Tuesday, July 6, 2010

"Exposure" -- A Book about Death and Photography

Exposure: A NovelThe first thing to have in a library is a shelf. From time to time this can be decorated with literature. But the shelf is the main thing."— Finley Peter Dunne (1867–1936).

Exposure: A Novel by Kathryn Harrison (2006, Random House) would be a fine addition to any shelf. I knew it was about photography from the jacket notes, but as the death parts creeped up on me, it just made the whole experience that much more interesting! The fact that it was a New York Times Best Seller didn't really enter into my decision to buy it, though it does intrigue me that so many people must have purchased it when it was first published.
I guess its a bit unusual for me to write a book review in my blog. What the hell. I picked up a used copy of Harrison's book at a flea market as light reading for a trip. It is anything but. A superbly crafted fictional suspense novel about a mentally ill woman who is the daughter of a famous photographer. She spends her adult life trying to come to terms with her youthful experience of being her father's only model. Sally Mann portraits come to mind.

The book goes heavily into accurate detail regarding photographic gear and processes, as the author skillfully weaves this information seamlessly into the story. An example being the protagonist's great-grandfather, who made a living photographing (and making daguerrotypes of) dead children. This was a common practice in the 1800s, where parents would pay for a final formal photographic portrait of their dear lost child. The great-grandfather lived in the time of cholera, so there was work aplenty. (There is actually a book called "Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America," by Stanley Burns (1990, Twelvetrees) that is a marvelous collection of such death photographs--not for the squeamish!) Might a non-photographer reader find the book's photographic details distracting? Possibly. One could simply ignore (or be impressed by) the technical jargon a la Tom Clancy. However, the story so depends on the subject of photography to provide infrastructure that it seems to me that the reader MUST be fluent in the language to fully appreciate the story!

The book was interesting to me on another level. The mental health issues (e.g. cutting, depression) addressed in the book were familiar to me. For most of my adult life, my friendships have gravitated toward people in the mental health professions. This is for the most part a subconscious thing. I would make friends with someone, then later find out the person is a therapist, psych nurse, psychologist, etc. Call it a flaw in my personality.

In summary, "Exposure," by Kathryn Harrison is a highly entertaining read, and never predictable. If you like death and photography, you might enjoy this. Anyway, that's my subjective opinion. And as Walter Cronkite said, everyone's entitled to my opinion.