The Camera Sees ...

reflection, 2011
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover design by Vane Lindesay
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 4780 words
Electronic publication 2012

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The Picture’s Taken
The Camera Sees?
The Future

To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

The Picture’s Taken

Ella Duncan, a sister of my mother, worked for some years in a fashionable Collins Street studio. She sat in reception, but also did retouching, and Mr Dickinson, her boss – always ‘Mister’ to me, because I was so much younger – had faith in her, as well he might, for she was extraordinarily capable. If I visited her East Melbourne apartment, I thought of her as mysteriously single, but at the studio she was the sort of person that successful businesses are built on. Single as she may have been, she thought of marriage, children, the family line, as central in life. When I left school and was about to start university, she arranged for me to have a portrait taken by Mr Dickinson, while a few years later she commissioned portraits of her two nieces by another sister, my Aunt Gladys. Della and Jill, my cousins, brought their graduation robes to the studio and their portraits were mounted, framed, and passed into the care of that branch of Ella’s family.

It is sixty years since my portrait was taken and I came across it the other day. I looked at the young man, with a head of glossy hair, and could hardly accept that he was me, and of course, he isn’t; he’s what I was a lifetime ago. Ever so many things that were going to happen to that young man hadn’t happened when he looked at the camera. Of the picture being taken I remember little beyond Mr Dickinson’s familiarity with his equipment. He told me where to look and he moved or altered the angle of his lights with an easy touch, and then he told me it was done. I had been represented for all time. There would be informal snaps to the end of my days, no doubt, but if anyone wanted to know what Chester looked like at the end of his schooling and the start of his university days, they could turn with confidence to the picture Mr Dickinson, with, perhaps, the aid of a little retouching by Ella, studying a negative carefully against the light, would produce.

I had been made permanent at the age of eighteen.

This, of course, is impossible. There are so many forces bottled up in eighteen-year-olds, waiting to be released, and events, relationships, achievements and mistakes, all queued up to happen. Eighteen year olds have a world to deal with, or shape, avoid, or be hit by ... as the case may be. And now, after this prelude, I suppose I must look at the portrait, and see what it says to me. The truth is, I’d rather leave it in the box where it’s usually kept, and pushed aside when I go looking for pictures of someone else. But it’s there, it’s the suavest, most professional picture of me ever taken, and it can’t be avoided. Ella wanted it done, so it could be given to her sister Alice, and mother needed it as evidence that her mothering, and therefore her life, had been successful. The picture was proof of something and I can’t avoid comparing the declaration, the intentions, embodied in the photo and the things that have happened in my life since that momentary click, and the affable wave of Mr Dickinson letting me know that I didn’t need to smile any longer.

I was free to leave behind the person that had been captured, and get on with whatever the future had in store.

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The Camera Sees?

What does the camera see? It’s a good question. The camera sees, but it doesn’t know. It records, showing what it can, but the rest is still to be told.

Let’s look again. His tie is white, contrasting with his blue suit, but does it? It’s white with royal blue squares, and royal blue is the colour of School House, where he lived as a boarder. White is, after all, the opposite of black, or navy blue, the colour of his suit. He’s announced his freedom by moving to the opposite of what he’s been wearing the last six years; what sort of declaration is that? Years later, at a writers’ festival, he runs into a fellow Old Boy who’s now a writer, and they tell each other that they can’t wear colours, they never wear colours, some vestige of the uniform is in their clothing still.

At the time the photo is taken, he’s proud to be part of the tradition. It would be fresh in the mind of this young man that when he went back to his home in New South Wales, having left school at last, he took with him an Old Melburnians tie, and wore it, walking along the driveway of their home, and he wore it, one evening, as the family sat down to dinner. His parents made no comment because they weren’t sure where the conversation would go if they raised the matter. He only does this once, but it’s a sign that tradition has claimed him, at least for the time being. When, and where, will it let him go?

The school he’s attended loves success. Failure or disgrace quickly reveal that its attentions are not charitable. Let the school down and you’ll be offloaded quickly. There will only be a splash as they toss you over the side! Your job is to bring credit to those who attach credit to you and it’s a system that works when everyone pulls in the same direction. Old Boys need to keep an eye on those who are leaders, or in some other way focal. It’s simple enough and it means you always go for advantage. Mr Dickinson has a photo in the foyer, a couple of paces from where Ella Duncan sits, of Robert Gordon Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia; it was taken in the same studio as our young man: the two of them would have sat in the very same chair. There’s no caption under the PM, nothing beyond the evidence of his patronage. Mr Dickinson needs to make no bigger claim than the picture of a superbly self-confident man, and it’s in the studio, not – for this would be vulgar – in the street below. You need to come in to know that you are in.

