sensation is like actually seeing the very moments, people and places the photographs represent. In truth, the act of making a photograph largely severs the image from context, history and narrative. As David Harvey notes, “Any system of representation, in fact, is a spatialization of sorts, which automatically freezes the flow of experience and in so doing distorts what it strives to represent” (206). For context, history, narrative, we must look around the photographs, at the context and texts from which they have been severed. Many of my photocollage strategies have been aimed at re-asserting aspects of such texts and contexts to suggest memories and stories.

Figure 3. Conversation: My Mother and Her Mother, 1991.
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Figure 3.

Conversation: My Mother and Her Mother, 1991.

One of my photo/text works, Conversation, My Mother and Her Mother, has my mother talking to her mother, but their ages are reversed (Figure 3).

In the composite work, my mother is older than her own mother; the photo tells two stories of my grandmother which contradict and seem to cancel each other. In this piece the words are legible when one views the original, but even if one resists reading the words or views the work from some distance, the idea of multiple stories crossing, canceling and intersecting is represented visually by the intersecting texts. There is a refusal here to represent life stories as if they can be reduced to a single coherent narrative. Also, through the appearance of text, I’ve returned my female family members to speaking subjects and refused the camera’s usual role of objectification.

Figure 4. Helen Nestor. A Mother Daughter Family, (Joanne and Julia Leonard) 1979.
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Figure 4.

Helen Nestor. A Mother Daughter Family, (Joanne and Julia Leonard) 1979.

The terrain of my particular project is autobiographical. It is an evolving landscape beginning with the Victorian bourgeois family in which my mother was raised. I grew up in a climate of double binds: a turbulent mix of Victorian and Freudian attitudes from my mother’s side and of a Holocaust survivor’s gratitude and rage from my father’s side...