BY Lynne Tillman in Profiles | 16 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

The Picture People

An excerpt from Men and Apparitions, a novel in progress

BY Lynne Tillman in Profiles | 16 JUN 13

Pierre Bonnard, family photograph, 1902–03, silver gelatin print, each 6 x 8 cm

‘The end doesn’t depend on the beginning. An ending upends some, promotes others. If the end comes, it comes to one person, then might spark beginnings for others. The beginning starts in an historical moment, not as a single event, though every birth is singular. Death is a singular event for an individual, though that death may live through others.’ Ezekiel Stark

I recover. I’d been interrupted by a question from a fellow panelist, after his unremarkable talk on memory and photography. I go on. 

I’m an image to you, you to me. We create each other in instants of connection, the identity process is interactive, a very fast game. I named us the picture-people because most special and obvious now about the species is that our kind lives on and for pictures, lives as and for images, our species takes pictures, makes pix, thinks in pix. It exists if it’s a picture and can be pictured.

Surface is depth, and nothing is superficial. Our age began – if we have to date it – in 1839, with the proclaimed discovery or invention of photography, the Picture Age or the Age of Images took its impetus, its nucleus: the camera. In our Postmodern era we have persistently desired to create, remake and pull down images from, of and off everything. The Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, the Industrial Age, the Electronic and Technological Age … No-one can argue against calling us The Picture People.

In the eighth century, the poet Hesiod sorted the world of Man into five stages – Golden, Silver, Bronze Heroic and Iron – and complained that with each stage, there was a degradation. He regretted having been born into the fifth generation.

But this kind of articulation is OLD, too old to keep repeating. Current prognosticators believe our fall is imminent. Or is already here. Nonsectarian speakers own up to godlessness, but have anyway morphed sin and damnation into civil calumnies. Collapse, apocalypse, extinction, whatever, from our own hands, or our machines. In these predictions, heaven or hell isn’t waiting for anyone. Purgatory is here. Reason, probability theories and statistics do predict the end of something. Oil, say, and water. And it’s true, we are fucking up the planet. Totally. Still, we are alive, we are here now. The earth has been disrupted and disturbed by humans at least since the invention of fire, which must have imitated nature’s lightning strikes.

(Striking matches, I heard my father yell, Stop. I was five. Could have burned the house down, he said. I was awake, aware then. He gave me the idea. ‘I could have burned the house down.’)

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for this inevitable self- and other-destruction. Narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority being an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.

My frame of reference is cultural anthropology; I’m an ethnographer devoting himself to images, to the many forms and senses of image, creating an image, loving an image, etc. My speciality has been family images; and I still am interested. Of course, it’s the reason your university has honored me with this generous grant, and why I am here for this conference.

The Picture People are unlike other, earlier humans only in requiring moment-by-moment proof of the world around them and their position in it. Systems to locate themselves wherever they are. GPS is technological solipsism. When the cell phone came in, what did people first say on it? ‘I’m here, I’m walking home.’ My fave: ‘I’m waving to you, can you see me?’ Etc.

Reflections in pools of water might have given rise to the earliest drawings. The Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon or earlier Man noticed an image in a stream, maybe his, probably first an animal’s – I can imagine that early man touching his nose, touching the water, the water’s slight turbulence contorting his image. Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx mimicked each other, pretending to be mirror images, that’s way back, 1950s TV, so if you know the reference, you’re doing your media history.

First, I can imagine our ancient ancestor – let’s call him Magnon – watching his shadow track him. Shadows attract scrutiny, breed paranoid thoughts, i.e. who’s following me, and also provide ocular information and sight-protection when there actually is someone stalking you.

NB: Modernist and contemporary photography’s attention to the shadow, which I’ll get to later, if there’s time.

An essential immateriality attaches to these ephemeral, tantalizing dark echoes, and what are shadows to existence, what does their possibility suggest to future homo sapiens? Can the apelike creature make them last. I mean, why did a scratch on a wall ever transform into a drawing or a painting?

Going off script a bit: It’s not what we know that matters to me, it’s whatever we know, but does knowing it actually do anything? What difference does it make, to know? The unexamined life may not be worth living, but the examined life may not be also.

The need of prehistoric humans and us to make – homo facere – and then to depict the world is an effort to explain Being. It might be a human instinct to leave a mark, to make an image in all its manifestations, to try to court experience and existence into a cage, to keep it, I mean. Claiming territory, marking it, scratching on walls the objects in our territories, what we capture and kill; animals do it, we are animals. An animal leaves scent on a tree or door, a cat rubs its furry body against a chair leg, darkening it, staining it, oh the stain.

(I’m off, off and on. Floating. What is my subject?)

There is nothing outside of pictures. And of images. We need a break, I do, anyway. Let’s eat.

THERE'S A STORY in my family about Great Uncle Ezekiel, who didn’t know, until he was 18 and married Margaret, that women went to the bathroom. It’s always told with that euphemism. My father, whose uncle Ezekiel was, told it to my older brother, Hart, when he was 13, then me at 13 – a father–son rite of passage – and his two brothers told their sons and then their daughters, when they loosened up about girls.

