Goodbye, Pluto: An Elegy on Loss, Memory, and Photography
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Goodbye, Pluto: An Elegy on Loss, Memory, and Photography

The Ross Family, 1987. Photo courtesy the author

Inspired by Werner Herzog’s Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema, and his 2017 addendum to that 1999 manifesto, this essay is part of a four-part series of commissioned writings addressing the question, “What is truth in an age of ‘alternative facts’?” 

When I think about my mother’s death, I wonder if she died a Black woman, her universal human body no longer able to hold her spirit. Looking through our family photo albums she is there: formally posed before a back drop in her uniform; on a sand dune with her three brothers, the New Mexico mid-day sky overhead in a 1960s blue; at Medieval Times’ castle with my father, sister, and I, all of us in Kodak contrast to an entire section of people, flash-lit as if spontaneously discovered, our Blackness the lucid reproduction of photography.

In the gradual amazement after birth we develop our consciousness, to pilot our bodies from a whisper in our head.

I started courting photography sometime after my mother got sick. The abstract questions surrounding the mystery of illness and death found agency in the refuge of the camera. In these moments, my Pentax K1000 was a genie-bottle machine, an otherworldly contraption capable of catalyzing hope. I would later realize as much as it is magical, it is threatening, and its breathtaking sensitivity belies how numb it is to the integrity of its use. Thinking back to the profound immediacy of those dwindling occasions with my mother, the corresponding images are clearer and simpler than my memory, a rendition that stands in defiance of my own truth. Photography holds her frozen and star-crossed during the height of her illness, when in those moments I experienced her as a life force ethereal and vanquished.

Even now I can imagine a photograph of her escaping the family archive, only to be carried up by a draft, over and through a window and down to the street. Someone notices the bowed sheet near the curb, tattered now by half a day’s traffic. This person walks over and lifts it from the sidewalk, orients it accordingly, and looks.

The whisper sits on a throne in the dark. It is ultimately a voyeur of reality.

I am terrified at this exchange. The terror comes from my familiarity with the range of relationships of the American stranger that picks up that image. We went to the same elementary, middle, and high schools and colleges, exchanged Valentine’s Day candies and April Fool’s gags. We worked at Ruby Tuesdays for stretches, played each other in sports all over the country. We chatted anonymously on AOL Instant Messenger, even embellished romantic encounters playing Never Have I Ever in what seemed like every wash of lighting a basement afforded. What went unconsidered in the years when it seemed like our angst was nationally central was that our parents never hung out.

The whisper is a quantum ventriloquist. It arrives with the actions of billions of other whispers of self, stacked beneath the day’s floor.

The American stranger knows Blackness as a fact—even though it is fiction—albeit a flexible fact applied in consultation to their personal relationship to Blackness. Our friendship was secondary to the atmospheric declarations of Blackness in the news and entertainment television, the silver screen and marketing campaigns—two-dimensional products of a multi-dimensional idea. Blackness is each stranger’s personal algorithm. Framed Black, everything from the welcome of my mother’s face to the bend of her resting elbow is cast in infinite silhouette, backlit by history. To the American stranger, she is the synthesis of every encounter and thought associated to Blackness, plus or minus mood. Here, photography reinforces the unconsciousness racism of the viewer, reinstating the norms of our society. In a country where racism is the dark matter of the American imagination, my mother should not be so bare.

The back of the above photo, inscribed by Gisele Ross. Photo courtesy of the artist

The whisper of self receives optical information at light speed into the skull, across its personal universe, and into recognizable form. Whereby, the act of looking becomes a social process.

There are images of my mother I would set on the ledge of a skyscraper and wait for wind. They might look like confetti to a stranger on the ground. Wonder, turning into fear, then back to wonder again, as the moment’s diligent physics play out. Engaging one would invite a quietly interactive experience and spur reflexive thought. The viewing stranger would be unable to consume my mother hastily; here, the easy-reading contract with Blackness would be void. I would situate her in earnest ambiguity, activating the mind’s gears of meaning by manipulating the nonfiction suggestiveness of documentary and social realism into an aesthetic of interrogation. The image would stall during the meaning-creation procedure and call upon the viewer’s interpretive tools from their personally constructed worldview. They must build the bridge to meaning and take responsibility for their conception of my mother.

The whisper of self is not equipped for objectivity. It has witnessed objectivity speak in many forms but observes language is the gossip of truth, and so proceeds from desire.

It is impossible to know how the stranger will receive either image of my mother. I can only assume that the nurture of America’s visual constitution sits in perception’s threshold. Framed Black, one would not imagine my mother a lover Christmas jingles in the summer off-season, would not surmise her an Electric Slide party mentor. It’s improbable someone will imagine from Blackness’ tainted image well that she had “MAJMOMM” on the license plate of her Acura Legend and was a drug and alcohol counselor on weekends to subsidize her slot machine affinity. It’s most likely her X-Men–character emotional intelligence becomes lost in the infinite silhouette of Blackness.

On Saturdays, my sister and I were constantly reminded of her crush on Adrian Paul from the Highlander series. She would have probably, earlier that day, taken us on an errand outing and embarrassed us by genuinely purchasing everything she encountered that was on sale (only to re-embarrass us by returning more than half of it within the week); her bridge-of-the-nose glasses, scientific digging into the discount bin at Blockbuster, an eye-rolling ritual of increasing fastidiousness. The relational alchemy of those shared experiences may be lost as a prerequisite to being photographed, but the American stranger does not need to extend the gaze of their family archive in order to look beyond the surface. Gisele Ross is there in all her images, though you would often find yourself. Remember:

Reality re-presentations are complicit in the generation of our developed reality, the social world, as perception enforces all realities.

Status quo imagery handholds our acceptance of the governing structures of power.

As imagery should capture, depict, and document the lived world, an aesthetic of interrogation should accompany each account.

Active looking and conscious making are both radical acts. They insist that truth is an inquiry and pursuit, a movement through subjectivity towards creation.

We should emulate the astronomer that mumbles: “Goodbye, Pluto,” staring up through the library’s rafters.

The whisper of self will do anything.

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