Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Photograph by Károly Escher
Having been asked about my mother recently, my mind went back, as it usually does, to a late photograph of her in our kitchen in London in 1973 or so. Photographs have always had a special significance for me: I experience them as a microsecond of life, like a voice about to speak but unable to do so. Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida comes closest to describing and analysing the phenomenon as I myself sense it.
Whatever the status of the photograph as evidence - and we know it can be misleading, doctored, falsely captioned - it remains a capsule filled with, and made out of, light. Breath, light, stopped voice. The breath of what has vanished. The image of our own vanishing. Nor is that vanishing specifically sad, if only because it assures us that there is a something that can vanish, in other words a something that is complex, mysterious, open to celebration, a distinct something in the universe so full of itself it cannot be reproduced or simulated, but is itself, wholly. Something of which we, by means of our sympathies and imaginations, may conceive a simulacrum and call it a life.
I remember the kitchen well. It was a mixture of natural wood, orange paint and black and white checks. There was a range of cupboards at eye level and another at floor level. The sink was in front of the window that gave out onto a lawn and a garage at the end where I once spent part of the night when they locked me out for coming home very late. It was to be a lesson for me, built on their anxiety. She came out a few hours later to let me in.
And there she sits at the table, much too thin, with what I read as a kind of terminal despair in her face. I know I may be reading back, falsely imposing the knowledge of what was to come on what was yet to be. But that was the way I read the photo the first time I saw it a long time ago. It is, I think, its stopped voice, its peculiar even light.
What I wanted to talk about, or begin at least to talk about, was not so much the signficance of the photo as the significance of the kitchen. Woman in kitchen. Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Not so much Kirche perhaps. Importantly - oh how very importantly! - Kinder. But, by this stage, most of all, Küche. Domain.
The trinity of female fate. The woman's domain as was. The haunting that continues to haunt.
I am, of course, delighted that it no longer has to serve as a prison; that our sisters and daughters can explore their lives in a far greater variety of ways. She herself could and did.
I have often written how she left home in 1940 as a sickly but vastly energetic sixteen year old, and travelled alone to Budapest to train as a photographer with the marvellous Károly Escher, one of whose photographs sits at the head of this post. She joined his studio, learned her trade, met my father, was removed in his absence (he was labouring in the Ukraine) first to Ravensbruck then to Penig concentration camps, was liberated by US troops, wended her dangerous way back home the way Primo Levi did, found my father, married him, joined a newspaper's photographic staff, bluntly turned down a Party instruction to inform on colleagues, insisted on our emigration in 1956, and continued working in photography despite declining health for as long as she could.
But then she couldn't go on. Heart was in a bad way. Constant pain, operations, difficulty in breathing. Hence that photograph: the one in the kitchen. Never any comfort of Kirche. Kinder flown or flying. Küche remaining. A good kitchen too, one she had fought for and insisted on. Insisting was a trait of hers. She was good at it. World champion insister with a cupboard full of gold medals. This was the gold medal kitchen.
I want to put up that photograph when I come to the right point in this brief series. Tomorrow I travel to Warwick to read and run a workshop, so there may not be time to explore domain as it should be explored, and it needs to be explored.