Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Summer Fiction Week #2 — "Regarding My Mother's Photography"

       If you've ever seen a Sally Mann or Jock Sturges photograph, you've perhaps wondered how, in later years, the children depicted in those jarring images came to view their youthful brush with cutting edge art photography. I certainly did, leading to this story. 


      Recent articles in the popular press, written by people who should know better, have tried to create the impression that some sort of terrible rift exists between my mother —the photographer Harriet Jane Gordon—and her two adult sons: myself and my brother David. They interpret our absence from the opening of her retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art as somehow indicative of a hostility on our part—or otherwise, why would we have not shared in such a crowning event in our mother’s professional career?
     Let me begin by saying that such speculation, particularly Chas Mywald’s piece in ARTnews, is invasive and unwarranted and only serves to heighten the already superheated media frenzy over my mother’s photography. As it happens—not that it is anyone’s business—I sent a card of best wishes to my mother on the eve of the Whitney show, and understand, through channels, that she was pleased to receive it, despite statements to the contrary attributed to her in print and on certain hateful web sites.
     When it comes to David, I will not presume to speak for him, other than to say that he is a private individual, pursuing his particular field of interest, who does not care to enter into enervating public controversies. I am told he tried to visit the Whitney show, anonymously, but had to leave hurriedly when he was recognized. We have talked on the telephone, recently, and I can say with confidence that he was never spoken to Chas Mywald, or anyone else at ARTnews and does not bear our mother any ill will. Nor do I bear our mother any ill will.

     I am not suggesting that our childhood was utterly without difficulty. Growing up under the circumstances which we did was frequently difficult, at times extraordinarily so. Anyone who has seen works such as “Neil Astride Alaskan Moose” or “David Dressed as Harlequin” (and at this point, who hasn’t?) knows that these were not easy sessions to participate in, particularly considering our ages at the time. Many people do no realize that the football team posing with David in “Harlequin” is the very junior high school squad he would later attempt to join. The chasm yawning under me in “Neil in Peril” is not some clever photographic effect, as people often suppose, but the Atchafalaya Gorge in Smokey Mountain National Park. Ever the perfectionist, my mother took 45 exposures, and it was only when the sapling began to slowly pull out of the soft earth of the cliff edge that my entreaties were heeded and I was hastily hauled up. 
     Despite the occasional mishap, we generally enjoyed helping our mother with her work, carrying her large 8 x 10 view camera up mountainsides near our home in a heavily-wooded section of North Carolina, collecting specimens for those montages of animal excreta of which she was particularly fond, playing for hours in the crisp, cold Montavista River while mother tried to get exactly the right combination of dwindling daylight, splashing water and capering, unfettered boyhood.
     Particularly hurtful are the stories that we do not appreciate the artistic merit, or even the financial worth, of my mother’s photographs. I do not dispute that, after college, I permitted my former roommate, Edgar Witherspoon, to take possession of two dozen silver gelatin prints, including the series “Maturation 1-12,” but I did not, as N.K. Kleinfield has suggested in The New York Times, leave them out on the curb. Due to their extraordinary size it became necessary to store the photographs somewhere and whether or not my transfer of the photos to Edgar was a gift or a loan is a legal matter I am not permitted to discuss. The story about David going after our mother’s photographs with a linoleum knife at the Phyllis Kind Gallery is an utter fabrication. He was merely trying to block the door to the exhibit, and left quietly after police were called.  
     The problem, I believe, stems from the singular nature of the photographs, which excite people’s interest—interest that would normally be directly toward my mother, who is after all the creative force at work here. But which is blunted by her frequent, almost daily pronouncements and interviews in the artistic and mainstream press and of course on-line. Because of the paucity of unknown facts or unexpressed opinions related to our mother, curiosity is instead directed toward her subjects, particularly my brother and myself. Our success in avoiding the limelight and managing, despite great odds, to live quiet, private lives, only served to further stoke the fires of public interest, which is why I am writing this, as an attempt to satisfy the legitimate questions raised with growing frequency in the year leading up to the Whitney show.
   I have a job, working in the food preparation industry. I am married, and live in a middle-sized city in the South-Central portion of the United States. My wife has always known about my mother’s photography and been very supportive. I owe her a great deal.
    David, as I state previously, should be allowed to speak for himself, if and when he feels moved to do so. I am not a professional, and do not feel comfortably evaluating the emotional state of others, particularly close relatives.
     Speaking for myself—again, contrary to the lies and distortions already alluded to—I in fact do have several of my mother’s photographs, stored away. I keep them not simply due to financial considerations; I am proud of the artistic legacy these works represent and my central if at times unwilling role in their creation, and would even consider displaying some of the less jarring photographs in my home, were it not for the presence of my own young children, whose welfare must be considered.

                                                                     

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