A Family Album (Magill's Literary Annual 1979)
David Darryl Galloway, distinguished essayist, teacher, lecturer, literary critic, and connoiseur of art, is also a first-rate novelist. A Family Album, unconventional in format and meticulously executed, could well serve as a model for ambitious new writers. With skill and artistry the writer combines in his short book much about the social history of the South since 1880 and the history of photography—an ingenious combination and one which would pose difficulty for anyone less knowledgeable about both.
Leafing through family photographs leads to capricious imaginings about those who operated the cameras and the subjects who posed for the pictures. Not content with authentic identifications, the viewer prefers to analyze completely each detail in the picture before assigning to characters the names they might have had, the lives they might have lived. In interpreting these representations, past, present, and future are considered; emotions and moral attitudes are analyzed; physical characteristics are described.
The mood of the novel is established by a prefatory letter purportedly written in 1832 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) to his son Isidore Niépce. An artful blend of fiction and fact, the letter is introduced by a quotation from an actual letter of October 23, 1829, in which Joseph Nicéphore Niépce agreed to cooperate with Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787-1851) in perfecting Niépce’s heliographic method of producing images. Galloway obligingly fills in gaps which exist in documented accounts of the Niépce-Daguerre partnership. Such wariness between the two men as the novelist describes, however, is entirely credible and makes for good reading.
Several passages in the Niépce letter announce the themes that will be developed in the body of the book. Images, says Nicéphore, may seem “fixed” when they catch one moment forever, but in fact true images can only be fixed after death. Then an accurate assessment can be made. He deplores Niépce’s failure to “fix” an image; but, he ponders, “Are the images of the mind more stable, or do they not undergo similar commutations?” Unlike a photograph, the mind cannot be fixed. What the eye of the mind perceives is the image. The world, he thinks, is not a good judge of people or of true merit: “M. Daguerre’s enthusiasm often overrides his modest sense of propriety and convention, though his perhaps is the tone of the new world. . . .”
In closing the letter, Nicéphore suggests that each generation is subject to the whims of fortune. He cannot correct the mistakes of Claude, or complete what he had hoped to do about fixing images; symbolically, in passing on the ivory miniature of his own mother and the opportunity to continue his own research, Nicéphore passes on the future to Isidore. An editorial note at the close of the preface states that Isidore Niépce lived out his life in poverty despite a pension granted him by the French government in 1839 when the daguerreotype process was recognized by the Academy of Science. The struggles, futility, and near successes of the Niépces announce the prevailing theme in the novel.
A precise format is maintained in constructing the book. With undeviating precision, like the hands of a clock or the dimensions of old photographs, each chapter, or image, conforms to a pattern. There are six images. Each begins with a significant quotation which reflects the philosophy of photography.
The second part of the image, called “The Camera,” includes a detailed physical description and a concise history of each instrument used in producing the picture. Through the cameras is traced the evolution of modern photography. Simple enough to be understood even by the amateur, these descriptions are accurate and complete enough to interest the professional. Inanimate though they are, the cameras might well have been listed with the cast of characters: A Lancaster Instantograph; a Bulls-Eye; a collapsible bellows-type camera by J. Valette; an Argus “Model A”; a 3A Autographic Kodak Special; the Minox.
(The entire section is 1689 words.)
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