Through a glass darkly

Recently there have been two novels published about photographers, one of them shamelessly echoing one of the more famous war photo journalists of today: Don McCullin while the other novel actually mentions Robert Capa in relation to her own war photograph of a soldier being shot.  Sweet Caress contains a simply exquisite account of the whys and wherefores…where does the fascination begin, why does it continue?

In this novel, Sweet Caress, I am happy to say that William Boyd is back on form. If you have been put off his writing by his last two or three novels (especially Restless and Waiting for Sunrise), or if you only began to read his books recently, take heart – these latest were an aberration. No, that is too harsh for I am sure some people liked them. But with Sweet Caress we are back in the territory of the earlier works, most specifically Any Human Heart.

One of the little biographical details about William Boyd, which make him so fascinating, is that he is a collector of ‘found’ photographs. He collects them from any source – throwaways that someone has discarded for who knows what reason. Mr Boyd will make them live again – differently.

BoydIn Sweet Caress, the protagonist, Amory Clay has risen out of a photograph that someone found in a bus shelter and sent to Mr Boyd.  Oh happy day! The photo is of a young girl frolicking in a bathing suit in a  lake – if that sounds rather 1930s-speak, it is deliberate. The unknown woman now has a new identity and new career.

Her birthday in 1908 was obfuscated by The Times announcement that Beverley and Wilfreda Clay had a son named Amory. Was this an error by her father or a sly dig at her mother for producing an offspring of the wrong sex – who knows, but Amory remains somehow unsexed by this for the rest of her life.

Having been given, at a young age, a Kodak Brownie by ‘uncle’ Greville the child is seldom without the camera, looking at life through a lens. An early photograph shows a scene of adult elegance circa 1923, women in long white dresses and large hats at some social gathering.

The whole novel is printed with these photographs that are inserted between paragraphs of text, all of them found…Amory goes from an apprenticeship with Greville taking society portraits, then branching, rather shockingly, out on her own she finds society not quite ready for her rather more truthful portraits and so journals and papers stop taking her work.

Amory is looking back at her life, picking through a large box of photos and remembering it all. Inevitably at one point she ends up in Vietnam, probably the most widely photographed modern war of its time…which segues neatly into the other photographer novel.

The opening page reads:

It is the eyes that make the picture great. The soldier’s eyes look out directly from the page. They look out and through – or perhaps they are not looking at all but seeing only what they have seen already, images that are imprinted on the retina and on the memory so strongly that they cannot be supplanted by whatever is before them now…

HardingThe Gun Room is the third novel by Georgina Harding. The photographer in this novel is most definitely a man  – Jonathan. We find him first photographing in Vietnam, shocking and telling pictures of a raid on a Vietnamese village, and a photograph he took of a soldier looking blankly out at the camera. Although eventually these photos get published, Jonathan is still running away from a distant memory, and he ends up in Japan. On the page we are slightly in Lost in Translation territory, this is not a coincidence – Jonathan recognises it himself, but while he is there another coincidence occurs upon which pivots the whole novel.

Full of moral ambiguity, memory and responsibility this novel asks where does the photographer fit into the modern age? At what point does taking a photograph swing from exposing a hidden truth to wrecking a man’s life? The nameless, shocked soldier has an identity, though Jonathan did not wait to find out…but that soldier survived the conflict and had to live with the consequences, as Jonathan will one day discover.

I think it is something we will all have to confront sooner or later, especially the young. There was a fatal accident recently at the end of the road where I live, the main road is a busy bus route and the accident caused three buses to stop. The passengers were disembarked because, obviously, the buses could not progress. More than a few raised their mobile phones to photograph the scene, a fatal crash! Why would you want that on you phone? On another occasion I was part of a mass emergency exodus from the British Museum, thousands of people were leaving the building – it was a sight to behold! Orderly, controlled but urgent – and people were photographing it?!

In an interview recently, Don McCullin was asked if he knew what happened to the soldier he photographed in the Vietnam conflict, a photograph that quite literally became iconic. He didn’t know.

Interestingly, a photographer makes a peripheral appearance in another novel I read recently which I intend to post about later. He is Colonel Ashley-Norton. He had been a photographer at Bergen-Belsen – he describes arriving at the camp down an avenue of flowering cherry trees and smelling the sickening stench before actually seeing the indescribable horror that waited for them.

‘The thing was, Herr Perle, if I hadn’t had the blasted camera and the heavy pack of film on my back, I could have dome more to help people.  But I was instructed never to let any of this “equipment” be separated from my body, and this was an order I had to follow. You see why I hated it so? I felt that camera and that bag of film were dragging me down into the earth. We had feeding teams and delousing teams, and chaps sorting and washing clothing, and I could have helped with some of that. Not with the medical stuff perhaps, because I had no training.  But I could have been of some bloody use, couldn’t I, instead of taking bloody pictures?’

This comes from the new novel by Rose Tremain called The Gustav Sonata. More of that later, but it is wonderful so don’t wait for my comment – get a copy.

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