A Family Album

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689

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...

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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 Camera” section of each image is followed by a sketch of the photographer. Some of the best writing in the book occurs in these six sketches. Bare genealogical statistics—birth date, death date, marital status, birth and death sites—are a cold, factual listing not unlike the items on a tombstone. Yet it is remarkable how quickly, in a few deft lines, life and vitality are given to the bare bones of the four cameramen and the two camerawomen. Absence of visual image minimizes the importance of physical appearances, so there is more emphasis on storytelling and less on critique.

The picturetakers vary greatly in social class and situation. Two generations of a middlebrow family are represented in the characters of John Presley Jarvis and David Barnes Dyer, second and sixth photographers respectively. Jarvis, “Uncle John,” one of the most admirable persons in the novel, is stable, entirely respectable, moderately successful. Much as cameras become outmoded and must be replaced by newer models, Uncle John’s generation is superseded by the next. This feeling of succession is achieved by using young David Barnes Dyer as the sixth photographer. Family names found in earlier portions are repeated in the sixth image. “David,” “James Henry,” “Dorothy Kathlyn”—all common Southern names—serve to give an illusion of continuity, although there is no central plot at all. There are only fragments and small plot outlines employing characters with the same names.

Four of the photographers might have been chosen at random, but close analysis indicates that they are representatives of particular types peculiar to various periods in Southern history. Elihu Zachariah Morton, aimless and shallow, simply exists and lets “life take care of itself.” Predictably, he becomes a photographer by chance but manages to derive both pleasure and profit by picturing “young ladies in swimming suits or underwear” and selling his mass-produced copies to traveling salesmen. The salesman who would have bought Morton’s “art” is the fourth photographer, Cyrus Lawrence MacDonald, coarse, rough, uncouth, purveyor of “everything from heavy-duty serviceables to naughty Parisian novelties,” and a frequenter of whore houses. Nonetheless, MacDonald loves his mother (as much as he can love anyone) and has one almost real romance. In the sketch of MacDonald is reflected the rural, frontier huckster of the South in the early 1900’s.

Two of the most appealing persons in the novel are the camerawomen. It is an amusing surprise to discover a black female photographer in business in the South during the post-Civil War years. In the dilineation of Martha Mary Tupelo Pearl Independence Day McBryde Jackson, antebellum days are recalled. A free black, Pearl lives for forty-two years on a plantation operated much as it has been before the war. Only when the “mistress” dies and the “master” sells the plantation is Pearl truly emancipated. From this point on, Pearl’s adventures with her goat named “General Lee,” a goat cart, and his mistress’ camera bought at auction provide comic relief from the grim realism of most of the sketches. Pearl is never ecstatically happy or cruelly sad; she harbors no hostility toward anyone, is self-sufficient, dependable, and lets life have its way, able somehow to keep her own lens in focus.

Black Pearl and white Juanita Rose Lowndes have many similar characteristics. Juanita, child of a glamorous circus queen and an improvident, indulgent father, was, like Pearl, an accepting child, dependent on others. Both can cope with changing fortune; both are supportive of the men on whom they had depended—Pearl of her master, and Juanita of her father. Juanita finally marries a man who really loves her, and the reader hopes that at least one story may have a happy-ever-after ending, but such hopes are short-lived. The exprize fighter husband dies, Juanita continues to serve others, and finally succumbs to kidney failure. (Galloway never permits a romantic death.)

Each of the six photographs is dissected in astonishing detail. Such absorption with minutiae tends at times to become tedious, but the tedium is outweighed by the brilliant, kaleidoscopic moments of insight caught by the camera’s lens. The storyteller deftly explores the intellect, character, and sex life of every person pictured. Even the dog portrayed with the newsboy has personality and a physical life of his own.

Each individual comes to life replete with a past, present, and future, but the inevitable transience and brevity of existence is suggested in every vignette. “Their moments of joy are so few and so brief that we are right to pause over this rare document.” Humanity’s frailty is implied in the description of Dorothy Kathlyn Jarvis, aged four, as “ruthlessly diminished by parched earth, sky, fields, and woods.” It is particularly frustrating to the reader not to have a good reproduction of this photograph in the book because there is at all times the uncontrollable urge to compare viewer impressions. However, reproduction of the photographs on the jacket is appropriate and appealing.

Enough fragmentary narrative is interspersed with the photographs to tease. A story line is dropped and picked up as quickly as a cameraman can change his lens. At times this changing of direction is disconcerting. For a second the focus is on possible romance and beauty; with a slight shift in angle, there is only crudity, ugliness, disease, and death.

Careful attention has been lavished on style and technique. With each shift in image, there is a shift in time and a successful evocation of mood and memories. The poverty and despair in the South after the Civil War (and still, in some areas) are painfully present in the picture of little Kay. “Jimmy and David” is particularly effective in its nostalgic references to the 1940’s, with all the deprivations of World War II. Galloway’s clever use of letters—T, V, C, U, and S—in this sketch is superb; he even manages to use “Tennessee Valley Authority.” Wartime slogans (“V for Victory”) and organizations (“NRA,” “WPA,”) come to mind. There are occasional indications of Galloway’s appreciation of the works of Henry James and Edgar Allan Poe.

In its freshness of concept and sensitive treatment of subject matter, A Family Album is an extraordinarily successful experiment.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, July, 1978, p. 103.

Christian Science Monitor. April 21, 1978, p. 26.

New Republic. CLXXVIII, May 13, 1978, p. 37.

New York Times Book Review. April 16, 1978, p. 15.

New Yorker. LIV, May 15, 1978, p. 157.

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