On Photos in Biographies
I woke up a few mornings ago to a text message from a close friend who told me she was re-reading Franny and Zooey, and had just finished the first portion, Franny. You might imagine that a piece of literature isn't the greatest topic for 7am, but for me, 7am is the same as 7pm if we're talking about Salinger. I fumbled around in the bathroom while we texted back and forth about Salinger and his interest in Eastern philosophy and religion, my hands simultaneously juggling a mascara rod and my cell phone. In one of my first blog posts I mentioned that I was reading the latest Salinger biography, a book of hundreds of pages of photos, letters, and interviews, all attempting to unwind the mysteries of Salinger's life. Did the authors pull it off? I couldn't tell you, because I didn't finish reading it. I read the parts about Salinger's childhood, his time in WWII, his first love that went on to marry Charlie Chaplin (had to buy that biography too) - and right when the authors were about to start pulling the pieces together to make sense of Salinger, I stopped. Supposedly he got disillusioned with fame and his fans and dropped out of the limelight because people weren't able to separate him from his work, but that is a whole different topic. If he had given permission for his biography to be written, I'd have finished it. So what are we talking about?
When I look at an old photograph, I can see an entire world unfold. Upon picking up Salinger for the first time, I read the inside cover and the back cover, and quickly flipped through the photographs inside searching for what might have been an average day in his life.
There's an iconic image of Salinger that's arguably his most widely recognized portrait. It's used in things like college lecture presentations and for Salinger's Wikipedia page:
This is such a strange portrait to me because the aged Salinger, the one who lived in the woods in New Hampshire away from the public eye, would never have sat and posed the way young Salinger did here. I can't say for sure, but I imagine this photo was taken for an author's bio some time after he grew famous. In this photograph he's well dressed, has dreamy eyes, a demure smile; it's the face of a young man looking forward to the next thing in life.
The portrait was obviously meant for public eyes. Every aspect was controlled and carefully curated. And it's the photo most commonly used to match a face to his name - that is, up until Salinger was published and made into a documentary film. More photos were discovered while the writers sought after Salinger.
How very different is this portrait, published on the backside of the book jacket of Salinger?
This is a casual man living his life during WWII overseas in Europe. Perhaps his friend Paul Fitzgerald shot this photo.
My mind wandered one night as I stared at this picture, imagining the man he was before his writing career took off, before he returned home from the war a changed person. Young and full of expectation, not yet aware of the shape his life would take. Already he was writing like crazy and sending pieces for publication back home in the states. How could he know that this photo would one day, far into the future, be printed on the back of a biography he didn't give permission to be written? He became irresistible to fans everywhere.
I don't mean to romanticize Salinger here - although I've probably done this and can't go back now - but I do mean to illustrate that photographs can make me acutely aware of the passing of time, and change within a person.
The man pictured above lounges so casually, smiles so freely, compared to the picture that is painted of him in his later years.
I experienced a similar retrospective moment a few weeks ago as I started reading Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs biography. On the cover of my book (there are a few different versions) is a picture of Jobs staring straight into the camera, young and unaware of what accomplishments he might make, failures he might endure, relationships he might burn and build. Unlike Salinger, Jobs even looks smug.
These portraits are remnants of the gap between ideas and their realization. The combination of photos and biographies - or maybe just true stories - do the work of demystifying humans and their choices.
Is this deep enough for a Wednesday afternoon?