Susan Faludi’s book In the Darkroom is a grand voyage around identity. She writes about personal, family and national identity, about sexual and gender identity, about religious and political affiliations. The subject matter was provided by her own father, the renowned photographer and retoucher and his sex reassignment surgery. How did a historian of photography read Faludi’s book? BY KÁROLY KINCSES.
As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal arts aficionado I have been labelling the various aspects of photography since adolescence. As a result, I possess a shoe box full of paper tags related to sections of works of literature, poems, short stories, novels and essays that have to do with photography. During the years I hoarded a fair amount of these, a fact I only realised when I entered the hand- or type-written notes into my first computer one by one. This far from uplifting task gave me the chance to realize that as a photomuseologist not only do I see the world differently (as a continuously growing collection of potential still images) but I also read with a different brain. No, I do not suffer from professional tunnel vision, I read Nádas, Ulitskaya or Krúdy like the average reader but… But when Nádas gets to Márta Redner in his plot, for instance, the alarm goes off in my head, and I instantaneously switch to photo historian mode without thinking. I jot things on the margin, I pile small, uniform sized slips of paper covered with scribbling by my bedhead… And then I of course read on, I let myself be swept away according to the author’s intentions, which is after all what I signed up for when purchasing the book. But the scattered morsels do make it into the big bag, they become parts of the melting pot that is the history of photography for me.
It is no different in the case of the book called In the Darkroom. I read, there is an occasional knock on the door, I stop, I extract that part, make notes, place it somewhere else, and then I read on. Nothing wrong with that. But now that I have to make that automatic process palpable, I begin to wonder in how many ways an intricate book like that can be read. And I don’t even mean the obvious difference between an external spectator and someone who is in some way involved in the story. If somebody or their loved one is implicated by the text, their understanding and interpretation will naturally be different. But would someone preoccupied with the topic of transgenderism, who skims over the photographic references close to my heart and pays close attention when encountering his or her subject matter, read the same text as me? That topic does pop up often, so he or she can pay attention a lot. But the book can be read as a man or a woman, as a feminist or a macho, as a Jew or an anti-Semite, as an emigrant or as one who remains, as someone interested in the question of identity and in many other ways. One can read it as a patriot and see it as a book reflecting on the Homeland through eyes born abroad, one can read it is as a historical and contemporary stream of text. One thing is for sure, this often puzzling book provides ample opportunities for all that, as it is almost untangleably intricate. The photographer father emigrates, builds his career in the USA, and becomes an expert in manual manipulation of photographs, a skill that is rendered worthless overnight due to the activities of software engineers in the digital photography business. As a result of domestic violence he is forbidden to live with his wife, son and daughter, he leaves America and returns to Hungary, or comes home, as some readers will understand it, and goes through a sex change. A certain number of readers may be fascinated by the sex reassignment, as we accompany this far from agreeable person through his transformation, and through the eyes and narration of his daughter to top it all. This daughter is of course a character, and one of the leading characters at that, of the text, just like the dad, but that is just yet another road of interpretation I merely wanted to give a glimpse of.
To me the most intriguing aspect of the book is the title, In the Darkroom. For a permanent resident of the darkroom, this place is the lair of Secrets, where anything and also its opposite can happen, a place where I am alone with the Thing, where I observe it, while also moulding it. Nothing is certainly the way I believe it to be in there, and only after emerging from the darkroom will things become clear. If then.
These were my thoughts after reading the book as a photomuseologist.
Translated by Péter Papolczy