06 November 2014

Father's Face

This beautiful image of James Baldwin appeared in my FaceBook feed today. It contrasts sharply with photos of my father I revisited this morning while clearing my desk. While all the pathos, passion and drama of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concert exploded on the CD player, I stared at the three images:  two of them taken from a distance and a closer shot on his front porch. His face is indistinct in all of them. "I don't have a single decent photo of my father," I thought.

It requires special attention and intention to capture photos of dark-skinned people. Formal school photos were never a problem but as a minor celebrity in my small town, my picture appeared in the newspaper from time to time. I hated those pictures:  they were always either under-lit or over-lit, turning my face into either a featureless dark blob or a mosaic of shine and shadow.

My name in the caption and, in the best cases, the recognizable pattern of whatever I was wearing were the only clearly identifiable features of the photo.

The Baldwin photo was likely shot by a professional photographer, but there's more than the quality of photo or the skill of the photographer contributing to my dissatisfaction with these photos of my father. I struggle to see my father's face even when I'm with him. It is in part my reluctance to read the pain of his life written there. And it is also a reluctance to read the pain of my life that I project onto his face.

I look at the Baldwin photo, and the several others of him that have appeared recently as part of an ongoing celebration of him this year in New York, and I see pain; but he is not my father. I also see triumph and intellectual vibrancy in Baldwin's face. The Baldwin photographs reveal an artist, a complex human, a black man.

My sister, who is currently willingly estranged from my father, is sending me a camera. It was to be a bon voyage gift for the trip to Brazil. I decided this morning I will make a trip "home" in the next few months and attempt to take a decent photo of my father...if he'll allow it. I'm ready now to see him, to read whatever's there in his face, in his eyes.