My parents told loads of stories about their upbringings, up until the point when they couldn’t make sense of them, or why they were telling us, which reminded them: They shouldn’t have had children. Three of us shouldn’t have been born. ‘But we had you. We love YOU.’ They were older parents, who waited until the best time, they said, to have the best children. With all that pimping, they underlined their gene-carriers’ supposed exceptionalism by bestowing us with ‘unique monikers’. I’m Ezekiel (Dad’s uncle; also a sixth-century prophet); Adams (maternal surname, distantly related to the Adams family); Stark (paternal German-Jewish-English-Unitarian). In grade school, my name rhymed with everything dumb. Brother Hart Adams Stark glories in this nomenclature, and imagines he’s special, like Hart Crane, the writer. Bro Hart is just a pathologist.

Baby sister doesn’t say much about her handle, Mathilda Clover Adams Stark, because she suffers from selective mutism. She can talk with us, family, close friends, but she’s mostly silent. (When we were kids, I used to believe that she chose not to talk.) She can’t speak at school and with strangers – she doesn’t choose to. She’s six years younger. Ten years younger than Hart. That’s the spread. These days I understand her better and identify more, though identification is always misidentification. In some way I always felt close to her, even though she blames me for talking too much when we were kids, and not giving her a chance, which is probably true. Yet I hear my little sister loud and clear, through the Stark family static.

OK now, let’s do it. Can you hear me in the back? Cool.

Cultural anthropology – my branch, ethnography – isn’t a 19th-century discipline anymore. There’s rigor, or solemnity, about approach and methodology, but there are questions and restiveness in this very divided field about recording subject/object relationships, objectivity itself, which was challenged especially by postwar theories, e.g. post-structuralism; and, the field’s been blasted, and basically lies in ruins or, optimistically, it doesn’t because it’s been helped by its contradictions and differences. The new challenges create – YES – more PhDs, which is cool. The field goes on, the beast is hot … I focus on photography, images in and of the family, including sexual/gender behavior and relationships as understood through images. I’m 37, an associate professor in an Eastern university, gaming for tenure, and if I don’t piss off the department stiffs by being too clever, it will happen.

Cultural Studies scored during the 1990s; since then, the academy’s star is a guessing game. There’s been lots of theoretical work on masculinity. Many moved into it, and some have shifted to transgender studies – Humanities, though, that department is disappearing, a sideline to the main game, Tech, Science, Obesity Studies – sort of kidding. Let’s say the older fields are in as much flux as their objects of study. Transitional objects and subjects. But strangely we proceed, no Sundays off in the post-1960s academic and not-so-academic civil wars.

A cultural anthropologist reflects on differences, similarities, patterns, problems, gathers information; we look at how human beings act and ask why, about others and now ourselves, what do these customs and behavior do for the society that enacts or supports them. Ethnographers study commonalities among cultures, societies, the essentials, the basics: people need to eat, find shelter, procreate, etc. The differences in values, rituals, kinship relations: these are works of creation, born from instincts, needs, etc., but the adaptations and specifics range widely. A multi-million ring circus, in Venn diagrams, unreadably dense, subsets and sub-subsets crisscrossing seemingly infinitely etc.

These days, native doesn’t mean ‘primitive’; ‘we’, ‘they’, all pronouns have begun to act the way pronouns are intended: they shift. They, them, us, we, you can be anybody – whoever – we can all be subjects and objects of investigation. And are. The variations, everything and everyone’s being studied, from Tokyo post 3/11 /2011, senior centers, Sydney beach scene, London clubs, Borneo mating habits, Brazil’s plastic surgery industry, Samoan society since wwii, nyc’s gangs etc. Etcetera. Almost anything goes under the knife.


I WAS A BOY WHO didn’t kill insects or torture small creatures, except my younger sister, the baby, she believes I tortured her. Tormented is more like it. When I was six, I found ecstasy in our backyard. A praying mantis appeared. I didn’t know what it was, but it rocked my world. I watched its little head turning on its neck – the only insect on earth that turns its head, like a person. They’re dinosaur humans. pms have a face and look you in the eyes. Their eyes are in the middle of their tiny heads, and they see the way we do. So cool. The pm noticed me, and looked right at me. I thought I was face-to-face with a god or an alien, ET is a PM. The PM really got me, communicated with sympathy and intelligence. I wanted him for a pet, for a friend, and named him Mr. Petey. (My parents wouldn’t let me bring him indoors.) I could talk to him – it could have been female – he listened better than my parents, and pretty much every day I went into the backyard to find him. Mr. Petey usually showed up. I never touched him. You can’t kill a PM, my mother said, they’re a protected species, and if you kill one, we’ll have to pay the government a lot of money. I wasn’t ever going to kill Petey, she was crazy, but learning about the existence of a protected species thrilled my kid-brain. Still does. I wondered if I was one, a special boy with special powers because I knew Mr. Petey. I reveled in talking with Mr. Petey. You can’t find a pm stuffed animal, so I made drawings, and my mother sewed me one. I still have it, Petey’s head flops down after all these years. Mr. Petey has seen it all – Mr. Petey plural. I didn’t know then that he/she lives only a year. A PM’s short life span fundamentally defies the value of human longevity, its evolutionary merit. The flaws therein.

