Complicated families can breed interesting art. Why create your own narratives when your ancestors have left you enough dramatic material to feed generations of obsessional inquiry? By resurrecting stories too controversial to tell in their own time, artists can seek to vindicate their forebears, recasting scandals in light of contemporary moral standards and memorializing deceased and forgotten relatives. It’s a process more commonly attempted by writers than visual artists, but photographer Danny Conant takes on the challenge in her new show, “Letters From Paris,” on view until Dec. 9 at the artist-run Touchstone Gallery on 7th Street NW.
About 20 years ago, Conant, now 71, acquired stacks of yellowed turn-of-the-century letters when her husband’s parents moved out of their Cleveland Park home. In them, she found correspondence written from Paris in 1897 by an impetuous young woman named Bertha Conant and her husband, Walter Herriman Wickes. “They were in terrible shape. They were in shoe boxes with rubber bands around them,” says Conant of the long-unread missives. The Washington-based photographer kept the letters shelved until about five years ago, when she began to study them and think of ways to incorporate them into photographs.
Bertha Conant, an 18-year-old brunette whose pictures reveal a rounded face framed by frizzled curls, and her Camden, N.Y., family had set sail from New York City to Europe that year. Aboard the ship, Bertha, whom Danny Conant describes as “taking the trip to soothe a bruised heart from an unsuitable romance,” met up with a young architect. When they docked in London, the lovebirds eloped, eventually settling in Paris.
The newly minted Mr. and Mrs. Wickes shortly began writing a series of letters to the Conant family, most asking for money. Bertha soon became pregnant, and, as her family was preparing to visit her in Paris, her father suffered a stroke and died. Bertha herself then died during childbirth, leaving her husband with the infant Walter Herriman Wickes Jr. The junior Mr. Wickes was snatched by Bertha’s mother some months later and raised in New York as Lawrence Wickes Conant, eventually to become Danny Conant’s father-in-law. His father was prevented from ever seeing him again.
From this tangled tale Conant has created a series of 24 photo collages and photos hung with reproductions of the letters. Printed on Japanese and handmade Tibetan papers with special Piezography inks and an inkjet printer, the pieces are largely designed in Photoshop. Some of the collagestrue to their epistolary originshave a greeting-card quality. Others are thick with layers of photos and little touches, such as a scrap of lace or a layer of thick, translucent paper. The pictures were taken in Paris over the past several years, most of sites that complement the letters, such as gravestones or street signs. Some are less connected to the story, such as a shot of bare plane trees rising from a rainy concrete park, their shadows looking like the watery reflections of a submerged wood.
“I’m interested in combining photos with other media, instead of just a straight photograph,” says Conant, who is better known for her large silverprint photographs of Tibetan women. “I’m sort of pulling away from that. I like working on the computer. It’s frustrating, but I can do things I can’t do any other way.” Garance Franke-Ruta