What does the camera know? It sees, but can’t foretell. It shows, but if you question it, there’s no reply. It’s waiting for those internal forces to come into play with the world about them. This young man expects to marry, but doesn’t know who it will be. Years later, his wife says to him, unhappily one night, ‘I’ve met my match’, and this divides him, because he’s made from his mother’s as much as from his father’s likeness, and if his wife says this then he’s out of balance with himself: his mother might have made the same complaint. He’s proud, as he sits for the photo, and in the decades that follow, of the men of his family, but then, every family is made from an importation, if that’s the word, of women – wives, mothers – who marry into the family, take it over and change it. It’s an illusion that the family line is passed down by the males. Families are recreated in every generation by the understandings, the feelings and experiences, of the women who marry in, and in doing so, change the thing entirely. Women then, often enough, appoint themselves as the guardians of the family story, they write its histories and they tell its tales. Outsiders?

In - ?

He hasn’t come to realise this yet, the youngster in our photo.

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The Future

He is able, now, his life adjusted, to go on. He stops thinking of throwing his life away. He has a son and daughter to care for, he has books to write, he has the whole of humanity to bring into consideration. That part of his life which he thought would go on forever will not; he must be ready for whatever comes at him, to him, next.

He is, he does. His photo, if we had one taken at this stage, would show a different man, watchful, considerate, tactful, all the things he wasn’t when he was young. Mr Dickinson likes people to put on their best possible face for his camera, but this implies a choice, that’s to say, they can decide what to show the cleverly-managed lens, but the truth is that most of us can’t. Things happen to us, we cause things to happen to us, acting with a minimum of self-knowledge most of the time, and then we cope with what follows. This is usually a process of catching up with what we hadn’t foreseen; pursuing pleasure, obeying pride, we bring on ourselves things we weren’t expecting, and they give us shocks. Our lives aren’t what we expected. This is when we react to the confidence in our children’s voices with words of caution or restraint, the children react in the ways of young people and we know that contrary to the expectations we had of endless movement in the direction of something progressive, chasing and reaching eventual success, we have found ourselves as bound as all the generations before us to the lottery that hands us the fate we have to accept.

The young man in Mr Dickinson’s photo doesn’t know what’s in store. How could he? Mr Dickinson doesn’t know; it’s not his job. Aunt Ella has asked him to do a portrait of her nephew, at a reduced price no doubt, for she is valuable to him and he most certainly knows that making her happy is good policy. The young man doesn’t know, the camera doesn’t know, for all it can do is record, and it certainly can’t predict. The winds that blow in rumour and expectation know more than the lens at the front of the bulky wooden box, with its shutters, bellows and the rest of it. The camera focuses on whoever’s sitting in the chair, and each of them, one after the other, brings their own fate and fortune with them, attached, but in some mysterious way not available to their consciousness. Why can’t we dodge our futures? Why can’t we control? Answer – most of us try, but we’re dealing with the unknown, all the more difficult to manage because forces as yet undiscovered inside ourselves are in play. We won’t know how to deal with them, we may not know that they are there, until they reveal themselves ...

... and then the picture we have of ourselves will change. We’ll look at the photo taken decades before and deny that it’s ourselves as we know ourselves to be, today. I am not that man, that woman, we will say, putting it aside in favour of something a little more up to date. That will leave us open to the unsettling awareness that there is a connection between our present selves and the person in the photo, but what that connection is, and how it affects the person we are today, we cannot know. We don’t know who and what we are, although it’s gratifying when our friends say things about us that we recognise, or like ... We don’t know who we are, and we’re grateful to a camera that tells us, so long as it shows us nicely, because we’re mysteries to ourselves. No wonder we hold people like Mr Dickinson in awe, or scorn those artists whose portraits of people we admire we happen not to like; our faces are only masks hiding the unknowable, and the camera appears to take away the guesswork and give us something we can believe ...

... even when we know it isn’t so.

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The writing of this memoir:

Another pair, something I seem to like doing these days. The relationship this time is more discursive than with Chartres and The Plains, but both Four Last Songs and The Camera Sees ... range across a life’s span. The life in question, which happens to be mine, is considered, first, from a musical vantage point, then reconsidered from the point of what, and how much, can be revealed by a camera portrait. Not so very much really, in the case of the camera. I think what’s common to the two memoirs is their concern with how little we understand when we are young. The camera looking at the young Chester may show him better than he knows himself – this is an open question, I suppose – but it cannot know, any better than he does, what’s to happen to him, and as for the previous memoir, the young man who listened to the German composer’s late songs simply had no idea that they would become as a permanent point of reference in his viewing of the world.

How could he know anything like that?

Another thing I need to say is that I am growing old and can no longer produce such complex works as my novel Wainwrights’ Mountain. I can’t see such things ever coming again. I’m too worn out to produce anything so big, but then again, I don’t need to. I wrote that book when I needed to unify my vision of the world, and that’s been done. Now I can enjoy the liberty of producing fragments, confident that they fit together in some way, and offering them to readers to examine and see what they can find.

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