Bertha Alyce: unBLOCKED

by Peter Brown

Bertha Alyce: Mother Exposed
Gay Block
With Essays By Kathleen Stewart Howe And Eugenia Parry
Includes The Video, Bertha Alyce, (Running Time 23:34) On DVD University Of New Mexico Press, 2003
Produced In Conjunction With The Exhibition Bertha Alyce: A Photographic Biography (University Of New Mexico Art Museum, 2003)

Editor's Note: This traveling exhibition will be at the Houston Center for Photography in conjunction with FotoFest 2004,March 12-April 25, 2004.

Although Gay Block's 30-year photo­graphic career addresses a wide range of personal and political subjects, her life and work resolve in a surprising way in this memoir (and accompanying docu­mentary film). Block is probably best known for a project she exhibited on Holocaust rescuers at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992. Yet, despite the outward direction of much of her work, she is on record as saying that each time that she takes a picture, the subject she confronts is her mother. And given the evidence gathered in this book, it seems to be the truth. If a direct connection is not apparent, then at least the specter of Bertha Alyce Shlenker seems to float in the background.

Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed is a vel­vet brick of a book—more like a novel in format (7 x 10 inches, 290 pages) than a photographic monograph. It shares as much with recent memoir (Alice Sebold, Mary Carr, Ian Frazier, etc.) as it does with contemporary photography; and it moves photography into narrative in new ways. It's an R-rated family album—beautiful and moving, creepy and incendiary.

The main focus of the book involves the complex relationship between Block and her mother, Bertha Alyce, who died in 1991. But this book is about many things—faith in tenacity, in storytelling, and in the truths that a camera can actu­ally tell. It's about gilded cages, witchy mothers, and favored brothers. It's about princesses, princes, kings, queens, being Jewish, prominent, and wealthy in the South. It's about a mother, a daughter, and a private journey made public. It's about a battle defined at birth. It's about a bone-deep desire to get at truths that are unquestionably sad and implausibly redemptive. And it's about the way that photography, video, words, and design can tell a complex story in a new way.

Shifts in color, time, and content introduce the reader to people in Bertha Alyce's life (including a general disclaimer by two of her best friends). We are shown photographs of mothers that Block would have preferred, and are given examples of Bertha Alyce's odd combination of self-centeredness and generosity. After introductions, the book moves quickly into a timeline that follows Block and her family from her grandparents' generation to her mother's death and beyond.

Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed concerns two smart women. Each is ambitious—and each uses all the tools she can lay her hands on to shape her life. One of them happens to be a remarkable photographer and writer, and the other never quite grew up— a narcissist's narcissist. It's as if Diane Arbus had gone inward and photo­graphed the Nemerovs or as if she had been born into Lartigue's family, and the Lartigue family had been from Houston and overseen by a mother worthy of the oddest corners of Edward Albee's brain. Or something... It's quite a story.

Block tells us that her mother always wanted to be a Southern Belle, and came about as close to being one as a Jew might. Born Bertha Alyce Masur in Monroe, Louisiana, she was brought up rich by a father beloved in his town and a mother with problems. If not conven­tionally beautiful, she was striking, flirta­tious, and charming. She loved men, and she loved their attention. After careful consideration, Bertha Alyce married Irvin Shlenker, a bright man whose financial prospects interested her more than his love (earlier she had been jilted by the man she did love). And it quickly becomes apparent that Bertha Alyce had no great use for children beyond a deco­ration of sorts for the idealized life that she imagined for herself. In her after­word, Eugenia Parry writes a brief but compelling psychological analysis of Bertha Alyce that examines her parents —particularly her mother, who had a nervous breakdown and was removed from the family home at a vulnerable time in Bertha Alyce's young life.

The Shlenkers moved to Houston where Irvin became a banker and was quite successful. The couple ascended the social ladder and arrived at a place of apparent "royalty." They had two children, Sidney and Gay; ran their large home with hired help; attended impor­tant events; ultimately became philan­thropists; and helped to shape the city. Sidney went on to run the Astrodome, own the Denver Nuggets, and build the Memphis Pyramid, among other things. Gay, after a rocky childhood, married; had two kids; began to photograph seri­ously; left her husband; recognized her­self as lesbian; and eventually, with her partner, Malka Drucker, left town, first for Los Angeles and then for Santa Fe.

