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Light Writing and Life Writing:
Photography in Autobiography
Timothy Dow Adams. Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. xxiv + 298 pp.
In Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White argues that the inherent slipperiness of facts necessitates that histories are constructed, as are fictional narratives, both by the questions asked and the metaphors chosen by the author. Indeed, much of Timothy Dow Adams's Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography deals with precisely the disintegration of boundaries that distinguish fact from fiction. Adams, who has published extensively on autobiography, turns toward photography to shed new light on his subject. Adams lucidly and persuasively builds the argument that photography and autobiography are linked by their referential ambiguity. Photographs are indexical rather than iconic, and thus differ from other forms of visual representation in much the same way [End Page 1040] that autobiography differs from other literary genres. Nevertheless, photographs, like autobiographies and memoirs, are hardly objective perspectives on their subjects. Noting that "reference is not secure in either" and "both [. . .] conceal as much as they reveal," Adams correlates these precisely to blur further the boundaries between genres like fiction and nonfiction: "What I have often described as autobiography's most salient feature--an attempt at reconciling authors' sense of self with their lives through an art that simultaneously reveals and conceals--is at the heart of the photographic as well."
Dividing the study into three sections (somewhat awkwardly designated "Autobiographies with Few or No Photographs," "Autobiographies That Combine Words and Photographs," and "Autobiographies by Photographers"), Adams examines an impressive range of twentieth-century figures. In the first section, he explores the relationship between memory and imagination through photography's seemingly contradictory impulses toward truth and invention. Examining Paul Auster, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Sheila and Sandra Ortiz Taylor, Adams notes that for Chinese Americans, "the truth of photographs is in what stories they suggest, not in their literal accuracy." As opportunities to invent, photographs function similarly for Auster, whose search for a father now dead but always invisible is facilitated by a trick photograph, which seems to describe the man better than any truthful representation would. Using photographs as mnemonic devices, Sheila Ortiz Taylor reveals that she relied on her memory of photographs to recall her parents because she "was more interested in what [she] selected to remember."
The second section is connected to the first thematically. N. Scott Momaday deals with questions of ethnic identity in much the same way that Kingston and Taylor do. The father-son relationship that permeates Auster's The Invention of Solitude is present in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and Reynolds Price's Clear Pictures. In this section as well, Adams perceptively points to the reversal of expectations in word-image combinations. Speaking of Momaday's The Names, he notes that "[a]t first the actual photographs within the book would seem more specific than the prose descriptions; however, a consideration of both word and image suggests the opposite is true." Moreover, photographs continue to operate ambiguously and symbolically even as they provide documentation of the past. [End Page 1041]
The final and least convincing section offers the oddest conjunction of subjects: Eudora Welty, Wright Morris, and Edward Weston. While Welty's FSA-sponsored work is ostensibly documentary, she insists that her mind followed "a writer's direction from the start, not a photographer's, or a recorder's," and the pictures she took "appealed to [her] in the form that a story or anecdote might have." Her connection to Wright Morris, a photographer rejected by the Farm Security Administration because his photographs did not include people, is a strong one. As Adams perceptively notes, Morris could have been included in any one of the three sections because his lengthy career included the completion of three autobiographies as well as revealing photo-texts. While the chapter on Morris is one of the most successful in the book, somewhat less satisfying is...