The Eye Behind the Camera: Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

image of a woman with her eye to a camera. to the right of her head are the words "camera person: a film by kirsten johnson" in yellow, white, and black narrow block type. When we first see the close-up of the dead bird on the ground, we wonder why. It’s only a few scenes later that we return to the site of the bird to see two young children, twin brother and sister, asking their mother and grandfather if they can go outside to bury the dead bird.

“I’ll put it underneath this rhododendron tree,” the grandfather tells them, “and that way it will cause the rhododendron tree to grow because it will fertilize it.”

He looks at his daughter—the twins’ mother—who is also the cameraperson, so it’s as if he’s looking at us. “What’s the word? Ashes to ashes, dirt to dirt?”

In creating a non-linear montage of moments drawn from her work as a cinematographer during the last twenty-five years, Kirsten Johnson searches for some contiguous logic that can make sense of the seemingly disparate moments that have, in her words, most marked her.

The viewer will see many different countries via footage from twenty-four documentaries. One moment will be in the Bosnian Mountains, the next on New York City streets. We first become attuned to the montage as pattern because eventually we return to a particular subject we’d seen earlier; the first emerging motif is that Johnson has documented sites of great violence and death, especially in the aftermath when grief afflicts memory.

If pain and death are part of life’s tapestry, can the pattern be beautiful? [Read more…]

Margo Jefferson’s Negroland

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In her photo on the jacket flap of Negroland: A Memoir,  Margo Jefferson looks to me like an attractive white woman in her late sixties.

In the chapter where she delineates beauty standards for African American girls in the 1950s, when she was a child, her list of skin color options astounds me:

“Ivory, cream, beige, wheat, tan, moccasin, fawn, café au lait, and the paler shades of honey, amber, and bronze are best. Sienna, chocolate, saddle brown, umber (burnt or raw), and mahogany work best with decent-to-good hair and even-to-keen features… Generally, for women, the dark skin shades like walnut, chocolate brown, black, and black with blue undertones are off-limits.”

Off-limits? As Jefferson knows, she’s slyly implying the impossible: that women have a choice about their skin color—that they can decide whether to stay within limits or not. [Read more…]

The Neglected Garden, Part I

6362028091_2d4a7eb81a_zWhen my father built the house where I was born, the land was flat and there was little vegetation on it.

It had once been the Curran family’s cotton plantation, my mother later told me—sold and subdivided for a row of little Cape Cods and ranch houses, all arrayed in pastel asbestos siding. Including the one that, in late 1954, became my family’s home.

I was born in 1968.

There were no trees, I see in the silent drone of 36 millimeter “home movies” my father shot during the bright summers of the middle 1950s—ten years before I was born. It surprised me as a child, but shouldn’t have: The town where we lived was on the very seam of the Mississippi Delta, where wooded hills careened suddenly downward to hit flat land for a hundred miles. [Read more…]

Commodifying Myself

Guest Post by Ryan Pemberton

“It’s a funny feeling,” I confessed to an editor-friend as we worked on my first memoir, a book on calling. “In a few months perfect strangers will be able to read some of the most intimate stories from my childhood that even my closest friends don’t know.”

She nodded thoughtfully, her brow furrowed.

“And the conclusion I’ve come to is that strangers can know these stories about me and still not know me. They’ll still be strangers.”

I’d been talking about how, in memoir, we attempt to write ourselves into knowable form.

Along the way, I’d pondered the relationship between being “known” and being “possessed”—as one might say she “possesses” a thorough knowledge of the English language—and how this relates to story-telling.

A quote from Richard Chess’s recent Image blog post complicated matters.

“We are our stories,” Chess suggests, reflecting on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “The stories into which we are born, the stories in which we’ll one day die.” [Read more…]

Avoiding the Mirror

Guest post by Cathy Warner

I have circled around this story several times, trying to write my way into it.

I begin with an inciting event:

An eighty-nine year-old man lies unconscious, unresponsive in intensive care in a California hospital. His name is Vince and he was hit by a car in the town he’s lived in near forty years, the same town that was my home for twenty-five.

I am now nine hundred miles north, but in my mind I see the pharmacy he left, the crosswalk, his wife waiting in their minivan parked outside the beauty parlor. I picture her stumbling from the car with her uneven gait, pedestrians rushing to her side, to his aide, sprinting to the fire department down the block for help.

I read the news on Facebook first, that “an elderly gentleman” had been hit, and stopped at this description of him. Though he’d been retired from his work as missionary to Pakistan the twenty-five years I’d known him, he was far from gentle.

From there my words add up to a litany of how hard this man—who died days later from his injuries—was to love, a long complaint about our relationship.

It doesn’t work. My editor tells me: “Basically you still believe he was deeply misguided about most everything and that you have the correct ideas, so the piece just becomes a ‘He was wrong and overbearing and fearful but we’re still all one in Christ.’”

[Read more…]