Thursday, March 15, 2012

Novel, Biography, or Autobiography

As if I didn't have plenty of ways to fill my so-called spare time, I decided this semester to sign up for a photography class. Birthday before last, my husband gave me a nice camera, letting me advance beyond my usual point-and-shoot model, but for months, all I have known how to use was the automatic mode. I was determined to learn more--and I have.

In the class, though, we have several assignments. Since I'm only auditing the class (knowing I could never attend every Saturday and not actually needing college credit), I probably don't technically have to complete the assignments, but being who I am--I will. We are to complete a photobook (something I love to do anyway), to frame and matt one 8X10 photo (aha! The grandkids are coming at the end of the month), to produce a slide show set to music (and oh boy! Do I have a great idea), and to write a paper on a famous photographer.

Since I teach composition and research, the last part had me going at once. I thought of all the photography exhibits I've seen at museums--Annie Leibowitz, Steichen, Ansel Adams--and then I started reading Marianne Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher. Honestly, I don't know what to call the book. It's called a novel--and I would probably go ahead and call it a historical novel--loosely based on the life of Edward Curtis, famous for capturing iconic images of native Americans in the nineteenth century. But Wiggins weaves in her own story, relating a phone call she receives after pitching her completed story of Curtis to Hollywood producers: Her father was dying in a Las Vegas hospital. Her father, she knew, had committed suicide thirty years earlier, but the man in question had her father's identification--with her listed as next of kin. Intrigued, she goes there.

I was drawn into the novel immediately because of Wiggins' treatment of the artist's viewpoint, beginning with her fascination with a map by DaVinci, one she realizes he shouldn't have been able to produce without an astronaut's perspective. Throughout the book, I was drawn to consider all the tensions in art--the tension between artists who work on canvas and the photographers they score, the tension between artistic photographers and amateurs content with inexpensive Kodak cameras.

As the narrative moves back and forth between Curtis's story--and that of the wife he leave alone for longer and longer stretches as he pursued his photography career--and the author's story, eventually the thread are woven between the two. After completing the book, I'm not sure which parts are true now and which were invented for dramatic purposes. I'm not even sure I want to know. The author does thank her own sister in the credits for allowing her to use their family story, but she doesn't indicate how much is fabricated.

I do know, though, that I will pursue the Edward Curtis story--either for my photography class or just for pure curiosity. Then maybe I'll move on to Steichen or Leibowitz or Adams.


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