Family, Photography, and Fate
When Judith Kitchen inherited boxes of family photographs and scrapbooks, they sparked curiosity and speculation. Piecing together her memories with the physical evidence in the photos, along with a sense of history and a willingness to speculate, Kitchen explores the gray areas between the present and the past, family and self, certainty and uncertainty. The result is a lyrical, ennobling anatomy of a heritage, family, mother-daughter relationships, and the recovery from an illness that captures with precision the forces of the heart and mind when “none of us knows what lies beyond the moment, outside the frame.”
“[Half in Shade] rewards a leisurely reading, with not only, as Kitchen promises, “patterns of American immigration and opportunities,” but an experience that may open the eyes to the treasure chest of American experience found among those stepchildren of the arts—the snapshots. Kitchen’s book lets you know what a keen eye coupled with an alert and sensitive intelligence can see.” —Publishers Weekly
“Kitchen’s collaboration with the past serves as a reminder that we of the twenty-first century are neither the first nor the last to know heartbreak. Rather, we are simply one more snapshot in the collage of humanity—half-blurry proof that none of us are ever truly forgotten.”—LA Review
“Behind the beautiful language Kitchen employs and the poignant moments she unearths, it’s the theme of life’s instability that resonates most. . . . Using her imagination—and ours—Kitchen creates a testament to the veracity of art: sometimes the fiction is more real than the facts. More importantly, sometimes all the spectator needs to connect the dots is that uncanny sense of familiarity.”—The Brooklyn Rail
“Half in Shade [is] well worth the read. Together with the photographs, it offers an entertaining, quirky, and sometimes profound trip down memory lane—even if the lane is not your own.” —TriQuarterly Review
“Over a ten-year period, Kitchen worked on Half in Shade, trying to come to terms with an inherited collection of family memorabilia that enlightened as much as it confused. . . . Most compelling is her attempt to find out the things she does not know but suspects about her mother, including an unexpected romance.” —BookSlut
“Half in Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate, takes an intensive look at the intent behind 20th-century photography in general, with specific reflections on what any photo can tell us. . . . [I]t can leave even the least nostalgic of readers wishing they had paid more attention.”—The Quivering Pen
“Kitchen’s invitation to look with her at the images she has gathered—a journey of seeking and finding or failing to find—is irresistible, and the company of her assuredly meditative voice makes a reader want to respond in kind. . . . Half in Shade glows with a kind of inspirational energy that will make this book eminently teachable.”—Water Stone Review
“Half in Shade is one of those rare, hypnotically enjoyable books that can be stretched out over many long, lazy afternoons or read in one sitting. Kitchen writes of photographs that ‘there is a mystery in a still moment. The very black-and-white of it. It serves as entry into another time, another place.’ The same could be said of her words.” —ForeWard
“Half in Shade is the work—diligent and curious—of an innocent of sorts, a daughter, mother, and grandmother mapping family stories and myths using grainy images as her guide.”—No Such Thing As Was
“Kitchen’s ruminations linger long after Half in Shade is finished, leaving readers to question how much we really know about the people who become our parents.” —Shelf Awareness
“Judith Kitchen has written a book that is at once clear and accessible and at the same time insistently complex. Her effortlessly constructed hybrids make Half in Shade part memoir, part speculation, part essay, a demonstration of the interactive art of seeing, and finally for me, a beautifully sustained meditation. It is at that meditative level that the book’s potent, unsentimental emotive power gathers.” —Stuart Dybek
I seem to be stuck in their wake, halting behind each of them as they stop, pose, smile, then move apart, while I wait patiently, for them to finish. In twenty-seven languages they speak the universal tongue—the telltale click that says you’re trapped in someone else’s frame. The place does not matter, though this time it is the Butchart Gardens just outside Victoria, British Columbia. It’s crowded, and I can barely see the flowers for the people who stream past them. In the distance, wild geese lift from the field where they have been feeding, circle once, then settle in the further distance on a pond. The tractor that disturbed them drones on, turning the earth for what looks to be yet another bed.
These are no ordinary flowers—or rather, they are ordinary flowers set in extraordinary circumstance. Each individual garden tucks itself into the hillside, or wanders down to the water—all but the regimental Italian garden that now occupies what was once the tennis courts. The gardens swell with color: one all white, from the tiniest rock creepers to the tallest hollyhocks; another yellow and muted orange; and, of course, the subdued greenery of the Japanese garden with its stylized miniature trees and drab stone Buddhas, punctuated by one bright red bridge over a studiously placid stream. By now the flowering trees have gone to green, and the rhododendrons are clearly past their prime. Today there’s a riot of roses—those most boring of blooms, stiff on their thorny stems.
Stop. Position your subject. Raise the camera. Stop. Motion your subject to move a little to the left. There. Now you can see the roses too. Click. Flash. A document of your day. And there I am, pausing while you chatter away, oblivious, it seems, to anyone or anything else. Oblivious to the fine rain that falls, even as the sun insists itself, the day softened into the spectrum, all indigo and mauve. Or iris. Lilac. Lavender.
