Rochelle Ratner "Hide and Seek" introduction

Think of your life as a photo album. You see a picture of yourself on the swing, and suddenly you remember pushing your sister on that swing, your mother pushing you, the time you fell off the swing, the summer you left that house... One simple snapshot, but if it's in focus everything else comes into view.

That's what I've tried to stress when teaching beginning writing students, usually older adults. And, like many writers, as I look through the record my parents kept of my early life, the most important moments seem to be those the camera didn't capture:

The four- or five-year-old, too young to read, who spent what seemed like hours sprawled on the gray wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room leafing through a cream-covered photo album with black pages, photos placed six to a page with black corner tabs.

What happened after that is blurry. At some point I learned to read the captions my mother wrote below each photo in white ink, always in the child's voice (as Karl Young pointed out, this was probably my introduction to persona). Her handwriting was one of the few things she was proud of.

There was a photo of myself in the bathtub that I tore up, embarrassed. It had been my mother's favorite.

Another sharply focussed Kodak moment that's missing from the album: me as a nine-year-old throwing what was probably the worst tantrum ever. It was Sunday, and my parents announced we were going to the beach where my grandfather ran a beach chair concession. And they were taking the camera. I cried that I didn't want to go to the beach, I didn't like the beach. But I recall distinctly not being able to say what I really felt: that I looked awful in a bathing suit, and didn't want to be photographed.

After age six or so, there aren't many pictures.

Most of these poems, not surprisingly, focus on my early childhood. They were all written during a two-month period in 1977, when I was in the middle of working on the mermaid poems which later made up my volume Combing The Waves. A friend talked about the photographer Melissa Shook, who was at that point documenting her life by taking a photo of herself every day. I was looking for a way to get close to myself, to step out of the mermaid persona, and this image of taking a photo of yourself every day hit home. Why not work from an old photo of myself every day for a month, or two months? Just to see what would happen.

From the 60 poems I drafted, 23 were printed in a small 300- copy edition by Ommation Press, along with some of the photos and some experimental, quasi-autobiographical prose pieces. Those poems are reprinted here with all the photos, plus two poems that hadn't been in the first volume. I left out "The Daughters" because it seemed too sensitive an issue. I don't know why I never published "Halloween" until now.

When Hide & Seek was published in 1980, I was closing the door on that aspect of my life. Upon completion of other projects, I carefully stored the source materials with drafts of poems; here I shoved some of the photos in a drawer, placed others back in the album. I had to search everywhere before finding the poems I'd left out of the original edition, and three of the original photos are still missing.

Photography has been an important factor in my adult life. During the early 1970s , I rented out a long, narrow closet in my apartment to a photographer who used it as a darkroom. Often, when she was taking a break from printing, we'd walk around the city together. As I watched the shots she took, I began to see first with her eye, then with my own. I bought a camera soon after that, and discovered myself becoming geometric, interested not in objects, but in the angles they formed with each other.

I seldom took photos of people.

Let me correct myself -- I did take photos of people. I still do. They just aren't posed, that's all; my subjects don't have to stand there while I line up a shot the way my father did. Off and on for the past two or three years, I've been working on a novel that has to do with the homeless who fill the streets of New York City. I've taken a camera around with me several days, one of those film-in-the-camera throwaways that's always in focus, and snapped shots of people curled up in doorways or searching for bottles to return for five cents apiece. I had many of these scanned into my computer, with the intention of playing with them, distorting them, hoping whatever they turned into would inspire new imagery.

I've been working on other fiction, and the entire homeless project has been temporarily shelved. The photos are still in the computer, I still walk around with the camera every so often. But now it's a digital camera.

That process of distortion I'd planned for others has been turned on myself. I called the old childhood photos up in various photo programs, and proceeded to enlarge, erase, combine, recolor, posterize , blur -- basically follow the mouse around my desktop until new figures emerged from the old. Whereas in 1977, writing the poems, I was still angry at my parents, here I am 20 years after that, deconstructing these records of my former self.

And learning new facets of myself. One interesting aspect of scanning these photos into the computer was that they're enlarged. One can concentrate on specific areas, and new things are revealed. The most significant revelations came when studying the photos accompanying "Pictures With Diane" and "Winter".

Notice, if you will, that Diane's wearing the dark snowsuit in the first, I'm wearing the same snowsuit in the photo that accompanies "Winter". Nothing so unusual. Diane's 15 months older than I am, and I frequently wore clothes she'd outgrown. But looking closely at the scanned photo, I questioned if that might not be Diane with the snowman. Look at the way she's holding her head, her lips, her arm.

My father confirmed, beyond a doubt, that I was the one with the snowman. Still, the similarity, that initial confusion, haunts. My cousin stood for everything I disliked. Did I really, unconsciously, adopt some of her mannerisms? Certainly the child in the picture did.

When I had nearly completed my first, highly autobiographical, novel (Bobby's Girl), a friend read the manuscript and commented he didn't like the end. He talked me through the problem and, in the process, I realized that what was right for my life was not necessarily appropriate for this character I'd given birth to. The process of working with these photos has been similar. What "I the child" felt, experienced, or understood is not necessarily appropriate to the child in the picture. When some of these manipulated images began to appear horrific I could continue working on them without feeling threatened. There's is a lot of anger in the poems and pictures which follow; there's also a lot of love.

Rochelle Ratner
April 13, 1997

This work has been set up so that the reader moves in a narrative line through texts and images. To go forward from an image, click on the image; to move forward from a text, press the arrow at the bottom of the page. We set it up this way so that images appear as though they were looming up in memory or in dreams, images that have to be pushed through. Texts in this case are more rational and conscious entities, logically structured, and requiring a deliberate and conscious act of direction.

That said, let's have a look

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