In the years following my grandmother’s death from a debilitating mental illness, what I remembered most were her eyes. I wanted to know what was going on behind the glassy absence, what she was thinking about, and whether she recognized her visitors even if unable to utter her son’s name. It seems to me now that, being the youngest of our cousins by several decades, my brother and I, not even ten yet, were closest to understanding her, whose Alzheimer’s-induced mental state resembled in its early stages our own.
My father kept a framed photograph of a woman in his study, which I never thought to ask about until after his mother passed. It was a portrait of her, made before the United States entered the war and her husband shipped to France, leaving her to care for their first son. The woman in the photo in no way resembled my grandmother as I knew her, underscoring the tragedy of her disease. And yet today, this photograph is how I remember her. Now, because of their likeness to the picture, when I remember my grandmother I think of the curls her nurse so delicately prepared each morning but not the face that they framed. My memories of our visits to a fluorescent-blue nursing home are tinted with a sepia warmth.
When I first saw the images of María Martínez-Cañas’s Vestígios series, I thought about my grandmother and the way fragments of memory take their very shape from the grayish passage of time. In these images, all of them made in the past year, portraits from illustrated books or old negatives have parts of their bodies sanded away. All that remains are the suggestions of people we might otherwise have known. The lithe arms of a dancing woman curl around a body that is no longer there. Of a couple’s embrace all that’s left are their chests pressed against each other and the man’s muscular limb cradling her close. In the most affective image, a figure I believe to be a little girl leans on two ropes on which might suspend a swing. Her face has disappeared into the void. Sandpapered gouges pock the images and in places reveal, under the silver-gelatin coating, the milky whiteness of blank paper and possibility.
Martínez-Cañas has said that for her, “Photography has almost always been about erasing, about removing.” Her entire body of work is “about what is left behind, what is allowed to be present because everything else has been removed.” Photography’s usefulness lies in the loss that occurs during the transformation of a four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional picture, because this dimensional loss can reflect the passing of time and body, and hence is related to death. In the very beginning of its history, this reflection was literal. Post-mortem photography came on the heels of the daguerreotype, which was popularly called a mirror with a memory. Such photographs became a common memento mori for grievers and, after a short number of years, replaced the ritualistic death mask. The image of L’Inconnue de la Seine serves to mark this transition. A drowned woman’s face was preserved by an employee of the Paris Morgue who was struck by her beauty. The bust was replicated and photographed, and these reproductions spread across France, Britain, Germany, and the New World. L’Inconnue de la Seine brought grief out of the private sphere, and allowed society as a whole to reflect on death—not of Christ or a King, but of someone’s little girl.
A specific form of grief is felt when looking at L'Inconnue de la Seine—one of a combination of loneliness and fragmentary memories. The loneliness comes from the feeling of isolation evoked by the life-like smile among her otherwise cadaverous expression. Camus considered the cast the Mona Lisa of its time. Rilke wrote that L’Inconnue de la Seine was preserved “because it was beautiful, because it was still smiling, because its smile was so deceptive—as though it knew.” After passing every day by a shop that displayed a reproduction of L’Inconnue de la Seine, Rilke’s memories are of her smile, because it was through it that he could project his verse. But here he is vague, almost mystical. Rilke doesn’t specify what it was that the Unknown Woman of the Seine seemed to know because the sensation of knowing belonged actually to him rather than the dead girl.
“Photography is a medium that emphasizes absence, that calls attention to the fact that no one living is present; only their trace drawn in light.”
This specific grief—of memories projected on a feature unattached to any body—evoked by the death mask speaks to the loneliness inherent in photography, which creates a mere phantasm by copying the light from an actual body. It’s a medium that emphasizes absence, that calls attention to the fact that no one living is present; only their trace drawn in light. This is why Martínez-Cañas speaks of erasure.
Yet, sometimes in a photograph a vestige of something alive remains. An expression, a gesture, a smile, cascading blonde curls, the tender arms of someone who loved dancing. By sanding away an image until only that which feels alive remains, she calls our attention to the way we focus on such isolated features, and project upon them all our memories, hopes, and fears, and in this way attempt to make them whole and animate again
These contours that we remember only suggest the general shape of which a memory might take form. We’re left to fill in the gaps, and these might end up bearing no resemblance to the events as they occurred, the people as the appeared, or the lives as they were lived. That photographs are nothing more than surface is never more obvious than when, struck by this vestige, we scratch around it, attempt to peel the layers away and expose pulpy flesh. Of course, there’s nothing there. The misty gray that surrounds the half-formed figures of the Vestígios is nothing but that timeless space from which matter takes form and from which we call forth our memories.
This could not happen in a painting. Sanding away paint reveals more layers of paint, a trace—not of an absent body, but of the hand of a maker. And yet, the images of Vestígios remind me of charcoal sketches. Or a book my parents had of the Renaissance Masters’ studious renderings of the human body. Those pages were filled with disembodied limbs and other fragmentary creations by men who sought perfection in their depictions of faint, exquisite gestures. In their resemblance to sketches, the Vestígios no longer look like photos, make no pretense against their failings as photos—that is, in them there are no scenes, no moments, no slivers of time unless counting its wake, no space at all except a deaerated sigh.
I first thought of Martínez-Cañas’s sanding as a violent act. What compelled her to erase that girl’s face, and leave only her hands upon the rope? The gesture of the girl might once have been playful, depicted as in a childhood memory, but now she appears to cling to the rope as if it remains her only tether to actual existence. The source images for Vestígios were collected from the library of the late Cuban critic, José Gómez-Sicre, and I assumed this gave her a distance from the photographs and allowed her to put sentimentality aside. I couldn’t imagine destroying the photograph of my grandmother’s face. And so, after seeing Vestígios, I wrote to my father and asked him to tell me about my grandmother. The next day he sent me an essay that began, “Frances Marie Petrasek was born in Akron, Ohio in August 1919 (the same year as John F. Kennedy).” Over seven pages, he told of a gentle woman who loved Degas and was overly “sensitive to everyday slings and arrows.” When she first became sick around 1980, a decade before I was born, no one noticed for a while because no one was ever truly attentive to her thoughts and needs. My father ended his essay:
Even though I never knew my mother as she was in the photo, having it makes me think about the good times, which were many. The old photo reminds me that Frances was young once and that she had hopes and dreams, fulfilled or not. It helps me to remember not only the face, but the person and the life as well.
My father isn’t very old, but I had always been afraid he would die before I asked about his mother. The memories of her would then fade with me, I feared, and the photograph would become all that remained. However, after reading my father’s letter, the thought of sanding my grandmother’s image is no longer so horrifying. I don’t cling to it so desperately anymore. It has ceased to be such a delicate thing.
We often don’t notice what’s been lost because it’s difficult to notice that something has begun to go missing. I never paid attention to my grandmother’s hands, never lifted them from her bedside, because I was too young to understand that one day she’d be gone. The thought that years later, I would wish to have known their feeling in mine never occurred to me. We don’t get to choose our memories, which is why we respond so viscerally to that isolated feature—the smile of L’Inconnue de la Seine, my grandmother’s curls, the girl’s hands gripping her swing. The feature reminds us that the passage of time leaves for us only fragile remnants from which to piece together our memories. The gesture of Martínez-Cañas’s Vestígios is not violent, but regenerative. Through these images we comprehend photography’s role as memento mori without suffering the volatile resurgence of our own memories. And, also because of them, we’re prepared for when it inevitably happens.