other people’s stories

Tom is currently working on a photographic project which involves a range of different makerly processes. He is thinking a lot about how long such processes take, and what that long duration might add to the meaning of the photographic object. In the light and lengthening spring evenings, we find ourselves talking about how the time of making might speak to the broader context of photographic images as repositories of memory. Our discussions have put me in mind of three different memoirs I’ve recently really enjoyed reading, in which the activity of looking at photographic images also plays with time, exposing the past to re-assessment and shining new light on the present. These memoirs are Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons (2019) Samantha Clark’s The Clearing: A Memoir of Art, Family and Mental Health (2020), and George Szirtes The Photographer at Sixteen (2020). Each of these books involves the story of a parent, through whose narrative a son or daughter also interrogates their own sense of filial connection (or estrangement), identity and loss. All three books are works of deep love and empathy, whose writing moved me deeply. And in all three, a group of family photographs, and an interesting temporal-narrative structure, becomes key to the process of telling some else’s story.

Stravaigin’ no.2. Part of Tom’s Light by the Sea project.

In On Chapel Sands, that structure is that of a slowly unravelling mystery. We begin with the curious disappearance of a child, “presumed stolen” from a windswept Lincolnshire beach in 1929. The child is Cumming’s much beloved mother, Elizabeth (still living, now in her 90s), who now has neither memory of her disappearance, nor of anything that happened before the event which was to shaped her life without her knowing why. The vivid portrait of her mother’s life which Cumming carefully reveals—its details gradually emerging and swimming into view like a photographic image in a darkroom developing tray—is a tale of between-the-wars village life in which everything looks predictable but where, with the silent complicity of a whole community, nothing is quite as it seems. In the course of her own search for answers, Cumming interrogates matters far beyond her mother’s personal story: about what it might mean to withhold knowledge, to keep someone else’s secret, or to set a record straight. Cumming is best known for her writing about art, and her visual expertise is apparent in many aspects of this vivid and gripping narrative. Every detail of Elizabeth’s early life feels palpable, from the “bracing” Skegness seafront to the repressive domestic interiors in which the small drama of family life plays out. The interpretation (and misinterpretation) of images plays a central role in each stage of the story, whether that’s the portraits in the family album, or Cumming’s deft reading of Breughel’s Landscape with Fall of Icarus. The waves of the past beat down across the flat landscape of Elizabeth’s childhood, and whispered on the tide is the unanswerable question of who could ever have the right to someone else’s story, and who might be, in the end, permitted to tell it. The book is a great read.

The question of what it means to tell someone else’s story is at the forefront of George Szirtzes mind throughout his memoir of his mother, Magda, The Photographer at Sixteen. This wonderful book turns time back upon itself, beginning with his mother’s early death, exploring her life in England as a mid-century migrant, her flight from Hungary with her young family during the 1956 uprising, her experience and survival of wartime concentration camps, her lively and creative 1930s youth, and her origins in a Transylvanian family, of whom she remained one of the only post-war survivors. Szirtzes wants to know more about the life of a woman whose character seems, to him, simultaneously elusive and vivid, but he is also painfully aware of the responsibilities attendant on attempting to tell someone else’s truth.

“I have no wish to subject her to retrospective analysis,” Szirtes writes of Magda “I want to report her presence and register it as it moved through life by moving back into her own past with it. I want to puzzle over it and admire it while being aghast at it. I don’t want to be certain of anything. I don’t want to come to conclusions.”

Interspersed with fragments of Szirtes own poetry, The Photographer at Sixteen is a lyrical, searching, and extraordinarily beautiful account of how life just strives on, through crisis. It was Radio 4’s book of the week a month or so after I’d first read it, and though I loved hearing Szirtzes voice reading his own prose, I’d still recommend the far richer experience of the full book. For, as he slowly retraces his mother’s steps across Europe, Szirtzes really gets to the heart of the key paradox of biography: that while it is impossible for anyone to ever know how someone else really felt, it is also utterly crucial for us, as as empathetic humans, to make the attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and try to imagine their experience.

“I am interested in her so I go on inventing her, inventing a truth I can believe in. I invent nothing factual. I don’t make it up, but the person at the core of it still has to be constructed and understood in terms of invention. The trick is to invent the truth.”

Szirtes mother, Magda, in one of the photographic images he discusses.

The Photographer at Sixteen culminates with Szirtes questioning and re-interpretation of a group of family photographs, and Samantha Clark undergoes a similar process of object cross-examination as she sifts through the rooms in which her parents lived for over 40 years, slowly clearing their Glasgow home of belongings in the years following their deaths. As she moves through the house, Clark unpacks and excavates memories and material traces, all of which are coloured by the shadow of her mother’s long-term, severe mental ill-health. Clark is a wonderful writer, with a deep and evocative sense of Scottish place and so many passages in this book spoke immediately to me: an account of the colourful variety of Scotland’s greys, of the feeling of a lush west coast summer, or Edinburgh winter streets. Her writing spoke to me, too, in its dismissal of the blithe platitudes that are still far too often bandied about regarding the connection between creativity and mental illness. As Clark says:

“Both creative work and mental illness may involve unusual ways of thinking, but creativity also means persisting through setbacks, making careful judgements, finishing the job, meeting the deadline, balancing the budget and getting the work to an audience…That so many artists have been, and continue to be creatively productive despite such difficulties,” she writes “is testament to their sheer tenacity, their ability to hang on, haul themselves back, get back to work, not to their illness.”

Hear hear.

Deeper Water (2020). Part of Clark’s new series of drawings and paintings, Watching Water.

What I loved most about Clark’s book (and I loved many things about it) was its unflinching and and honest account of the unbridgeable gaps between people, of loss as itself a form of presence, and its awareness that lives, unlike told stories, aren’t necessarily shaped by moments of revelation or points of narrative closure. It is Clark’s open, frank acknowledgement of her parents ultimate unknowability alongside her own need to keep on interrogating the past, that makes this such a deeply empathetic, and intensely moving book. “No matter how many questions we ask, we can never completely know the world or anyone in it,” she writes. “Our knowledge can only ever be partial, fleeting, and provisional, as the world rises to meet us, breaks over us, and slips away”

Sea Lustre (2020) from Clark’s series, Watching Water.

Clark now lives and works in Orkney, and you can find out about her art and writing at her website – which I highly recommend.

Titles discussed:
Laura Cumming, On Chapel Sands: My Family and Other Missing Persons (Chatto & Windus, 2019) ISBN: 1784742473
George Szirtes, The Photographer at Sixteen (MacLehose Press, 2020) ISBN: 085705855X
Samantha Clark, The Clearing: A Memoir of Art, Family, and Mental Health (Little, Brown, 2020) ISBN: 1408711958
Seek them out from your favourite independent bookseller!