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A HOUSE DISORDERED
A.M. Rousseau

"Happy  families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
       Anna Karenina,
        Leo Tolstoi 1820-1910


Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale
By: Patt Blue
Published by University of Mississippi, Jackson

Heroism shows up in unexpected circumstances.  There are individuals  who, unmindful of their own safety, rush into burning buildings to rescue children and animals, or jump off bridges into freezing rivers to save someone going down for the third time.  These fearless souls are deserving of every kind of recognition and accolade awarded them.  Society depends on them to not only do the right thing, but to do the extraordinary thing, and justly honors them for their performance.  Their actions speak about what lies latent in all of us.

There are other, less obvious forms of heroism which are rarely rewarded with medals or commendations.  People struggle in vastly ordinary, but extremely trying circumstances : a mother raising children  alone, a disabled husband working a full time job, a chronically  ill child fighting to stay alive, an elderly man living without enough food or shelter. For some, facing each day with determination is a kind of heroism,  in its own way equal to those who tear off their shirts to leap into raging waters.

Patt Blue is a chronicler of this other kind of heroism.  A photographer and writer, Blue has used her camera to probe the darker corners of existence.  Her work confronts our deepest questions about the human ability to change, the inner realm of the self, and the undeniable fact of our mortality. Her mission has been nothing short of an attempt to reveal the depths of the human condition.

One of Blue's earliest projects took her to the back ward of a long term hospital for the seriously disabled.  The essays that resulted from this experience, "Other People," paired color snapshots of celebrations, such as birthdays and weddings, with black and white photographs of patients at Goldwater Hospital in New York. The work aimed to bridge the abyss that lies between the healthy and the sick.  Life magazine used a segment of this essay, the story of a once beautiful young woman with advanced Multiple Sclerosis, to be part of its own treatment on the same subject.

"The Clevelands:  An American Family and the Culture of Poverty, 1973 - 1981"is another project in which Blue explored elements of neglect in our society.  "The Clevelands" documented the tribulations of a family with twelve children residing in rural New York. While this family met all the objective criteria of poverty they managed to forge a dignified life in the face of massive obstacles.  A version of this work was also published in Life.

Blue's interest in documentary subjects led her to a project she describes as "history in the moment." Beginning in 1991, Blue has photographed a close up of her face in the same straight-on position every day. The series, named "FACETIME," evolved out of a preoccupation with aging. "Every blink," she says, "is the past. I am aging at such an infinitesimal pace it is beyond comprehension of eye and mind to see and retain experience simultaneous to experience." The work, which now consists of hundreds of 8"X 10"black and white prints arranged in a floor to ceiling grid, has the same obsessive quality of mystery as the photographs of water towers by Hilla and Bernd Becher. At first glance each face, uniformly photographed with passionless objectivity, appears to be identical. However, upon close inspection, every image reveals a slight variance.  The uniqueness is in the structure itself.  The series is ongoing.

Blue's new book, Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale  is a narrative  of the disintegration  of a family torn apart by the wanderings and perfidy of a faithless husband.  It is the story of a talented man with a weakness for women, a man who has the potential to have everything,  and instead destroys everything in his path.

The family in question is her own. Blue's father, the reckless, handsome, and charming J.W. Clarkson, Jr. is a man whose self involvement and pathological  need for control led him to seduce nearly every woman who came within his line of sight, and to marry and remarry her mother three times over a thirty year period.  (During the last union he was also married to someone else.)  A bigamist, deceiver, and poor provider, he dragged his family from state to state, on the run from a woman (Norma) whom he had repeatedly promised to marry;  at one point going so far as to leave her standing at the alter with minister and family patiently waiting for a groom who never arrives. (He had a problem. He hadn't divorced Blue's mother.)  Norma relentlessly pursued J.W., even notifying his employer that he was involved with a woman other than his wife. He was subsequently fired.

We learn most of this tale through the voice of Blue's mother, Willie Louise Davis Clarkson,  a woman in the grip of a maddening dependence on her husband. Enthralled by his lies and promises, she is willing to endure any indignity if it might preserve her marriage. Convinced that saintliness will inspire her husband to do right , she says, "I thought it was my duty to be good to my husband, and I felt like if I did, it would make him feel bad when he'd go out, he'd be thinking about how good I am.  This is ridiculous, I know now."

In the background are the children;  a daughter and two sons, with the second born 17 years after the first child. These children listen on the other side of thin walls in ramshackle houses to the raised voices of immature and self-destructive  parents. A daughter, now grown up, and a feminist,  labors to understand how her good hearted,  loving mother stayed for so long in a marriage enduring decades of psychological abuse. "Why" Blue asks, "did she stay with him all those years?"

