David Gilbert ~ A Life in Photos


She demand­ed an expla­na­tion.  At the photographer’s request, she stood next to him and smiled at the cam­era until it flashed but she was not in the pho­to.  The pho­tog­ra­ph­er was adamant that some­thing was wrong with her not his cam­era.  He took anoth­er pho­to­graph with her hold­ing a stuffed bear. Then he took her by the arm — as if incom­pe­tent —  and showed her the bear float­ing in the cen­ter in the pho­to with no one hold­ing it.  She said that she need­ed pass­port pho­tos and refused to believe that she couldn’t be pho­tographed. He asked her to leave.

She lat­er claimed that she did leave the stu­dio with pho­tos. She got her new pass­port and lived abroad for many years. The sto­ry, she said, was a joke among friends that had become apoc­ryphal as inter­est grew in oth­er extant pho­tos. 


We should start with the pho­to­graph that was includ­ed in the pro­mo­tion­al mate­ri­als for the award cer­e­mo­ny.  This often-used pho­to is a hand­some shot with a hank of lus­trous hair slight­ly unbal­anc­ing the frame, as if the hair were heav­ier than her head.  Otherwise, her sen­su­al gaze is intel­li­gent and we are con­fi­dent that if she began talk­ing, lacon­i­cal­ly or on one of the occa­sions where she could not stop talk­ing, her intel­li­gence and wit would be appar­ent to those who fol­lowed her work and award­ed her the prize.


After the “lec­ture pho­to” the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of her life became errat­ic, chronol­o­gy and place are uncer­tain.  It start­ed with an ear­ly pho­to that was an excuse or an event to present the image as if it were in a con­stant state of flux, unrec­og­niz­able and non­per­son­al.  One com­men­ta­tor has com­pared the image to that of a school project where stu­dents glue beans on a piece of con­struc­tion paper.  In online dis­cus­sions, words such as aggre­gate, gran­u­late, pix­i­lat­ed and pointil­lis­tic have been used to argue in turgid prose that small parts have a rela­tion to the whole.


Her hair changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly over the years, as if she want­ed to make it the sub­ject.   In some of the pho­tos there are as many as three han­ks of hair.  The side han­ks resem­bled the states of Florida and California, long, not con­tigu­ous and yet clear­ly mapped.  The top hank has the qual­i­ty of a pom­padour that had lost its bind­ing agent and has suc­cumbed to a mod­est com­bover.  In her think­ing, the com­bover con­flat­ed with the burnt-over, like the cool exhaus­tion of a lava bed.


The “lec­ture” pho­to is often com­pared to anoth­er pho­to, one that was unin­ten­tion­al­ly hero­ic.  Her pose is that of a fig­ure in a mur­al depict­ing a culture’s foun­da­tion­al scenes, as often seen in eth­nic restau­rants. Standing by the rail of a bal­cony with crude­ly turned balus­ters, she is forced to lean pre­car­i­ous­ly under a pressed tin ceil­ing.  She looks as if she has been work­ing in one of the upstairs rooms and has stepped out to call to some­one below.  Her bodice has a reveal­ing and exag­ger­at­ed bulge.   It may have been a pho­to tak­ing on vacation.


In anoth­er bodice pho­to, she is seat­ed with a stiff mus­tache attached to her upper lip. She holds a gun and appears to be hap­py with the sil­ly role change.  The view­er could imag­ine that she has just shot a whisky bot­tle off the end of the bar to get everyone’s atten­tion and will make a state­ment when the saloon is quiet.


The most talked-about pho­to is of her wav­ing the ado­les­cent fin­ger.  This “ges­ture” series resem­bles “self­ies” but are thought to have been tak­en before phones had cam­eras.   The oth­er ges­tures include the peace sign, thumbs up, pinkie and index fin­ger and the much-argued pinkie and thumb — hook ‘em horns.  In all of the pho­tos she main­tains the insou­ciant “self­ie” expres­sion that seems to be chang­ing  into a sneer.  Her hair is oiled, combed back and tied tight­ly.  She wears the same striped sweater in all the photos.


In what are thought to be the pho­tos of old age, she looks tired, if not dis­traught.  She doesn’t seem to have the will to turn away from the cam­era.  In one she appears to have a speech bub­ble or liq­uid mass mov­ing slow­ly out of her mouth.  She is explain­ing some­thing for an extend­ed peri­od of time and is tir­ing of the sub­ject that is retreat­ing — “recalled” — and con­dens­ing in an area around her mouth. People around her have time to observe, even mon­i­tor the liq­uid mass, yet still step away.  It has been said that it is the mak­ing of a death mask gone bad.


The “pig­tail” or obit­u­ary pho­to­graph is the most con­tro­ver­sial, yet it has been authen­ti­cat­ed by friends at the time of death.  The pho­to was pub­lished with an appre­ci­a­tion in a small arts mag­a­zine by some­one who claimed to have known her in her last years, yet many of the bio­graph­i­cal details are in dis­pute.   She nev­er lived in Germany.

The famous head of hair is twist­ed into whisk-like pig­tails stick­ing out the sides of her head, as if the mor­ti­cian were caught hav­ing fun.  She is smil­ing with a ghost vital­i­ty that has lead many to believe that she rose to the occa­sion and par­tic­i­pat­ed in one last hair joke.


David Gilbert’s sto­ries have been pub­lished in New World Writing, Blip, Mississippi Review Online, First Intensity, In Posse and oth­er mag­a­zines. He has two books of fic­tion:  Five Happiness and I Shot the Hairdresser.  He cur­rent­ly works as a teacher’s aide in an ele­men­tary school.