My father was a photographer, but he’d never liked that term. A photographer records the world around him, but I—I craft it, he would say. He liked to think of himself as more of a painter; I think he thought there was more freedom in that. In the papers they called him an artist, but he liked to pretend he didn’t read those. I remember finding the clippings in a box in his closet once, right next to the locked case of my mother’s jewelry, and they’d seemed just as precious. I tried to imagine him snipping them out of the newspaper carefully, one day when I was in school or at ballet, but I just couldn’t. My father didn’t cut, he created.
There were photographs of me in museums I’d never seen, in countries I’d never set foot in, even before I turned five. He liked to take them up close, his lens protruding threateningly, so that you could make out rough brown of my eyes and the patterns of my freckles, how they weren’t circles at all but little, individual, unrepeated shapes. They were his eyes, not my mothers.
His most famous piece hangs in the Modern wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a horizontal capture of my seven-year-old face one dry summer in Oregon, my nose dripping with blood that settles neatly into the bow above my lips. My light hair is chin length, my badly-cut bangs falling into my eyes, my face round the way it was before I’d lost all the sweetness of childhood, and I’m angry, but I’m not sure anyone but me would be able to tell. It’s in the set of my eyes, the way I’m biting my lip ever-so-slightly. When we flew to New York for the opening, I just stared at it, confronting my own image in that bizarre way. The more I stared at it the more I couldn’t recognize myself, the more the curve of my nose and the slopes of my cheeks seemed foreign. I tried to remember what I was angry about, but the memories all blended together in some whirlwind of color and sound. When I was younger, my father and I were often that way—at each other’s throats. Sometimes he just sighed and said I was too much like him for my own good.
I remember I stood there for at least half an hour staring at my own face, in part because of the oddity of it, and in part because he had disappeared and the museum was big and the rooms were aflush with men in suits that all looked the same and women in dresses I wouldn’t dare to speak to so I just stood there hoping he would find me. I remember the fluttering of terror, the dampness of my seven-year-old palms. I was glaring back at my own image trying to fight back tears when I felt his palm on my right shoulder, heavy and rough and distinctly familiar. “You look like Sylvia there,” he said, not looking at me. I was staring at him then, because I didn’t look like my mother at all, we both knew that, and besides, he almost never talked about her. It was some constant, unspoken rule that almost seemed blasphemous to break.
That evening I rode in the front of the cab that drove us back to our Midtown hotel, and he sat in the back with some woman with long dark hair that I had never seen before, and he didn’t look at me once and I’d always hated how he thrust his camera in my face but in that moment I missed it acutely. The same rough hand that I could still feel on my right shoulder stole around her waist, his other hand tracing her collarbone delicately before slipping downwards to the curves of her glistening breasts, white against the green of her dress. When he kissed her neck I turned away quickly, my eyes stinging with tears I didn’t understand. When we arrived he walked me up and put me to bed and then slipped out in the darkness, and I’m not sure if he knew that I was still not asleep.
I picked up a camera when I was fourteen and my father did everything he could to make me put it down. It was as though it had never crossed his mind that I might want to be like him, do what he did.
“You want to be a photographer? Really? What’s the point?”
“I don’t know. I just want to take some pictures.”
“You don’t just take pictures.”
“Why not? I just want to try.”
“Why are you doing this? What is the point of all this?”
“I just wanted to try it.”
“It’s not worth it.”
He said it quietly, and then he didn’t say anything at all. He didn’t try and stop me, but he didn’t help either, and the aperture was always wrong and the focus off, the pictures blurry and under saturated. I had never been able to keep my hands perfectly still, and thus the camera shook slightly so that the photographs were soft around the edges. His hands, trained by years of grasping his instrument, were eerily controlled, and I watched him take his pictures with a precise stillness like you’d observe some rare animal in the wild. My own snapshots were never as good and the frustration only made me angry and after a while I no longer wanted to try. Every time the little machine whirred to life I could feel him, feel him like a second skin, feel him like ghost.
I grew up and he grew quiet, and sometimes we smoked the expensive cigars he liked to collect on the back porch and watched the woods move slowly but we hardly ever said anything. I had friends at school, but they were always fillers, always pale in comparison, my amateur photographs to my father’s masterpieces. I waited for him to tell me something, anything, that meant anything at all, but he would just hand me a cigar that he swore wasn’t bad for me and leaned against the porch railing, his eyes distant. Sometimes he would take photographs of me, the white haze of the smoke obscuring my face in a dangerous way, but he never sent those anywhere. I don’t know if he ever even got them developed. Sometimes I thought he just liked to hear the click of the buttons.
Most days he was somewhere else, at meetings or exhibits or donor parties, and sometimes he was in the city, cameras slung about him, but I didn’t look at his photographs anymore. He went to openings on his own, and sometimes the house was empty for days, but I much preferred it that way. It was worse, somehow, when he just read Chomsky on the sofa and didn’t say anything. That silence was loud, oppressive, and without it I could breathe freely. When he was gone I would tear through his things, all his tightly sealed boxes in the garage and the closet, searching for some understanding of him. I found wedding presents still unopened—Rolex watches and cuff links with the tags and cards untouched—journals filled with indecipherable scribbles, letters from some girl from his college days that I think he had loved. There were old photographs everywhere, of him and his sister and of college dorms and young men and women, but there were none of my mother.
