So I just finished a book that has, in many ways, stirred up something inside of me. Lots of things actually. The timing is serendipitous, I think, and perhaps if I had read this book even a year ago I might not have reacted so strongly to it.
Anyway, Dani Shapiro...whose wonderful novel, Family History, I reviewed for the San Diego Union Tribune a few years back has a new novel out called Black and White. It is based, according to the author, on her imaginings of what an adult child (and former subject) of a famous photographer might be like in the aftermath of her mother's fame. The connections to Sally Mann are no secret...and the author makes no bones about this in her interview on NPR. But while the book truly was compelling, well-written, evocative etc... I just kept feeling like there was something wrong with what Shapiro was doing. I mean, Sally Mann is very much alive, as are her children. And while this is fiction, and (according to Shapiro) she used the photos as a jumping off place for this book, the art itself is almost identical to the actual, controversial, Mann photos: a Popsicle-stained chest, a pee-stained bed, a black eye, a child hanging (though from a rope rather than a hay hook). I don't mean to suggest that the novelist has any particular allegiance to what is now a part of our culture...art becomes, to a certain extent, part of our cultural inheritance, a part of our collective visual vocabulary. However, it is not necessarily the assimilation of Mann's now iconic images by Shapiro that bothers me. It is, rather, the premise of the novel itself...that photography, and the photography of one's own children, is, by nature, exploitative. Of course, she does not come out and say this explicitly, but the story is told via Clara (the grown daughter of the fictional Ruth Dunne) who, in her early thirties, is reunited withe her estranged mother after fourteen years. She is so angry, so paralyzed, so stunted by her mother's "work," that she can barely function. The now dying Ruth is depicted as a manic, egotistical, and impossible artist who is completely unable to see beyond her own nose (or camera viewfinder). Fine, fine, and fine. But what really irks me, is that we side with Clara. We have to. She is the heroine of the novel, and the victim or her mother's art. The end of the novel...I won't give it away...means to offer some hope, some resolution for Clara, but, to me, it lacks credibility, because we never really see Ruth as a mother. Not really. We see her through Clara's very own viewfinder...distorted, warped, and larger than life. Now, fine, fine, fine...but what about Sally Mann? I mean, the real woman. The photographer. The mother. What does this mean when an author takes an artist's work, a living artist's work, and then fabricates a life, full of motives and agendas, for that artist? Never mind that in addition to the familiar images Shapiro borrows, there is one fictional photo (published in Vogue) which makes Ruth's character just plain wicked. And there is no such photo in Mann's portfolio...not that I know of anyway. If I were Sally Mann, I would be furious. Indeed, I am so curious to see if there is any fall out from this. Besides, and I hate to knock what is, for all intents and purposes, a very well-crafted and riveting novel...it's been done before. Exposure by Kathryn Harrison is a terrific novel based on the shattered life of a child muse. And, more recently, The Effects of Light by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, examines what it means when childhood and art reside together. Beverly-Whittemore, who herself has modeled for Mona Kuhn, gave a much more compelling argument for the inherent complexities, the gray areas, if you will of the photographer's ethical responsibilities: to her subjects, to the truth of experience, to art.
I started reading this book after I spent the afternoon photographing my own children gleefully running naked through a sprinkler in the backyard. And it plucked a raw nerve. I truly believe that artists, particularly photographers, look to capture moments. To preserve them. I know that I do the same as a writer. Art, for me, is the beauty in my life. And I have spent my entire adult life trying to replicate that beauty with words, and now with pictures. I would hope that Shapiro, as both a mother and a novelist, might understand this too, but I fear that the revelations Clara has come too late and without nearly enough to evoke them. And lastly, I worry what people might infer about Sally Mann, who strikes me as a terrific mother, based on this novel and its sometimes uncomfortably close comparisons to the real artist's work (if not life).
Then again maybe this is all intentional...the author distorting the truth, "staging" the picture, to her own ends? Is writing a novel of this sort any different from the photographer who exploits or manipulates reality in the name of art?