Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

September 8, 2017 by

New Portraits

A couple of months before the most recent US presidential inauguration, I had the pleasure of attending Annie Leibovitz’s photography exhibit, Women: New Portraits, at Lola Montez, the small, cement-walled art museum under the Honsell Bridge in Frankfurt’s East End. The photographs were stunning, as I had expected, but also surprisingly personal despite the star status of many of Leibovitz’s subjects.

Venus and Serena Williams share a powerful, intimate embrace. A young Meryl Streep tugs at the edges of her face, painted like a pantomime’s. Olympian Katie Ledecky swims on her back in a color photograph that, for a moment, seems to move. Many of these pictures I had seen before, as has anyone who has picked up a copy of Rolling Stone, Vogue or Vanity Fair in the last few decades, or for that matter, stood in line in a grocery store. John Lennon wrapped naked around a clothed Yoko Ono? Pregnant Demi Moore, caressing her magnificent belly? What’s so new about these, I wondered.

In a zigzag shuffle among the other stargazers in this hip art house built into the underside of a bridge, I walked along the rows of images, trying to discover what made them so vital again in our particular moment. Was it simply the abiding beauty of the subjects, or Leibovitz’s virtuosity and endurance in a project begun over 15 years ago? Was it the united feminine strength, here quite literally forming a wall, in the face of our increasingly masculine zeitgeist? I paused in a clearing in front of the large black-and-white headshot of Jane Goodall, and quite unexpectedly broke into full-on tears.

Gathering myself together in the restroom, I stared into the mirror as if my own reflection were a portrait in the exhibit. I began angling my head to minimize the chin I’ve always thought of as too large, imagining Leibovitz looking down the lens at me. Would she suggest a pose? What would my outfit be, and what would I be doingplaying a trombone, typing, or simply looking deeply and affectionately into some stranger’s eyes, as Goodall had?

I noticed I’ve come to look a lot like my mother when she was my age, especially since I’ve grown wisps of white and grey hair around my temples. My mother now lives in a care center for Alzheimer’s patients in Vermont. With thin, gentle features, and the wrinkles she has always graciously accepted as part of the beauty of having a history, she looks a lot like Jane Goodall in the portrait—though she is more than 10 years her junior. Never one to wear makeup, she has always kept her hair pulled back in a low ponytail that reveals her practical approach to maintenance, above Botox or even highlights.

I made my way back to the Goodall portrait, that same, thin, pulled-back hair. She was still looking at me as though we’d always known each other, as though she were saying, Hey, you. Welcome home.

*

Since my mother was originally diagnosed almost 10 years ago, acquaintances and even friends have periodically asked me what Rebecca Solnit calls, “the most common and annoying question about Alzheimer’s”: Does she still recognize you?

During my last visit, she said to me, “You look so much like one of my children.” But I have never had the feeling that my mother does not know me; in fact I feel she is sometimes closer to me now than ever. She did not say my name because she can no longer speak in a way I, or anyone else, can understand, but she looked into my eyes with eyes that said they knew me. Goodall’s eyes looked at me that way in the museum—probably just as the chimps had eventually looked at her, and she back at them.

Jane Goodall is an animal rights activist. My mother worked for most of her adult life as a laboratory animal technician in research facilities at universities and pharmaceutical companies, which means she mainly changed animal cages and took protocols on room temperatures and times of injections, but often she also had to euthanize entire rooms full of white mice or rats or even, once, beagle puppies. She wore a baseball cap with a pin on it that said “lab animals save lives,” but I had the sense she carried around extensive guilt about her work. Sometimes, now, she talks as though she is again in a lab—probably because of the medical surroundings in the care center, the nurses and doctors in lab coats, and the institutional nature of her daily life. She says things like, Well, we’ll have to inject her now. Look at all those mice! More and more I feel that looking into her eyes is similar to looking into the eyes of an animal. I try to hear what they are saying.

In Jane Goodall I see a stronger, healthier version of my mother, and one initial urge in Leibovitz’s hall of fame is this, akin to the resolutions I often make around the new year: wondering how I can be a better human. I imagine it might somehow be possible to be on this wall someday—if I only would work hard enough, get up earlier, eat less chocolate. If my mother could have met Jane Goodall and worked with her, seen a woman carry out her life purpose, would she still have ended up working on the human side of the animal world, begging to keep the control beagle from the experiment, to take him home with her from the lab? Would her gift to humanity still have been donating a wooden bench for researchers to sit on when they were feeling depressed about all the euthanized animals?

I find myself thinking mostly of my mother while in the exhibit Women: New Portraits, of missed chances for recognition of each other’s strengths while it was still possible and would have been easy. I wish she were an Olympian. I wish I could still stand with her on her chicken farm in upstate New York. We’d pose in our rain boots, as Leibovitz herself does in the self-portrait with her three daughters in Rhinebeck. I would hug her with Venus Williams’s biceps.

This line of thinking—If only my mother and I had had the industry and discipline of any of these women—is not what stayed with me in the end, though. Walking through the park and along the river back to the commuter train to Frankfurt’s Main Station, I also began to recall my mother’s strengths from earlier days—her traveling alone at 20 to the Yukon to do field work with Arctic squirrels, driving all the way to Newfoundland on her very first road trip, giving birth to and raising three children, mainly without a lot of stable male support, growing herculean gardens and putting up vegetables and fruits for entire years, living without electricity and running water while tending babies in cloth diapers, feeding a woodstove, alone, while my father drove trucks for Anchor Motor Freight. I remembered her keeping bees and harvesting gorgeous honey, her darkroom photographs of the family. Her Easter cheese. She was, like Goodall, beautiful without physically changing anything about herself.

The power of Leibovitz’s women, though presented on a cement and stone wall, is not aggressive or imposing. It invites us into the room, or the pool, or onto the stage. Even the most beautiful and powerful of the celebrities does not mock us mortals. In the wake of the male domination that is embodied by the new president and his politics, Annie Leibovitz reminds of a quieter language that inevitably speaks more powerfully. These women are moving, working, acting, dancing, reigning queen, even, but most importantly looking at us other women as if they recognized us. A half smile, a shared hug, an angle of leg says not, I am better than you, but rather: You, too, are this strong.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.