I told a boy in my class once that my father was rarely home and then he kissed me behind the shed that held all the lacrosse equipment the next week and asked me if he could come home. I knew what he wanted and I didn’t particularly want to give it to him. He had a nice face but his hair was stringy and damp with some mysterious oil and his skin was in that stage when it liked to erupt every few weeks, but I let him drive me home because I just wanted to know what it would feel like. I remember it was raining and it was one of those days when my father would have been out for hours trying to capture the precise way that the world looked—raindrops obscuring the lenses just so—when the greyness settled over and everything was distinctly alive. I let him undress me on the couch where my father liked to read his Chomsky and it was odd because in the somber mid-afternoon I could see everything about this boy, the slight sagging of his lower gut, the faint scars on his arms, and somehow I’d imagined that sex happened in a slow darkness not under such precise and unforgiving light.
I had thought it would hurt but it didn’t really, and afterwards I just stared at the shelf that held my father’s cameras in neatly arranged rows and didn’t say anything because I didn’t know if I wanted him to go.
When I was seventeen my father married a woman from Italy with soft brown hair that fell in waves and a body that pressed against her clothing as though willing to break free. They had met at a bar in Portland and she had said something about loving Kandinsky, and of course he had fallen on his knees because he had always loved the Expressionists and women who knew art were his weakness, he used to say. She looked nothing like my mother, her hair dark, so dark, compared to our family’s, her eyes small and set far apart, their pupils an inky brown, her lips in bloom. My mother was a lawyer but this woman seemed to have all the time in the world to trace canvas lines for meaning and my father’s photographs for their truth. She was always smiling some foreign Italian smile and my father rarely smiled at all and I couldn’t help but be unsettled. She came into to our home once, her distinct Italian laughter following her steps like a shadow as she trailed about the still rooms, and asked him why all the walls were empty. You fill up museums but your house is bare. He just shrugged and said he liked blank canvases, and then he’d kissed her and I turned the corner to my room. Sometimes I thought I heard them, late at night when I couldn’t sleep. The flutter of a laugh, the softness of a groan. Sometimes I thought it was just the wind.
There was no ceremony or party but he’d been seeing her for a month when one day he went out and married her. There are no photographs of the day but I remember it clearly, a Thursday in early December when it was raining softly and I could hear the water dripping through the gutter outside and they burst in, announcing it to me as though I were a hundred people, their voices loud and delirious. They were dripping with rainwater—my father never remembered umbrellas—and the water carved mascara rivers down her cheeks and pressed her dress to her caramel skin. He looked feverish, his cheeks pink, his rough eyes—my eyes—too wide, too bright. I only nodded and shut my book and climbed upstairs to my room, and in three months she was gone.
In college I did not call him and he did not call me but I could feel the silence as potently as when we had inhabited the same home. Once he sent me an old Polaroid of my mother, and I had torn open the rare package from him in the mail delivery room itself, so startled by its presence. My mother was laughing, pale, stray hairs framing her face, her eyes lidded, almost closed. This was not a carefully-framed, still-handed masterpiece, like all my father’s portraits of me. The lighting was imperfect and the background too dark but I stared at it determinedly, as though it might disappear, wondering how, in tearing through all of his things, I had never found this. I flipped it over. Sylvia, 1994. You look just like her when I imagine you.
I stared at myself in the mirror that evening for hours trying to find something my father was seeing, but the woman in the Polaroid, the stranger with the smile, looked nothing at all like me. My face had grown angular and my eyes more pronounced, but they were still my father’s eyes. I called to thank him but he did not pick up so I sent him a letter by the post and he never did reply. I read in Art in America that he was exhibiting in New York again, and I wondered if he went to visit me at the Met.
One day I sat in on an introduction to photography class and when the teacher mentioned him, he projected one of those pictures of me he took in the woods where I’m at the side of the frame, so small compared to the redwoods, and again my eyes stung with tears I did not understand.
The last letter I received was from The Maison Européenne de la Photographie. No one really wrote letters anymore so I picked it up three days after it had arrived. They told me he had been staying in Paris for a new opening and he had died of some problem with his heart or liver or something I didn’t understand, and they told me I needed to come collect the body. I did not cry.
I left for Paris that evening and it was almost funny because I’d always wanted to go to Paris and he’d always said that if he exhibited there one day he might take me. It was December and it was snowing in the city and it was nothing like the sun-dappled Impressionist daydream I’d imagined it to be and on the afternoon that they burned his body I could feel the winter slipping through my skin to my bones. Chill-induced tears wet my eyes but they were not tears of loss.
I did not cry until I brought his ashes home to our house with the empty walls and even then it was only when I slipped on one of his old jackets that smelled like cigar smoke and found indecipherably scribbled notes in his pockets. I realized then that all his mysteries I had been waiting for him to give me were all gone, disappeared half-way between these Oregon woods and the city of his death, as inexplicable as he was. When I cried the tears stung the edges of my vision and the world was blurry around the edges, just like in my shaky photographs.
His cameras stood still on the shelf, as though waiting for him to come home, soldiers watching for their king.