Monday 9 July 2007

Black Dogs : connections between story-telling and photography

From Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs.
The story-teller, 'Jeremy', is questioning the way his mother-in-law views an event in her life, involving an encounter with two black dogs, which she claims changed her life:

Turning-points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning point, surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory?

Perhaps using memory, and thinking or writing about the past, we do force some kind of turning point in the way McEwan's character suggests – when the truth is events usually unfold more randomly, even erratically, and life can't be easily pinpointed in that way. And yet I think it can, though it’s often only in retrospect that we realise the significance and symbolic nature of a particular event, or moment.

The writer creates those ‘moments’ but maybe it is not as manipulative as the above passage might imply. Or, it is, but with good reason (and it isn't a negative thing). Any writer forces the reader along the path they wish the reader to follow, even if that involves giving ‘choices’ and denying conventional structures.

Almost immediately (more obviously so with digital) a photograph has capacity to become a part of a ‘looking back’ and takes context from what has preceded and what is to follow, in a way (normally) that totally out of proportion to the actual significance of that moment as it would have appeared with no camera there to record it.

So almost instanteneously it becomes ‘memory’ and a photograph becomes a ‘defining moment’ in the way the turning points of our lives become, often in retrospect, defining moments – they seem to distil the ‘truths’ of the time they were taken. Very like memory, and possibly as liable to distortion, and with a tremendous power (like the subjective recollection of events) actually to form and become memory itself….

Some pictures especially connected with members of my own family and particularly my children, now seem pivotal to me, in a personal sense in their lives and therefore mine too of course – and in the quietest sense possible – moments occurring with the quietest steps – (and the significance only realised after the event).

This passage, from Black Dogs again – for some reason made me think of some of the photographs I have taken of my mother, with my perspective being uncannily close to the narrator’s. Not the exact 'image' described, but the feeling and the relationship. And apart from that, or anything else, I just love the details of it – the image of the woman herself, her cardigan, her teaspoon and her bulbs, her quiet determination. Very visual, very simple. I guess this is the kind of writing I like best.

'Jeremy' is making tea for his mother-in-law, in her room, in the residential home she lives in….

Outside the rain had stopped but the wind still blew, and a tiny woman in a pale blue cardigan was making her way across the lawn with the aid of a walking frame. A strong gust could have carried her away. She arrived at a flower-bed against a wall and knelt down on the grass on her knees, she manoeuvred the frame to one side, and took from one pocket in her cardigan a tea spoon, and from the other a handful of bulbs. She set about digging holes and pressing the bulbs into them. A few years ago I would have seen no point at all in planting at her age, I would have watched the scene and read it as an illustration of futility. Now, I could only watch.