I am reading, no hearing, a beautiful book where a photograph is described:
This is us when we are happy is not the message that Alice Roosevelt’s wedding delivers…and unlike Alice Roosevelt who continued to be an unrepentant thorn in her father’s side even after Teddy’s death, all the Curtis children never stopped believing “Chief” could do no wrong, never stopped believing Chief was the perfect father, even after absences of many years, never stopped seeking Chief’s approval.
The woman who gives this sharp, tenderized commentary on Edward Curtis, father, renegade husband and shadow-catcher is at the wheel of a car in L.A., stuck in traffic. She tells us about Edward with the same familiarity that she tells us about the shortcut (Fountain Avenue) she will take, the shortcut everyone takes, the shortcut each of the 30 million drivers currently sharing the road believes that they alone discovered.
He became, she tells us,
by disappearing from their daily lives, not a father but the myth of one, a myth they needed to believe in to survive. And despite his actions, despite all contrary evidence, they needed to sustain that system of belief even if it meant altering their memory, creating a false memory, a false identity of who their father really was. If Edward, the disappearing father was to play the good guy in their system of belief, then someone anyone had to play the villain because surely there was real unhappiness in their home in everything around them… and someone , never dad, no never him, someone else had to take the blame… the person who was too tired to cook dinner after working all day long, that other unromantic parent asleep at the stove in her flannel slippers, stressed out and exhausted: mom….”
And as she drives and thinks and turns her thoughts over, and over, she assembles the person of Edward Curtis, and how this photographer intersects with the structure of the family, how he poses and positions himself within the family so as to appear a certain way, to seem a certain way. This seeming was in fact his art.
It is no wonder that there is an aura of indeterminacy surrounding this shadow-catcher, an uncertainty arising from the distance he put between himself and his world, himself and his own century.
And with this distance comes a mystery, a puzzle which is reconnoitred but not entirely solved by the story we are told about a man who sets up a photography studio in Seattle just after the fire…