In the novel, these different strands establish a tempo that eases us toward its conclusions, but I find only two useful: photographer and subject. The professor asks questions that in the end seem redundant, and the story involving the grower's family is smudged with the authorial fingerprints of Plot Device. Without those sections it's a much shorter book, and perhaps that's why they are included, but as editor I would have stricken them, and sent the manuscript back to Silver to reshape. The parts that work are profound; it seems unworthy to pad them with trivia.
The questions this book raises have to do with perception, and how we can and cannot affect how others see our lives. Silver's artistry is that, without asserting an answer, she lets us see the consequences. Do photographs lie, or mislead us? We think we know something about people by seeing their picture, but aren't we projecting our own ideas? What do we - can we - really know, just from a photo? When context is subtracted from the captured instant, aren't we at the mercy of our own experience and conjectures? A few sentences about the subject give us the illusion of empathy: surely we would rather believe a photo can make us feel more human, than acknowledge how isolated we are, how vast the gulf between my life as observer, and yours in one moment observed.
This photographed instant has its own trajectory. Even as the woman's life continues, largely anonymous, the photo becomes an icon: a rallying point for reformers pleading for migrant workers, an image that epitomizes a historic moment, an artistic statement that transcends both photographer and subject. Yet for her, it's a trap: some part of her is chained to that desperation. Even as she claws her way to a better life - her own home, her children grown - a glimpse of that picture tells her the rest of her experience is illusory: one shutter-click is all the world will ever know. It's a bitter irony: as time obliterates her and the progress she has made, the photo lives on, caught forever in hopelessness.
This book is also about women, and the added burden of being female in a world that limits what they can do. But they are strong, and stubborn: the photographer sets aside her work to be with her painter husband - but the drive to express her own vision finally frees her, and when she resumes, she understands more clearly what she wants her images to show. Mary Coin survives one catastrophe after another, because she does not give up - somewhere in her future her children will thrive; her persistence is the only force that will get them there.
By making these women characters not archetypes, this novel pulls us in without insisting we take sides. We can argue logically that Mary Coin should have had a smaller family - but she loves her children - if she could go back in time and prevent any of those seven pregnancies, we know she would not. We might think that the photographer - a woman, a cripple - would excite the sympathy of the migrant workers. She feels solidarity, that she's using her skill to help them - but no: they feel hostile toward her and her camera, her car, her life that can record theirs then go away. These unexpected attitudes animate the story. We're not reading a report, or a soap opera: these are real people, and their dilemmas don't have neat solutions.
Photography is distinct from other arts in that it gives the illusion of subtracting the artist from the encounter between viewer and image. When we see a painting, we understand it as an interpretation of a person, a scene, an emotional state. The factual nature of a painting is secondary, if it exists at all. But a photograph supposedly shows something Real. That woman was not acting at being impoverished or hungry or hopeless - whatever we see on her face was really there. But what about the photographer? She chose to frame the recorded image. She considered the light, the background, the area of focus - and out of many pictures, she was seeking one that would express directly the impact she felt. Though we do not see her, it is through her eyes, mind, experience that we see the subject.
And once the picture has been printed and published, she has no more control over it than does the woman depicted. It comes to encapsulate her work. She intended her portfolio to stir politicians to action, to rectify the circumstances she captured - but its immediacy and pathos remain potent today, long after we have forgotten the specifics of that injustice. That's what art does - it escapes the limits of its creation, reaching us years or centuries later with a still-familiar truth about the human condition.