Igor Posner’s untitled photograph (below) is from his newly released book, Past Perfect Continuous. Mary Di Lucia’s response to that photograph, titled “A Brief History of Mid-Century Portraiture” (also below), is excerpted from her new collection, titled Accompaniments. The companion books are newly out on Red Hook Editions.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF
It is a picture of a picture. If I cut this part away, it is simply: a picture, a woman’s face in an oval frame. The left temple and the hairline have faded, but the lips, the outline of the eyes, the forelock, curled, on the forehead, are defined and clear. They almost leave the paper. It resembles a drawing, rendered with a soft charcoal pencil whose point has been sharpened, but somehow it does not feel wholly like a drawing. It may be something about the eyes and what they focused on in that moment when the shutter clicked which make it clear that this is a photograph. She is not looking into the aperture, or at the photographer, but at something off to the side which elicited a tenderness from her amidst a slight alarm, perhaps someone she knew, or somethin which reminded her of that person. She is aware of her own beauty as part of the open-lipped concern she feels towards that person. Her beauty is a vulnerability which she can conceal or reveal at will.
The background of the picture–or rather, photograph–immediately behind her head does look as if it has been drawn in, with a smoother charcoal stroke, shaded finely at the top, and fading into a blankness that throws the oval frame that surrounds it into high definition. The frame may also have been drawn in or it may be an actual wooden frame, as the fashion was in the days when the photograph was taken. In those days, there was often a pair of such oval-framed portraits, hung next to each other on the wall in the hallway, or above the piano, where the light was strongest. They were the photographs of the people who lived in the house, or the parents of the people who lived there. The gaze and its tender concern are motherly, but with the tenderness of a young mother. When such a portrait hung alone, it was to commemorate a mother who had died young, but whose spirit still watched over the people in the house, specifically her children, and whomever was caring for them in her place, though the tenderness is for the children, not the maiden aunt, or the grandmother or mother-in-law, or new wife, over whom her gaze could be interpreted as knowing, even firm, and lacking in tenderness, maybe even sorrowing at the corner of the eyes. There would have been no picture of the new wife, or of the widowed husband, either: the picture of the departed mother could have only hung, in such cases, alone there, centered, on the wall above the piano, or between the two wall sconces with the paper shades in the front hall. Had the portrait hung in the house of her parents or her younger sister, it would have been a younger likeness, something from late girlhood, or later, just before her marriage and her departure from the family home.
With that said, the image actually gives the air of the more-distant past, an old-fashioned portrait, not contemporaneous with the time in which it was positioned on the wall which comprises the larger background of the photograph, the wall upon which the picture has been hung. This is in contrast to the background captured within the oval frame of the portrait, contemporaneous, of course, with the woman’s image. A grown child, a devoted son, would have hung this slightly old-fashioned and out-moded portrait in the home of his family; a daughter would have hung her mother’s portrait, as well, but more likely for a daughter the portraits of both parents, whether living or dead. The son, however, needs to honor more explicitly the lineage of the matriarch, perhaps because it is a fainter line of influence, and needs more strongly to be foregrounded, in order to balance its importance in the face of the patriarchal force which is evident without being made literal by a photograph of the father. The devoted son wishes to acknowledge his own vulnerability: the matriarchal influenced him and shaped his character as much as the patriarchal did. The very nature of potraiture itself within this milieu feels feminine, whether it is life-size, or wallet-sized, or embossed on a brooch, though this one has not been, as we have the evidence of the blank surrounding expanse of background that it was hung on a wall, albeit one with a faded covering.
As to the question of who came along later, and who performed this unusual act of taking a picture of a picture, a photograph of a photo-portrait (or of a portrait drawn from a photograph, a concept not explored here), we can only speculate. What kind of a tourist would do this–a tourist inside a domestic space? A visitor, one bearing a camera? “Excuse me,” would he have said, “may I take a photograph of that portrait of a woman, hanging there above the piano?” Or a distant relative visiting from far away: “Ah, this is the great-aunt, grandmother’s sister, who I’ve only ever heard stories about, the famous story about the lake, the story about the fiancé who went off to the war. I would so appreciate the chance to take a picture of that, to show my mother, who is her grand-niece and was always said to resemble her slightly.” She does resemble his mother slightly. His mother does not approve of his visit, or does not understand why he is returning to that old country, which she left, and to which she will never return, although she had promised to. And why is he visiting now, for such a long time, months, when she herself is growing old, and when they may not have much time left together? He is her only son. She has a daughter, but the daughter lives close by; she sees almost too much of her. The son and the daughter do not get along.
He will bring her back the photograph of the photograph, and she will look at it for a few seconds longer than she looks at the other images in the stack. She will not be sure, at first, who the woman in the photograph is, and then after recognizing her, from other photographs of this person she has seen, she will not comment on how strange it is that her boy would have taken a photograph of a photograph, when there were street scenes, monuments, and requisite vistas he should have captured. He sees that she likes the photograph nonetheless and he asks if she would like a copy of it; she would. He re-develops it, blown up to the correct size, and trims away, with great care, the blank expanse beyond the frame–the purported wall it hung upon–and has it framed in something presumably from the same time period which he has found in an antique store, a junk-shop really, so that it is not a picture of a picture on a wall, but just a picture of itself, handsomely framed. His mother hangs it on the wall above the piano. She is touched that he has gone through so much trouble on her behalf. The tender gaze makes her think of her son, and of herself, and how she wished she had been as a young mother, and how she would have liked to have had such a picture of herself.
This is all speculation. It is a picture of a picture. I have cut away the surrounding background so that it is simply a picture, the face of a lovely woman, beseeching the viewer, in an oval frame. I have a similar one, of my own son, as a very young child, in my wallet, as many do.
–Mary Di Lucia, from Accompaniments
Igor Posner ‘s Past Perfect Continuous is a book exclusively of photographs, save for these final words: “The photographs in this book were taken between 2006 and 2009 upon my return to St. Petersburg, a place of my birth (then Leningrad), for the first time in 14 years.” Past Perfect Continuous is available at Red Hook Editions.
Mary Di Lucia is a poet whose work explores the territories of the imagination, from Antartica to Siberia to the domains of childhood. Her present collection, Accompaniments, was inspired by the images of St. Petersburg in Igor Posner’s Past Perfect Continuous. Accompaniments is also available at Red Hook Editions.