Where I come from, photos are kept in shoeboxes, or in spiral albums with waves of yellowed adhesive, like an immaculate Zen garden or a giant, uniform fingerprint. Now they’re stored on hard drives and not always backed up in a timely fashion.
In her latest book, Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, Judith Kitchen has collected ten years’ worth of thinking about photos, particularly ones of “those strangers we call family.” This is not a fevered book, but an aggregate of encounters, much like a photo album.
Kitchen’s book reminded me somewhat of reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights last winter. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both books—written later in life, and contemplating loss—look to light for their titles. Didion’s comes from late summer, when twilight lingers, a melancholy last hurrah before dark.
As Kitchen’s title suggest, Half In Shade is an investigation of ambiguities and shadows.
Kitchen faces at least two kinds of unknowns: the photographs’ unsolved mysteries and her own uncertain future during her cancer treatment. The photographs build an extended metaphor, a way of facing the more visceral, final questions.
In the half light, Kitchen seeks out boundaries between photo and memory, between record and story. Even interior and exterior experience is blurred in the wake of radiation: “You stare at your external shape because, for the life of you, you cannot find the interior. You have been turned inside out, vessel of attention, and only the bones of emotions are left” (127).
Kitchen lays bare her purpose “not to describe, but to interact. Not to confirm, but to animate and resurrect.” It’s a tough stance, requiring a different sort of intimacy with “the ghost in every photograph,” a kind of permission to “rely on probability, supposition, intuition, the half-known, the partially knowable,” and even “fantasy” (xiii). For example, Kitchen takes special pleasure in the mysterious photo of a couple who “insinuated themselves” into Kitchen’s album of scanned photos. She wants to claim them, fabricates a possible story for them.
This delicate dance with the past casts shadows. When we view things half in shade, we’re close to those fictive spaces, the possible (mis)interpretations rather than facts in stark relief. There’s even a satisfaction in not knowing.
At times I felt disconnected from the jagged shape of the book. Perhaps this is partly by design. Just as Kitchen herself finds photos that are unlabeled or whose subjects are not identified, so we’re given glimpses into lives unknown, brought to life in Kitchen’s rich prose.
And indeed, one of the greatest strengths of Half In Shade is Kitchen’s lyric intensity, creating verbal photographs, such as a childhood memory of “maples shading the street like a dusk before dusk; the street cooling in that after-dinner hour when children can circle and circle on bikes…time held at bay until my mother’s clear voice orbits the yard…” (4).
While luminous language glints throughout the book, I kept waiting to connect more deeply with the material until the end of the first section, when Kitchen’s attention turns to her own illness, as it does at the end of each of the three sections. There’s an urgency in the prose that knocks the wind out of me, a spell in these sections that I wish the shorter chapters didn’t puncture.
In these sections, there’s the arresting dissonance between the sharp edge of her observations and the marbled, muddled quality of her experience. A catalog of “sights of my morning,” underscores Kitchen’s interest in boundaries with haiku concentration: “like breath on a winter morning, smoke from the neighbor’s chimney rises into the fog and soon the question: how can we tell one thing from another” (57).
The language is wry (“Lost enough weight that I can justify new underwear” (57)) and somber (“[C]ancer, crablike, walks sideways into your life, and you must learn to say its name with the clarity it deserves” (125)). The book has trained us to look for the mixed quality of experience, this blend of dark and light.
Kitchen affixes her family photos to the context of history. The figures that most often capture her imagination are those suspended in a kind of innocence. But Kitchen, and we, can see how history tinges the edges, with migration and wars.
“[E]very photo is a loss recorded,” Kitchen claims. One of the most moving aspects of the book is Kitchen’s way of not only recording but offering a kind of benediction for those who took and were taken by the photographs. In a portrait of her Aunt Margaret, alone in Paris before the outbreak of WWII, Kitchen wishes: “Stop time, then, for the sake of imagination….Let the coffee be strong and uncommonly sweet. Let the sun record a sheen of rain on the rooftops, the afternoon winding down like a wind-up toy…” (11).
If, as Kitchen claims in her introduction, the book is a way of taking her own photograph, then we can imagine that such benediction extends not only to family, friends, and strangers, but to her own life.