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Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America

by Nancy Andrews

San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, unpaginated, $25.00 paper. 

Fathers and Daughters: In Their Own Words, Photographs

by Mariana Cook

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994, 132 pp., $35.00 hardcover, $19.95 paper. 

Reviews by Elsa Dorfman
Originally published in The Women's Review of Books, September 1994

These two books are each very successful at what they do. The title of Nancy Andrews' book, Family, she explains, is slang for "gay" in many parts of the country, and derives from the fact that gay eople turn to others like themselves to form a "family". Andrews wanted to make the book that she looked for eight years ago when she began to realize that she was gay but her head "was filled with only gay stereotypes. These stereotypes didn't fit my self-image," she writes, "and I began to feel the need to learn more about myself and others like me."

Andrews is a photographer for the Washington Post. She stays a little hidden in her book, despite her introduction. There is no picture of her with her camera or her tape recorder, and she tells us only a little bit about her procedure: "As I searched for subjects, I operated under the assumption that I could find gay people anywhere; the only difficulty would be their willingness to be photographed. I wanted to show a reflection of America, from the politician to the Elvis impersonator."

I wish Andrews had said more about how she went about photographing and interviewing - and finding - her subjects. Was this the first time she used a tape recorder? How long were the interviews? What are her ideas about portraiture? How many of the people she photographed did she edit out of the book? How big a part do portraits play in her news photography? Does she consider herself a portrait photographer or a photojournalist? How much of a struggle was it to get this book done while holding down a high-pressure job? Did she meet many people who were reluctant to be photographed?

Judging by the credits at the back of the book, which include 180 people and organizations, it seems that Andrews found her subjects by word of mouth. She was attracted to most of them because of their stories and because they could express themselves, verbally and visually, not because they had a national reputation. Everyone seems very likable. Although she says that almost all of the men she photographed mentioned AIDS (and a few of the women did), a sense of the disease and community loss does not hover over her image or her text. Everyone looks very healthy, even the people who mention that they are infected.

Almost every one of the portraits works perfectly with the text. The images are varied: several are in the person's home or garden or restaurant hangout. Some are classic close-up portraits, but most of Andrews' work shows the versatility of the photojournalist who is interested in the subject's environment as much as the face and body. Each of her people becomes a short story, mostly about coming out to family and friends or dealing with the workplace. Her portraits make me want to read what the people have to say and the interviews make me scrutinize the portraits.

I wished, though, that the interviews had gone beyond the allotted page or so. Bruce Hayes, who won a medal in the 1984 Olympics, comments: I began suspecting I was gay when I went to college, but I really repressed it. Swimming was a good way to do that because I had my head in the water six hours a day. I just didn't think about it. Swimming provided a convenient excuse. I certainly was aware that I was attracted to other men at that time. But that was too scary a thought to actually put into action. I was in an environment, sports, which is very homophobic, very competitive, very cutthroat in many ways. It's not something I thought I could handle and compete at the same time. Ruth Ellis was born in 1899 and lived with her girlfriend, Babe Franklin, for 34 years. Babe was a cook and Ruth ran a print shop out of their house. Babe died in 1975; now Ruth lives in a senior citizens' building in Detroit.

I guess I knew I was a lesbian in high school because I fell in love with my gym teacher. Now, she didn't know it though, but that was my love. I couldn't do anything, just admired her, that's all. All to myself. I didn't know anything about lesbian or gay people. I tried to find out what we did. I tried to hang around some sportin' women because I figured they would know, but they just laughed me off. They wouldn't tell me nothin'.

Jean Mills and Carol Eichelberger farm the land Jean's father cleared by hand with a mule. The two provide organically grown vegetables for the one hundred families in the Tuscaloosa County Community Supported Agriculture, a coop the couple created four years ago. Carol writes:

Jean may be living up here with this strange woman, but she is doing something that they recognize and value. They'll come by and say, "Remember those collards you gave me last year? Well, you have any of 'em this year?" These old men, they always talk. They'll have garden talk. They'll want to know what we've got up.