My quick count tells me that two of every three people here are carrying a camera. Some carry two—one for the hand, another slung around the neck, zoom lens glaring like a ferret’s eye. And there are camcorders as well, through roses do not dip and sway the way a field of tulips might, do not turn their heads or whisper or bow. So it must be all these milling, smiling people these cameras intend to seize—here on a Monday morning in mid-June, sometime in my past.
Among married couples, ninety-two percent of the time the man is in charge of the camera, but fairly often the wife wields a smaller version as well. Two women together either carry one each, or else none. In the amorphous groups of young people, everyone sports a leather case. Only children are free of the duty to record: they coil around lampposts, lean over the sides of fountains, poke or prod, race ahead or drag their heels—anything to disrupt the static posture of these planted beds, their planned finery.
What will the children remember of this day? The boredom. The see-through umbrella. The migrant feather found at the edge of the walk. The way Grandma kept stopping to sit on every bench. The way Uncle Martin made them stop so he could enforce his idea of family: Say cheese, fromage, formaggio, queso, queijo, käse, kaas, chi-zu, jibini, tupi, serowy, ost. In twenty-seven languages, smile.
I prefer their young memories—the inexplicable ennui—to the albums that will eventually shape this day in recollection, the fabricated family lined up against a background of fuchsias and pinks, backdrops to the drama of forced smiles and obligatory arms around shoulders.
In the photograph, we look at; the self becomes someone we watch with mild curiosity as the day spools out in three-by-five increments. The shutter clicked, and caught me thus, therefore I am.
In memory, we walk through. We reenact. We call up the slight shiver as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. We hear again the chatter, the mishmash of sounds as people call to each other, point and click. We conjure the moment when the wings all beat the air as if they were one large wing and the tractor made a syntax of sound. We stop to let the man ahead of us focus his third eye, as though he, too, would remember himself poised at the frozen edge of the moment before the moment before.
So, I hesitate just beyond the range of their future, a woman they did not notice or, when they did, they thanked politely as she halted her own passage through the day to make room for their documentation. What will they do with the stacks of prints tucked into their envelopes as though to preserve the limits of perception? The bottom drawers of twenty-seven countries grow steadily heavier, weighted with these self-defined memento vivere.
Photographers Anonymous. There must be a club for those who have sworn off this addiction, who resist the urge to snap and snag, whose memories provide the pigment, the sensation of the hand on the lizard-skin rail of the bridge, the goldfish wavering like coins in the water below. They meet in secret, in the pages of books, their ears attuned to what will make the eye respond, the inner eye, the one without the necessary attachments, where zooming in means going deep. They meet in secret, and they share their fear that we have lost the art of seeing to the technologies of looking. Look, they say, at what we’ve become. So many identical photographs—just lift out John and brush in Jacques. Same time, same place, same faces filled with stilted smiles. Same thoughts, same—oh, shame—desires.
“Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver,” and I’m a child, sitting in front of the old Philco waiting for The Lone Ranger, 7:30 p.m., every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the voice on the radio conjuring the masked rider and his quiet companion, Tonto. I’m seeing it all unfold—the plains unrolling under Silver’s hooves, giddy with sagebrush and tumbleweed, the mountains an austere blue in the distance. Where did I get that image—I, a child who had yet to see a movie? Yet it was so clear, so perfectly mine.
And now I’m alive again in that time—maples shading the street like a dusk before dusk; the street itself cooling in that after-dinner hour when children can circle and circle on bikes, or prick their ears to the clanking refrain of kick-the-can; time held at bay until my mother’s clear voice orbits the yards, calling us in to thrill to history.
Never mind that the speed-of-light hoofbeats were bathroom plungers pumped up and down in sand or gravel. Never mind that the gunshots were a cane slapping a leather cushion. Never mind that the rushing river was really crumpled paper. In my mind it was real, made all the more real because it happened only in my mind.
Imagination, then, must be the flip side of memory, not so much a calling up as a calling forth. Yet imagination also relies on knowledge: on knowing what is—and is not—possible in this world of fact. Imagination plants the seed or buries the bulb knowing the seasons will shift, seeing, in the mind’s eye, April give way to August, the azalea to the rose, knowing that the red leaves of the maple will burnish in autumn, knowing that from this exact window, one can look down to the inlet where the moon’s reflection will be just another shimmering white blossom.
And the photo? It catches the moon’s reflection—here—held forever in this one impressionistic night, while the moon moves on, dropping below the horizon, giving way to the pastel dawn. While we move on to other gardens, other moments to record. The snapshot holds us still in our twenties, our thirties, our sixties. Past tense. Imagination fills the aperture, finds the griefs that caused the lines at the corners of the eyes. And memory reconstructs those griefs, faded now to bearable, but alive and squirming beneath the glossy surface, demanding their day in the brash, unflinching glare of the sun—the hidden ultraviolet damage of it—until grief cannot be glossed over, but finds us out again, and again.
This is not art. This is life, where grief accompanies our every loss, and every photo is a loss recorded. We sift through the album, grieving, even as we smile in recollection. In every language, it’s a mixed blessing I stop for, waiting for strangers to complete the process so we can all walk on, in present tense.