Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brigitte Carnochan: Imagining the Past
Most people take for granted the family albums through which they can access memories, recall relatives and revisit emotions. Brigitte Carnochan, however, had to create her own photo album as a means of reclaiming her family history. Born in Worms, Germany, in 1941, she spent her first six years in the dark shadow of the Second World War. She was separated from her natural father at 18 months, and following her parents’ 1947 divorce, her mother married an American soldier and immigrated to the United States. Mother and stepfather rarely spoke about the war while Brigitte was growing up, casting a further cloud about her memories of those years. But then she received a letter from her German father in 1976, a man she had never really known, and after exchanging numerous letters finally met him in person. Their relationship helped to open a few windows onto her past, but it wasn’t until her mother and her two fathers passed away that Brigitte began to actively investigate her childhood events and memories through the medium of photography. The result of that journey is a powerful, affecting and thought-provoking series titled “Imagining Then: A Family Story 1941-47.”

Brigitte Carnochan

Did you begin this series after your parents passed away?
Yes. By 1999 they had all died — my German father, my American stepfather and my mother. I wish I had started the project much sooner, because it would have been wonderful to be able to ask them questions that I didn’t think of until I began sorting through the images and papers. About five years before he died I had encouraged my stepfather, who had turned to writing in his retirement, to write about his war experiences, which he did with great enthusiasm. The autobiographical sketches were never published, but I was able to use some of his descriptions in my photos.

How long did you work on this series?
It’s hard to answer this question. I began this project in 1997. I re-photographed snapshots, ephemera and documents and attempted to layer them into the sort of images that had been floating in my imagination for some time. But I was trying to do these things with film and in the darkroom, and after several months, I knew I couldn’t realize my vision in that way. Time passed — ten years, in fact. I had slowly been acquiring basic proficiency with Photoshop through workshops and manuals. But there was always too much else to do, and I felt I had to clear the decks and focus on this project alone. That opportunity came when I had shoulder surgery in 2007, which limited the movement of my right arm for about six months. I couldn’t use a camera, but I could scan images and work on the computer. Work on the project became all-consuming. Things fell together. I dreamed images and made sketches in the middle of the night. I read histories of the war and autobiographies and novels about personal journeys — psychological and real — that the war enforced. This project is a journey back to those years, so I can go forward.

No Shelter

The work seems primarily about your memories, and/or your attempt to reclaim or come to grips with them. Does it also incorporate the memories of your parents?
Yes, that’s true. I draw on my own memories of those years. But since they comprise my first six years, there are serious limitations to what I can remember. I do have a very early memory, one that surprised my mother when I told her. I remember being in a wicker bassinette with red-and-white-checked lining. I suppose what makes this memory so vivid, even though I was less than a year old, was that during air raids we took shelter in the basement. When the air raid was over, the adults went back to bed but left the children sleeping in the basement. I remember the dark and the sound of the metal shutters on the ground-level basement windows clanging.

My parents didn’t often talk about those years as I was growing up. I spoke to an American cousin recently who told me that she will never forget the story my mother told her about being on a train with me as a baby in her arms. The train was stopped by German soldiers and everyone was told to get out and hide under a bridge just ahead, as there was going to be bombing. My mother said she was so terrified that she stayed on the train, refusing to get under the bridge. The bridge was bombed and everyone under it was killed. She never told me that story.

Drive to the Rhine

Do you retain strong memories of your early life in Germany?
Rather than strong specific memories, since I was only six years old when I came to the U.S., I have cinematic impressions: walking to the shop a few blocks from home where I picked up the milk ration in a tin pail, and swinging it over my head as I’d seen the older kids do; filching tomatoes with my friend from my grandmother’s garden and vinegar from her cupboard (these were precious items) to make a salad with my German best friend, Ellen; sitting in the schoolyard wishing I could go to school. Typical kid-type memories.

Did you experience a sense of catharsis when you finished the series?
Throughout the last year on the project, as I was working on one image or another, reading and sorting through the snapshots and documents, there were many moments, not of catharsis, but enlightenment. Something would become clear for me that I hadn’t understood before. I learned a little more about my parents each time I worked on these images. At the end, I felt a sense of achievement. On the other hand, I’m not finished with the project completely. I’d like to put the images together in a book, add more images that I still have in my mind, and add text. But 37 images was already too many for exhibition, so I’ve stopped for the time being. I’m considering this phase one. 

Can you talk about how these images are put together from a technical perspective?
Sure. As I said above, I first tried this in the darkroom. That didn’t really give me the kind of flexibility I needed. But I found it hard to retain new Photoshop knowledge that I gained in classes and workshops because I didn’t have time to use what I learned. So over the past ten years I’ve taken probably a dozen classes or workshops, each time remembering a few things even though I didn’t use them in the painted still-lifes and nudes I was doing for gallery exhibitions during those years (and continue to do).