Glenn Burke is one of my favorite portraits and interviews in the book. He played with the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series and reports that the Dodgers offered him a bonus if he would get married. Not long after that he was traded to Oakland, and after a few years with the A's, he left professional baseball.

The first time it registered that I liked men I was in a mixed bar and there were men dancing with men. I said, "Ah-hah, I finally found it." I thought I was the only gay person in the world...I had to be a little bit better just in case they did find out. I was always thinking about it... In 1978, when I got traded to the Oakland A's, a player came up to me and said, "They're talking and saying that you're gay. I don't care if you are or not, you're still my friend." You can imagine how that made me feel. So I didn't find out until after I got to Oakland that the gossip was I was gay and that's why the Dodgers traded me. It takes a lot to play professional baseball. It was more fun getting there than being there.

Since Andrews had her younger self in mind when she set out to do the book, it surprised me that only a third of the portraits are of women and that only one young woman was included. I also thought that since the book was intended to be inspiring for gay people it was odd that Andrews used portraits and interviews of people who didn't want to be identified by name at all or who would only be identified by their first names. Other people are obscured by their pet or instrument or the lighting - or they're photographed from the back or from the head down. The photographs work as portraits, but they send a weird, contradictory message. The portrait without the head is one of a man holding the infant (its back to the camera) he fathered with a lesbian couple. It's a big country, and I know that there are many such families who would have been happy to face the camera.

A lot of people are photographed without their partners, though it's clear from the interviews that they have a partner. But if Andrews was trying to show how gay life works and that gay life does work, and if she was trying to show the expanded notion of "family," it would have made sense to include many more partners. By only mentioning them, she ends up implying that some of those close to her subjects didn't want to be identified as a gay partner or as part of a gay family. It gives a paradoxical sense of singleness to a book called Family.

The book, although five dollars more than Mariana Cook's, isn't as well designed, edited, or produced, and is narrower and shorter by an inch or so. That inch really matters, because almost half of the images in the book run across the gutter in the middle by just about an inch. It is impossible to get a sense of integrity of the image when that happens. In almost every case the images could have been cropped close to the gutter without compromising them.

Mariana Cook takes portraits of fathers and daughters. The impetus for her book came from her strong attachment to her father , who was 45 years old when she was born, and is now in his eighties. "[I]t occurred to me," she writes,

that he could not live forever. My best friend was aging. I became fascinated with every father and daughter I saw. I was anxious to understand their feelings for each other and wondered if their experiences were similar or different from ours. These pictures were made as an exploration. (p. 130)

Fathers and Daughters includes seventy dad/daughter combos. Everyone is identified by their profession and where they live. The effect of these apparently simple tag lines is to give the book an upper-class air and to suggest that nobody in this book is, god forbid, without accomplishment. Nobody has a boring job and nobody lives in a boring place.

The book doesn't pull you in much beyond the portraits, though these are very good. Cook is an experienced portrait photographer. Occasionally her subjects are in a leafy garden which has an enclosed feeling to it, but her preference is to photograph people in front of a jet-black background, which also creates an intimate arena. (When, rarely, she strays from a stage she is less successful.) Her subjects are impeccably lit, making them all look wonderful. Sometimes the studio lighting is absolutely unearthly in its contrast with the enveloping blackness of the background, as in the portrait of printer Thomas Palmer of Newport and his daughters Luned and Rosamund.

Of course, there are startling resemblances: Jacques Attali, a writer from Paris, and his daughter Bethsabee; David Ankrum, an actor in Los Angeles, and daughter Challee; New York art dealer Leo Catelli and his daughter Nina Sundell, an arts administrator and curator. A few of the pairs allow for some humor: writer Niccolo Tucci and his daughter Maria Gottlieb, the actress; The Very Reverend James Parks Morton and Sophia Morton, the actress; New Mexico writers Charles and Carola Bell; Paris booksellers Andre and Isabelle Jammes.

