Worlds beyond the carefully framed shots
In their respective second books, Gretchen Shirm and Emma Chapman position male photographers squarely in the frame as their main protagonists. Shirm’s debut, a collection of snapshots of a small-town community ( Having Cried Wolf, 2010), was deftly handled and her latest effort confirms she’s just as adept at longform fiction. Though the novel, like her anthology, is painted in rather melancholic tones, the characters are finely etched and well-lit against the sombre backdrop of events.
Andrew Spruce is a 37-year-old photographer whose lenses provide a convenient protective barrier against the world. He’s a spectator of life rather than a fully engaged participant: “There were people who lived inside themselves and those who lived their lives externally and he had already accepted which of the two he was.”
He may be cognisant of his tendency to re- coil under pressure but Andrew falters in his inability to forge close attachments; there’s a degree of anxiety and self-sabotage in his interactions that Shirm draws out in steadfast, unflinching detail.
It’s a book that’s interested in damage, particularly that which is resolutely hidden from others. In a telling character portrait, Shirm notes how for his fine arts honours degree An- drew photographed a porcelain teacup. But before shooting the picture he deliberately broke it along one side and re-glued it together and arranged the light so it caught the fine break. The final image captured was the just-visible crack.
It was the duality of perception that inspired him. Some people would simply behold an object of beauty; others would notice its fault line. For Andrew “the flaws were what he loved … To him there was more honesty in broken things than in things that looked shiny and new.”
It’s not surprisingly then, that he is drawn to Berlin, with its graffitied, battle-scarred landscape. That’s where we first meet him, living and working with his girlfriend Dominique, having left Australia three years ago in quest of a market more suited to his artistic ambitions.
But he’s drawn back home after finding out that his former lover Kirsten has been missing for three weeks. Retracing Kirsten’s final known steps, Andrew visits her family — wanting to understand what has happened certainly, but also seeking reassurance that he was not responsible for her actions, whatever they were.
Time spent with his mother brings to the surface his father’s death decades ago; these memories somehow commingle with Kirsten’s disappearance. Indeed, a sense of loss pervades the novel and photography is described as the “beauty of capturing something that would never happen again”.
When Andrew meets a girl with a lopsided face who would make an ideal subject for his latest exhibition, he begins to question his prioritisation of art over the messiness of life; it’s far easier to manipulate an image than to confront the truth. It’s gradually revealed that the carefully edited pictures are born of a control he