I must’ve fooled myself – nope, kids don’t fool themselves – when a new PM showed up, because their markings and colors vary. I don’t know what I thought. But a PM showed up in the spring and stayed through the summer, I called him/her Mr. Petey, and then one day he went for a vacation in the South. I figured that out for myself. And that was always Mr. Petey in the backyard until I left home. I was a dreamy kid. I’m not so dreamy now. Maybe I am, but in a totally different way, and my dreaminess is probably more blocked to me. Or it was, until recently.

Mother felt attached to her family, in a mystical way, she said, which was necessary because the skein of connection was stretched to its limits. Anyway, there are our names. I thought it was creepy that Mother renewed her sister’s name for little sister, given the nutty provenance, but you can’t argue with mysticism; you just need to know your enemy. Mostly I stayed out of all that, or tried to be objective. That was when I had hope for objectivity. But the mind is weaker than the flesh. Just kidding.

My father’s genealogy was more sketchy, they came from different parts of the Old Country, his mother, part English, Scotch-Irish, his father, part Russian-Jewish, Austrian, Spanish; his grandparents had scattered, mixed nationalities and religions, Catholics and converts from Judaism, all arriving by the mid-to-late 1800s. Immigrants. My mother thinks she is America. Her family, distantly related, arrived on the Mayflower – with criminals and religious crackpots. You know, Mother, we got the problems. Wow, she gets pissed at me. We were poets, she says. Feminists, abolitionists, politicians, she says. Her loosely connected people hung out with or knew or met the Henry James crowd; but when she came of age, she let family privilege go, which was part of her privilege. Image was a personal issue for my mother; the way I’d put it, it was a kind of ancestor worship, and she knew herself as an image from birth, distant relatives’ images suffused her own. Her family’s house was decorated with ancestral portraits painted by respectable English and American painters, and later on 19th-century photographers.

Mother was constant in all ways, and she was the Stark family photographer, until I was eight and she gave me a cool camera. Mother owned a Zeiss Ikon, and my father bought the first Polaroid camera in 1962. In 1982 Kodak launched disc photography, the easy-to-use, ‘decision-free’ cameras built around a rotating disc of film. Mom bought me that. It was cool, un-fussy. Primitive now. I loved it, but I was more interested in bugs and rockets then. At about 12, I went crazy for photography. You could say, it became everything to me.

(Zeke, man, get yourself fucking together.)

Family photographs were the subject of my dissertation and first book, You’re a Picture, You’re Not a Picture, pubbed by a good university press when I was 27. I analyzed how families picture themselves through their own photographs, what that picturing implies in terms of association, pecking order, gender relations etc. I interviewed over 200 families across America, and chose pictures from their stacks, or they did the choosing. They told me about who was whom, what was going on, and weird narratives spilled out. I inferred meanings, as an ethnographer, sorting through the consonances and dissonances, and what the gaps meant, if anything. A picture can actually tell you very little, which is why Thematic Apperception Tests (TATS) invented by psychologists in the 1930s still appeal, at least in research. The open-endedness of pictures has been utilized to study the mystery of perception, emerging from an individual human psyche, as the subject sees into a picture what is not there. One can’t read an expression as a revelation of character or personality; it is just a temporal affect, often for the camera. Behind so many smiles, I see: Eat Shit, Asshole. But then that’s me.

A family’s secrets appear as absences and exclusions, erasures and deletions. A first marriage was annulled: No photos. A child given up for adoption, no pix of the pregnant mother. The not-there, unpictured life – think about it, an unpictured life – or invisible story, hangs around the edges of albums, obscene, out of sight, off screen, you name it. Still, it functions along with the already-silent conversation of non-speaking pictures.

The incapacity to see most often resides within the self, a condition I half-jokingly call ‘The Fault Dear Brutus syndrome’. I’m sampling Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar here, Cassius saying: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.'

I started out dealing with naive images, let’s say, or I was naive, and the images were not. The notion of naive or amateur has little or no cred in our digitized world. There are no amateurs. Does it mean there is no love in what people do? No, it means that those who do it professionally are not as valued. Some people, way fewer, get paid; these are the professional class, experts, artists or specialists. Often they talk only to each other, living within a very small circle of other picture-people. These, the majority, take spontaneous, unplanned pix, especially family and friend ones, in which there are ‘display stances, image-ready attitudes, position-motifs showing status’, etc. In other words, in the picture taking and making age, each generation matures with technologies that show them to themselves and others, and everyone can now assert self as an image; we are in apprenticeship, and it is through pictures we see ourselves and learn to shape ourselves, to present ourselves.

These pictures do not have to be reflexive. In other words, portraits of selves reside in portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. I suggest you all read Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

But pictures don’t tell stories. No. They only match the stories we tell ourselves. In the early 1980s, artists Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine posted on a movie theater’s marquee: ‘A picture is not worth a 1,000 words.’ But if it doesn’t tell a story, what does it tell? And why do our lives lean so heavily on them?

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.