The camera comes in close, friendly, interested mostly in the faces and the affectionate bond. Just about every pair seems very proud of each other and comfortable together. Comfort seems to be what the book is about. The exception is the portrait of writer Carlos Fuentes and his daughter Natasha, who, he writes, is in a final, painful moment of adolescence. The portrait shows Natasha's pain, partly because its composition is unbalanced (the only such image in the book). The text, written by Carlos, is beautiful but whiny - all about his disappointment in Natasha, his errors in bringing her up, his fears for her and at the same time his admiration: "But now she has become so beautiful that she also occupies my imagination and my next novel, La Novia Muerta, is dedicated to her, to her enigma." Couldn't Cook cajole a few words from Natasha? (Even "Give me a break" would have done it.)

The subtitle of Fathers and Daughters is "In Their Own Words," which seems to mean that Cook sent her subjects a questionnaire and edited their replies. Too bad, because this is the weakest part of the book. (A few people - mathematician Israel Gelfand, cellist YoYo Ma, poet Derek Walcott and Senator Bill Bradley - apparently didn't get theirs in on time.) Cook would have had a more substantial book if she had interviewed her subjects herself or if she had worked with her subjects herself or if she had worked with a collaborator who did the interviewing and provided the text.

Most of the fathers adore their daughters, are mystified by them, wish they were closer, feel they know unearthly secrets. Attali wrote:

Her questions are coming from the end of the ages. Her silences are the slow heritage of uncertain millenniums [sic]. Her words are whispered as if she knew for a very short time all that - too soon - life will make her forget. Her answers, coming from the distant future, help me to understand what I desperately try to grasp from a flying past. (p.25)

The fathers of older women are glad their worrying days are over and that their daughters turned out okay. What else is new? And most of the daughters think they have the best daddy in the world. Composer Rebeca Mauleon of San Francisco writes her dad Isodoro, a professor of Spanish literature:

My father is unlike any other person I know. If I had to choose adjectives to describe him, I guess those that would be somewhat appropriate include intelligent, wise, sensitive, hot-tempered, impatient, passionate, eccentric, creative, and proud, just to name a few. (p.112)

Some of the text goes beyond chitchat. Cultural anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano and Aleksandra wrote a dialogue. Colin Salmon, the English actor, sent a song his mother sang to him; composer Allen Shawn and Annie wrote a score. The most interesting and thoughtful daughter response is from Nancy Blackmun Coniaris, a clinical psychologist in New York City and daughter of The Honorable Harry A. Blackmun, retired Supreme Court Justice. At two pages it is longer by far than the others, and shows how wonderful the text of this book might have been.

It is exciting, and I am proud, but there are costs. It is impossible, for example, to separate out whether, or how much, it matters to some people whose daughter I am. Such a parent becomes a kind of commodity, and arrangements with others and within oneself can begin to feel more like business deals than relationships. There is also living in his shadow. No matter what one does, it can't compare. Perhaps the hardest thing is having to compete with the nation's business. Who am I in the face of issues affecting whole big groups, even millions of people? (p.80)

Neither Andrews nor Cook talks about carrying out her project in terms of being a woman portrait photographer. In fact, neither book calls attention to the fact that it is the work of a woman. Cook's book could easily have been subtitled "A woman looks at the father-daughter relationship" and Andrews' could have been subtitled "A gay woman looks at the gay world." That is how each book would have been presented in the seventies (and neither would have used the images selected for these books' covers). In the foreword of each book, published back then, there would have been a discussion of "a woman's eye." How come all that has disappeared? Do Cook and Andrews (born in 1955 and 1963) think that their gender is irrelevant to the way they work and the way their work comes out? Do William Styron, who wrote the introduction to Fathers and Daughters, and Eric Marcus, who wrote the introduction to Family, think any part of the sensibility they each applaud is connected to gender? I do.


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