portrait of a reputation

My father moved out that summer. My mother took us to the shore. We stayed on the second floor of a double decker house that we rented a week at a time. There was a wide wooden porch where we sat in the late afternoons until those boys moved in downstairs.

They spotted us as they unloaded their car, pointing fingers at us and calling out: Attack! It’s Pearl Harbor! They ran in circles on the sidewalk, made shooting sounds with their mouths. We were unfamiliar with the names they called us, but we knew they were not kind.

In the mornings, at the beach, we dug deep holes and buried ourselves in sand. Threw beach towels over our heads for as long as we could stand the heat. For a time we were invisible. Inconspicuous mounds eliciting no notice.


Francesca’s brother stands nude in the corner. He is wearing a wolf mask to cover his face. His arms hang down at his sides. A slender boy. They have been playing a game. He is hiding in plain sight.


I too am tired of looking at myself. In this age of tender spectacle.

Sontag calls the camera a predatory weapon – automated, ready to spring. She says to photograph a person is to violate them, see them as they never see themselves.


When she died, she left behind an unpublished artist’s book, a set of five images called “Portrait of a Reputation.”

Of her journals, in her youth, she had asked: “Does it read as a book, one wonders?”


We were child models, actors, and dancers. That summer, from the beach house, we made trips back into the city – first for a small part in a film about China. Then, for a musical. Auditions were long, unglamorous affairs and we sat around in leotards and tights with our hair in topknots for hours. Then, paraded in a line in front of a wall of mirrors. Someone demonstrated a dance combination. We mimicked. A few of us were ushered out, our numbers thinning. Then, a new combination. Then, one at a time.

I was asked to let my hair down. And then hold it up again. Can you make a worried face? Can you look confused? Can you hold your hands to your mouth like you have seen something you wish you could forget?


Elizabeth Gumport: “Her death does not simply cast a shadow over the images, but suffuses them with a strange, spectral light…”

If living is a slow erasure of self, then dying is fixing it in place. Barthes says: “the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”


The boys did not stay long that summer. A few days and then they had packed up again and the sidewalk beneath our porch was again quiet. The battle won or surrendered, it was not quite clear which.

At home, my father was packing the last of his things into cardboard boxes and trash bags. What he left behind: a few plastic hangers in the front hallway closet. A neat pile of matchbooks from neighborhood bars and restaurants.

And later, after he had been gone for weeks, on the floor of his closet, I found something he had perhaps not intended to leave: a faded photograph of myself as a child sitting on his lap. His head is turned away, and I am facing the camera. I am wearing a blue dress, leaning back against his chest.


Barthes might say that the photograph does not restore what has been abolished, but attests that what is represented had in fact, once existed.

Or he might say that experience, itself becomes vulnerable to the effects of its representation.