Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'A Proof That I Did Exist': Janet Frame and Photography

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'A Proof That I Did Exist': Janet Frame and Photography

Article excerpt

First published separately, the three volumes of Janet Frame's autobiography-To the Is-Land (1982), An Angel at My Table (1984) and The Envoy from Mirror City (1985)-were gathered in 1989 under the title An Autobiography. Unlike the previous editions, this one contains thirty-two pages of photographs-sixteen in To the Is-Land and eight in each of the following volumes. In his biography of Frame, Michael King reports that this addition originated from a conversation the film-makers Jane Campion and Bridget Ikin had with Janet Frame while they were working on the adaptation of the trilogy:

Campion and Ikin also asked Frame if she had any family photographs, which would help them visualise Southland and Otago at the time of Frame's childhood and such details as clothing and bathing costumes. Frame produced a shoebox full of such pictures. 'Why weren't any of these in the autobiographies?' asked Ikin. 'Well, the publisher never asked for them', Frame told her. A selection of the photographs was used in subsequent editions of the books.1

Bridget Ikin explains that her question was motivated by the text itself: 'I'd been wondering about the nature of Janet's memory in the autobiographies. It seemed so photographic; the childhood episodes in particular were so specific. I asked if she had any photographs.'2 The inclusion of these photographs in the book is more significant than it might seem: as they interrupt the reading, the pictures and their captions necessarily interact with the text. According to Tessa Barringer, the nature of Frame's autobiographical project has something to do with photography in the sense that it aims at 'fixing' her story:

The 'act of [self]-framing' [...] in the autobiographies can and has been read as an attempt on Frame's part to take charge of her story in order to 'fix' it [...] which also suggests the act of photographic fixing that makes fast an image and preserves it against further change or deterioration.3

In this respect, the photographs, ordered chronologically, can be seen as visual supports helping the reader to 'fix' the different stages of the narrative in his/her mind. Considering Barthes's definition of a photograph as a 'certificate of presence' attesting that 'what I see has indeed existed', it can also be argued that they reinforce the author's autobiographical pact by giving evidence of what is being told.4 Because of its mechanical aspect, photography is often thought to be an objective way of recording reality. As Susan Sontag puts it, 'a photograph is [...] a trace, something direcdy stenciled off the real. [...] A photograph is never less than the registering of an emanation (light waves reflected by objects)-a material vestige of its subject that no painting can be.'5 Similarly, André Bazin declares that '[t]he objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making'.6 From a chronological point of view, the two modes of expression used in Janet Frame's trilogy coincide perfecdy: the first photographs in To the Is-Land, which show the author's parents and grandparents and a few uncles and aunts, illustrate the family tree outlined in the first chapters; the last pictures in The Envoy from Mirror City correspond to Frame's return to New Zealand, which closes the narrative. Her stays in psychiatric institutions, largely evaded by the text, are equally absent from the photograph sections: the only two pictures of that time do not portray Janet Frame herself, but her father and her mother. Quite appropriately, these 'erased years'7 have not left any trace; they have not been recorded by any photographer.

The pictures in the first volume are mostly group photographs: family photographs, class photographs, photographs representing Frame's father with his football team or her aunts with their Scottish music band. The last two examples bear witness to the author's cultural and family heritage: like those of her father in Scottish dress or in soldier's uniform, these pictures emphasize the features that are relevant to her personal development. …

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