The Day I Brought You Home

I began each image with an idea that was triggered by looking at a snapshot or document: What was it about? What did it reveal about the time in my life, and in history? For example, a few years before she died, my mother sent me a picture of her holding me as a baby, with the bridge over the Rhine in the background. Her note that accompanied the photo told me that the tower of the bridge was no longer there because it had been bombed. So I combined that image, the note and an old etching of the bridge we’d had on the wall in our home for as long as I can remember in “The Day I Brought You Home.” For me, those elements say a lot about who my mother was and the time she lived in. Some of her fondest memories were swimming in the Rhine with her friends; she had been an Olympic-level swimmer. In the photo, she’s on her own, trying to protect a baby in the midst of a cataclysmic war.

What was it like to produce a series using appropriated imagery rather than images you created?
It was exciting, scanning images and documents and even actual objects, and combining them in Photoshop, painting in Photoshop, using text in the image itself. It’s all so different from what I’ve done in the past, and was completely rejuvenating. When I went back to making still-lifes, I felt they had changed — my vision had changed. I’m not sure I could describe it, but I can recognize it in the new work.

Can you describe some of the non-photographic elements used, and why you incorporated them?
I’ve thought of this as a narrative from the beginning, so it seemed quite logical to include text and allusive, symbolic elements to suggest meanings outside the frame of the image. I wanted to make the images as metaphorically layered as possible, not just literally layered. The pressed rosebud in “Keep Them in Your Heart” is from a page in our family album from about 1946, next to a picture of my mother and stepfather. I assume he gave her the flower. There was so much scotch tape over it that it was preserved quite well. Roses are rich in symbolism and it seemed a perfect addition to that image. One of my stepfather’s favorite poets (though he was Irish) was Robert Burns: “My love is like a red, red rose,” etc. I know that red roses were always my mother’s favorite flower.

Keep Them in Your Heart

Does the visual layering allude to how past and present intersect, or perhaps to how truth and memory are layered and interpreted according to one’s perspective?
Yes, indeed. That’s the whole point of using this technique. How we view our own history is very subjective, of course. I grew up as an only child. But when I met my half-brother and sister the first time I became very much aware of what siblings know well, that family history is remembered differently depending on who is doing the remembering.

The series as a whole has a very muted palette: did you add any hand coloring?
Most of the color comes from the actual colors in the documents and objects I scanned: the blue from the stationery my German father used, the yellow from the old documents, and the browns from faded old photographs. So once the palette was established by those elements, I stayed within it when I added color — which I occasionally did — as in “Moved, Address Unknown.”

You’ve written that you like to complicate issues of truth. Is that also the case with this series, in that you haven’t tried to make the imagery too specific, too explanatory?
I don’t remember saying it exactly that way. But I do have a strong appreciation of the subjective nature of “truth” in general, especially photographic truth. Photographs tell different truths that, taken together, do not approach “the” truth. Especially in personal history. In these images I wanted to allude to my own story, but not so specifically that it was a story only about me. The story in this series is one that, with variations here and there, could apply to thousands of other people’s stories, about war and its consequences, about loss, about the nature of memory itself. And certainly, because these images were taken in Germany, about guilt and responsibility and the possibilities for redemption. W. G. Sebald, who has written so movingly and intelligently about exile, memory and loss, describes in his book On the Natural History of Destruction the devastation to Germany during the war and asks, “Why does the subject occupy so little space in Germany’s cultural memory?” In my case, I try to evoke what my life was like during those years, for myself as much as for anyone looking at the images, because putting these personal images into a historical context shines a light into areas of my own history that it’s taken me a long time to face.

Between One Life and Another

In any case, the ambiguity helps make the images more universal. Was this also a concern for you?
Exactly. I’ve incorporated photos from unknown war photographers into a number of the images: “Casualties of War” and “Official Rations,” for example. My purpose was to expand the resonance in both directions — inward and outward — personal and universal.

The war is more or less kept in the background in this series; it seems to function primarily as the vehicle triggering separation from homeland and family. To what degree did the war affect your family? Did it play a role in your family’s emigration?
It seems very much in the foreground to me; it’s the context in which the series exists, and defines its beginning and ending points. It was the only reality in those years. My mother and I were living in houses and apartments that were destroyed while we were out; we were very lucky, obviously. When I stayed with my grandparents there were a number of families crowded into their house whose own homes in the neighborhood had been destroyed. My German father left to fight in Africa with Rommel when I was 18 months old. He was taken prisoner there by the Americans and spent the rest of the war, until June 1946, in a succession of POW camps in the U.S. My mother and American stepfather met during the occupation in the summer of 1945 and, after divorcing my German father, my mother married my American father in August 1947. The three of us left Bremerhaven for America in October 1947. I didn’t see my German father again until 1976.

