HEAVEN IS A PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTINE SLOAN STODDARD – REVIEW

by Ananya WilsonBhattacharya

‘I do not take photos/I give them/as I always give/in love’, the protagonist of Christine Sloan Stoddard’s poetry/photography collection Heaven is a Photograph declares, a characteristically bold admission of vulnerability. These lines, taken from the poem ‘Unrequited Pixels’, evoke an overarching theme of the collection: the emotional intensity of the protagonist’s relationship with photography. Charting the protagonist’s journey, from a childhood as the daughter of a photographer to becoming a photographer herself, Stoddard’s brief and beautiful collection explores the power of both photography and photographer – through a deft and deeply meta combination of verse and photography itself.

Far from falling into pretentious tropes, Stoddard’s words are refreshingly direct. Her second poem, ‘Daughter Behind the Lens’, describes the protagonist’s childhood growing up with a photographer father. The poem doesn’t shy away from exposing the harsh truths of patriarchy from a little girl’s perspective, through her view of her dolls: ‘busy little women/barbies only ever owned (…) never seen beyond home/their creations/were not/baptized creations’. This is juxtaposed with her mother’s apparently voluntary affirmation of this gender imbalance: ‘you are the professional/mama told papa/you are the professional’, invoking the ease with which male artists come to be highly respected. Conversely, while women are more likely to pursue education and careers in the arts than men, the arts world is still a highly patriarchal climate where women (while expected to be constantly ‘busy’) will often not achieve the same success, or recognition as a ‘genius’.

Far from falling into pretentious tropes, Stoddard’s words are refreshingly direct.

The opening poem, ‘The Dead Girl Artist’s Scientific Method’, also touches poignantly on how her race has shaped the protagonist’s experiences: ‘was it my curly hair/did he long for straight? (…) was it my ripe olive tone/did he prefer peaches and cream?’ On the surface, these lines allude to how Eurocentric beauty standards shape the much documented struggles many women of colour face in the dating world. However, the ‘he’ may alternatively refer to photography itself – a metaphor for the protagonist’s feeling that the art form has rejected her, that she is forbidden from practising it, as a woman of colour. Unable to accept this rejection, she embarks on a frenzied journey of metaphorical self-destruction through photography (‘I probed too hard with my camera…I knocked myself out with studio lights’), ultimately leading to her metaphorical death. The collection thus suggests from the outset the toxic element of the protagonist’s relationship with photography, and with the deeply patriarchal arts world into which she attempts to break.  

The more carefree ‘High School Photographer’ invokes the feeling of rebellion associated with photography for the protagonist: ‘hold the camera/same as a cigarette’. The camera, itself a symbol, records ‘portraits of rebellion’. This poem – and the accompanying photograph of a camera nestled among leaves – contrasts with later poems where the protagonist alludes to feeling possessive over her camera and by extension, her art, a feeling reflected in the photographs of Stoddard clutching her camera firmly. At this early stage, the ‘High School Photographer’ is being set free by her photography.

A turning point in the protagonist’s story comes towards the end, with the prose poem ‘Radiance Cannot be Photoshopped’. The accompanying photograph of a slab of concrete fits with the vaguely troubled opening lines: ‘I sit in the digital media lab, swamped by computers with blank faces’. This sets the tone for the sense of unanimity and lifelessness pervading this poem, in which Stoddard exposes the sexism inherent within the teaching of photography: her protagonist, now a photography student at university, has been assigned the task of tailoring a woman’s photographs to unrealistic, uniform beauty standards. However, the protagonist resists being cast as an agent of patriarchy, explaining to her professor in an email that she ‘did not complete the task as required’. This contrasts with the earlier poem ‘His Grasp’, which opens with harshly violent imagery describing an interaction between the protagonist and her professor: ‘when he seized my camera/his tongue tore my throat/and my lens cracked’. Over the course of these lines, the protagonist, increasingly vulnerable, becomes synonymous with her camera and her photography, as made explicit in her reaction: ‘this portrait is me’. Within this context, the protagonist’s measured resistance against her professor in ‘Radio Cannot be Photoshopped’ reads as a true feminist reclamation of individuality.

the synthesis between the poems and their accompanying photographs is captivating.

The following poem, ‘Unwritten Job Description’, is a commentary on a widely recognised fact – that women’s extensive work in assisting ‘great’ male creatives has long gone unacknowledged. Stoddard uses photography as a metaphor here, stating that ‘women are photo editors/they edit work by the masters’, a commentary on the previous poem from an external perspective. Through these two poems, Stoddard thereby illustrates how the lack of creative agency afforded to women photographers mirrors the intolerance of diversity and imperfection in women as models. In ‘Unwritten Job Description’, Stoddard goes on to explain: ‘women do not shoot/because cameras are guns’. This subtle wordplay perfectly solidifies the metaphor running through the collection of photography as violence, which appears in the opening poem (see above) through lines such as ‘I stabbed myself with my tripod’, and in ‘His Grasp’ through ‘violence is noise/violence is grain’.

While the collection’s themes do not feel entirely original and sometimes could have been explored more deeply, the synthesis between the poems and their accompanying photographs is captivating. While ostensibly fictional, the collection clearly has an autobiographical element: two poems, ‘Daughter Behind the Lens’ and ‘His Grasp’, are illustrated by portraits of Stoddard herself with her camera. This continuity between poems far apart in the collection gives an intensely personal feel to its trajectory – a sense that Stoddard has allowed the reader to experience her journey with her, through the protagonist’s story. 

The collection has a cyclical structure: in the opening poem, the protagonist is dead, whilst in the final, one-stanza titular poem, she has found ‘Heaven’. Whilst the opening poem reeks of bitterness and angst as the protagonist reflects on her life, in this final poem – perhaps evoking an alternate afterlife – she is able to embrace her art, with a sense of quiet triumph: ‘I am never victorious/except behind the camera’. The final photograph of the collection, which illustrates this poem, depicts a somewhat surreal interpretation of the poem’s title: the Mona Lisa suspended on a stick above a jar filled with clusters of hair. After years of searching, the protagonist has finally found contentment and victory in an artistic heaven. The simultaneous sense of liberation through photography and anxious desire for control over one’s work – feelings which have been jostling within the protagonist’s mind throughout the collection – come together in harmony in this final poem. The freedom that comes with taking control of one’s life and work finally prevails.

Christine Sloan Stoddard’s Heaven is Photograph is available from Clash Books for 14.95 USD

Featured image by Christine Sloan Stoddard


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