Why does any woman stay with a philandering husband?  Perhaps Hillary Clinton has something to tell us. Thanks to her husband, faithlessness is much on the minds of Americans.  Clinton wasn't the first and he won't be the last to betray his wife, (and vice versa.) If there is any good to come out of the current national spectacle, perhaps it will be that all the long suffering wives (and husbands) whose partners have "played around" can take cold comfort in the realization  that they are not alone;  among the high and the low, the mighty and the weak, spouses stray. In Living On A Dream   Louise says, ". . .I wanted to believe in him. I thought, when you marry, it's for life. ... he was master of the house and I had to do what he told me to do."

The word "enabler" had not yet been coined. Louise does what her husband asks even when it's for a divorce and then remarriage again and yet again.

"Ours was a Sexy House"

J.W. was a photographer.  "In all the many houses we lived in, no matter how small, even if my brother had to sleep on the couch, my father always had a darkroom," remembers Blue. "He was a serious amateur, interested in psychological and human portraiture.  There were boxes and boxes of his pictures around the house, but we never had any of the usual snapshots of family events or celebrations."

Louise was his favorite subject. "He got a big thrill out of figuring different positions for me to do," she tells her daughter many years after. " He liked to photograph up my dress when I was sitting on the front steps. . . On a trip with him once, he had me lay down in some weeds for him to photograph me pulling up my dress. . . He acted like he owned my whole body. I'd always say, "No, I don't want to. Please don't do this to me." J.W. always had a reply: "Well, if you don't do it I bet I can find somebody that will!"

He also took nude photographs of himself with and without an erection.  Sneaking around the house looking for pictures of naked people was a favorite pastime for Blue and her best friend. "We became diligent detectives and learned that the sexiest place in the house was my father's darkroom or the filing cabinet that he had forgotten to lock."

On the run from Norma, the family moved eleven times by the time Blue was eighteen; sometimes to places with no furniture and sometimes "out in the sticks."  J.W. was variously with the family and not. Money was scarce. Norma always followed.

Eventually there was another divorce and another remarriage. Norma had a child. J.W. supported two families, dancing between them, always dominating his wife and children, ruling over the smallest details of their lives. "We seemed to be in hiding, as if we were outcasts from the normal world," writes Blue.

Louise was not allowed to wear red. Blue's school clothes were chosen by her father from a Montgomery Ward Catalog without her input or consent.  Anything  the children wanted to do was forbidden. Nevertheless, Blue grew into an independent  and wild teenager, sneaking out at night to make out with boys in the back seats of cars, deliberately trying to be a "bad" girl.

With promises and lies, J.W. convinced  Louise to move to a state where common-law marriage was legal, leaving their seventeen year old son penniless and homeless in New Orleans. Once in Texas J.W. abandoned Louise with Davy their youngest child.  Louise, who had never before been allowed to pay a bill, own a check book, or manage money, went out and got her own Social Security number and found a job.

By then their daughter had already left home for work and travel.  Free, finally from the constraints and restrictions of her oppressive father, she was having the time of her life only to learn she was pregnant with a child that she must give up for adoption.  For years she denied that the destructive forces of her family have caused any damage, seeking counseling that sets her on the path to healing  and recovery only after a suicide attempt.

Beginning in 1988, Blue spent two years traveling to Texas to record interviews with her mother and to rediscover her father's photographs, and then the next eight years assembling the pictures and writing the book.  She tells the story in layers, alternating  text from her journals, dreams, and letters with interviews with her mother.  Photographs taken by her father are woven together with Blue's contemporary images of the many houses where the family lived.

It may be surprising to speak to the pleasures of a book that recounts a tragedy, but they are there in the humility,  and patience of Louise's Southern drawl, in the flashes of humor and delight in the four inch high heels that she wears to dance in the kitchen, in Blue's haunting photographs of their various homes, and in the faded but telling images made so long ago by J.W.

Despite their long separation, (she has not seen him in thirty years ) Blue has come to understand the influence her father had on her life. "Like him, I photographed people. He photographed his wife and children.  I photographed strangers in pain. . . we will be forever linked by photography."

For Blue the project was a struggle to free herself from the shadow and shame of her parent's past.  It gave her a way to speak about the experiences of her own life as well as a way to fuse the dark side of each of her parents into something energetic and positive. "With my camera I have always confronted what I most feared," says Blue. Ironically, after two decades of photographing other people's troubles, she discovered her own personal Greek tragedy right in her own backyard.  Her courage in taking us on this journey and her triumph over it is it's own kind of heroism.
 

Photometro, Volume 16, Issue 153, 1998 © A.M. Rousseau
 

Some quotes in this article are from an interview with Patt Blue by Ann Marie Rousseau which has appeared in other publications.
 
 

CAPTIONS: titles of photographs

All photos should read ©Patt Blue 1998 along with title.

1. "Patricia and Wiley on Clover Street Front Porch, c.1951"

2. "Cover of Living on a Dream: A Marriage Tale, by Patt Blue"

3. "J.W. and Louise Photographed with Patricia's Brownie Hawkeye Camera, C.1955"

4. "Louise Posing as Pinup for J.W. in Front of Bedroom Door, C. 1950"
 

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