To Hate the Enemy

The mood of this work isn’t as dark as one might expect, given some of the issues and themes in encompasses. Did you deliberately try to steer the mood in a certain direction, or did it evolve naturally?
It was a very dark time, and I think there are some pretty somber images in the series, but I’m at heart a determined optimist, and no doubt that comes through in the series.

How would you relate this work to your documentary imagery?
It’s quite different in purpose and technique. I put this series together in the quiet and privacy of my own studio. I spent a lot of time reading history and reflecting on the composition of each of the images. In a sense, this is a much more cerebral project than any I’ve done before, though it was also emotionally and psychologically challenging. My documentary work is done in the field, with a camera in hand, engaging with my subjects, in the heat of the moment, so to speak. The feeling couldn’t be more different.

Explain Some Other Time

To wrap things up, I’d like to have you comment on a few specific images. In “Explain Some Other Time,” is that a picture of you superimposed over images of your father? It’s as if even at that age, your father is fading from your consciousness.
There are two different men in this image: on the left, my German father, and on the right, my American stepfather. Yes, one father’s image is fading out and the other is fading in. Despite the fact that food at that time (1942) was very scarce, you can see that I was well-fed! The dress I’m wearing was made from scraps from some old dresses of my grandmother’s. 

Love of His Life

What’s the story in “Love of His Life”?
The title comes from a letter from my stepmother sent to me shortly after I was reunited with my German father and his family. It takes a generous-spirited second wife to say such a thing about a first wife. My parents were very young; my mother had just turned 20 when they married. She’s clearly very beautiful, and remained so until her death at 79. The separations caused by the war wreaked havoc on many relationships, including that of my parents. When my mother and American father met, the non-fraternization policy instituted by Eisenhower had just been lifted. My German father was still in a POW camp in the U.S. It was a difficult time.

Beyond the Last Thought

What significance do the headstones have in “Beyond the Last Thought”? Is this meant as a more representative contextual image of the war?
This image is one I took in 1980 in my home town of Worms. The Jewish Cemetery in Worms is the oldest Jewish cemetery still in existence in Europe; it’s remarkably undamaged by the war. There are many things this image alludes to: the Holocaust most prominently, of course. Worms has been a center for the Jewish community in Germany since 1000 CE (Christian Europe). The image of the old woman imposed on the cemetery — the despair in her gesture — speaks to my own response to the Holocaust. It would be impossible to tell the story of these years in Germany without alluding to the Holocaust. But since I have no personal experience of those horrors, I can only suggest them obliquely. Even though I was a child, it is hard, almost impossible, not to feel guilt by association.

Didn't Know the Language

In “Didn’t Know the Language,” do the jumble of letters above the girl’s head represent the English language? Did you experience much fear and anxiety moving to a new country?
The letters refer to the official document that is part of this image, which is the custody document. I didn’t understand that language and I didn’t understand English. When I got to the U.S. and went to my first day of class I experienced what many immigrants then and now find — hostility and rejection. The kindergarten teacher taped my mouth shut with masking tape because I apparently spoke to a girl next to me when I shouldn’t have. Since I couldn’t speak English nor she German, it was a brave effort on both our parts. And when I walked home from school — alone, because both my parents were already working — older children from the school threw empty bottles at me and called me dirty Kraut bastard, words I didn’t understand until my parents translated. That was when I stopped speaking German.

Casualties of War

I’m assuming “Casualties of War” refers to emotional casualties, given that it’s the last picture of your father and you superimposed over what looks like a column of German prisoners.
Yes, emotional casualties. As it says on the image: “The casualties of war remain not only on the battlefield.” My German father was not physically injured in the war, but he, like so many others on all sides and in all wars, suffered deep psychological wounds. The picture of the two of us kissing was one that he carried with him from 1942 to 1976, when I first saw it.

Warbride's Daughter

One of my favorite images is “Warbride’s Daughter.”
My mother and I came to this country on a ship dedicated to warbrides and their children — a ship many stories high with three bunks stacked on top of each other and most women and children (myself included, but not my mother) violently seasick for the for ten days of the crossing. The word “warbride” is such a funny one: “Brides found during the war” I suppose is what it’s meant to imply, but really the women are also the brides of war, having been married to the war for years before being rescued by the soldiers from the winning side. I don’t think the American brides of German POWs in the U.S. were known as warbrides. Though there certainly were POWs who married American women. That there were POWs in this country (hundreds of thousands of them) seems to be a surprising fact to many people. A story waiting for more complete telling — or maybe a movie.

(All images copyright Brigitte Carnochan. You can see the entire “Imagining Then” series at www.brigittecarnochan.com, as well as another series of constructed imagery, hand-painted photos and platinum/palladium images.)