You’d Never Know

Those thousand words could be any words at all. They could be lies. Wishes. A dead language. What words do you think are in this photograph? Quick–before I tell you and ruin the surprise.

This is my mother in 1965 at the lake in front of my father’s house–the year she got married and three years before I was born. I could bracket this photograph with more befores and afters, but that will do for now.

They say don’t start a story with a description of a photograph. The grand exceptions that spring to your mind not withstanding, I tend to agree. Photographs are still, they edit, and they make us forget what isn’t in the frame. Have you ever known anyone to let a photograph speak for itself? No. The person must always explain it. If you look at this picture of this 21-year-old girl, and I tell you no story, you’ll read a different narrative entirely–and where will my mother be then?

I love this photograph. You’d never know how her life was going to turn out.

4 thoughts on “You’d Never Know

  1. Ah. Yes, but…

    “Don’t start a story with a description of a photograph.” Okay, I’ll accept that. But remove the “description” part: “Don’t start a story with a photograph.” Then it becomes a much harder proposition for me to swallow — because you can use the photo without describing it.

    Photographs are great springboards for stories. As you say, they “are still, they edit [btw, well done, that’s a truly clever way to put that], they make us forget what isn’t in the frame.” But that forgetting is what makes them great kick-starters for storytelling: when you unplug them from a known narrative, they suggest all manner of but-before-this and sometime-after moments.

    As soon as you said it was your mother, my head clicked with some of the possible connections to writings you’ve posted here (fictional or non-, as the case may be). That clicking sound came from the falling to the floor of all the pages of all the dead stories which ceased to exist as soon as the possibilities narrowed to ONE.

    I love this photo, too. Great smile, great pose, and a great little detail in the… uh… the footies or whatever was on her feet. Also love that it’s in B&W, when convention would say that a beach scene virtually demands color, if color is available; B&W beach scenes strike me as almost ominous. E.g. is that a far shore on the horizon? a gigantic storm front? a tsunami?

    But I likewise love about photos — previously unseen ones, including this one — the way stories seem to sprout from them, in both directions along an imaginary timeline.

    Great, thought-provoking post. Thanks!

  2. dfrucci

    Very nice post, that brings up a very good point, that a picture will never speak for itself. I’ve learned that as I read this post. I have never known a person, who won’t explain a picture. That’s like the first thing that they’ll do, very good post here.

    Btw, I have begun reading your novel

  3. Well, in truth I think that starting with a photo can work–you can do anything if you can write it well. But I was thinking about this particular rule after reading a review of How Fiction Works.

    But anyway, JES, thanks for your comments on this photo. I can look at it a little differently now.

    dfrucci, you scare me saying you’re reading the novel–but that’s just me. Hope its okay, and thanks for taking the time.

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