From the portrait we are given, Bertha Alyce seems to have done just about whatever she wanted to do. Money was never scarce, nor were affairs, and the social scene was what mattered. Her life centered on men, parties, friends, fundraisers, and the Temple. It did not center on her children, particularly Gay, who was taught from an early age to think of herself as fat, ugly, and stupid.

the start, she had talent. Some of the early Brownie shots are reminiscent of, and as good as early Eggleston's. She had an innate eye for color, composition, time, and for implied story. And she had found her subject matter. Her youth ful snapshots captured the embarras­sing things that no family would want acknowledged. Her later work reveals similar but more complex secrets involving the Houston Jewish com­munity. At base, the photographs attempt a reconciliation with her mother, and Bertha Alyce, despite a narcissistic availability, was not a mother to make reconciliation easy.

Throughout the book, we see the evidence of Block's investigations, not only through the camera (in every con­ceivable format), but also through video, tape recordings, and interviews. And each form becomes another tool to help her understand where she, her mother, and her community have come from. Initially, her work seemed critically edged, and Block herself speaks of what she thought of as a superficiality in her community that she hated. But time and understanding have softened her response. For example, we are given a series of Block's photographs that com­pares her mother's jewelry with her own. Bertha Alyce collected expensive jewelry, jewelry that Block did not particularly like, but that she eventually inherited. Block also, it seems, has bought a lot of jewelry over the years, but of a very different sort. We see the two collections compared in page after page—photo­graphs documenting two distinct styles of rings, earrings, bracelets, and the like. In a flash, Block seems to have found both a parallel and a difference in taste— along with a bittersweet recognition of the love that her mother gave to things— a love that might have gone elsewhere. The different lifestyles and a similar need for adornment is oddly innocent. Some shots include jewelry placed over frosted cakes, pies, and desserts—treats that Block consumed in the same com­forting way, when she was a child. Ulti­mately, the care with which both sets are arranged seems filled with both love and regret.

This is, finally, a photography book; and it's packed: with black and white, color, studio shoots, family portraits, candid snapshots at parties, and so on. The photographs carry a resonance, seriousness, and comprehensiveness that at times is close to overwhelming. The imagery of family and the narratives these images imply spin off each page in jangled ways (made artful in part thanks to the art direction of Cynthia Madan-sky). The range includes: old family pic­tures, black-and-white shots of Houston, color photographs from Miami and else­where, arranged photographs of jewelry and furs, an astonishing number of nudes, a series on Bertha Alyce's face­lift, stills from films and video, and even a Duane Michaels/Jules Feiffer-like series on Block's relationship with Malka. Quite a mix—with a surprisingly easy flow, at once entertaining, salacious, and low-key.

Something should be said about the nudes, for which Bertha Alyce was all too happy to pose (and which, when they were first exhibited scandalized her friends). This is not the stuff of normal family albums. Two quick examples: in the first, Gay and Bertha Alyce pose for Block's camera, naked to the waist, in what quite literally, is a comparative study of breasts. Bertha Alyce's comment is that she's sorry that Gay's breasts are not as pretty as hers. Another shocker comes from one of Block's dreams: in a close-up, we see a 6-karat diamond ring, that belonged to her mother, encircle a baby's penis. Gay Block has photographed nudes for decades, friends and strangers alike; it's interest­ing to consider the familial provenance of these photographs.
The two essays that follow Gay's work: a short appreciation and explica­tion of Gay's portraiture by Kathleen Stewart Howe and Eugenia Parry's lengthy ruminative psycho-historical essay, are well done, but ultimately unnecessary. Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed stands on its own. Good books don't need buttressing; and this one, as filled with words and explanation as it is, particularly doesn't. Parry's essay explores history that is not otherwise covered. Yet, it seems out of place in such a personal story, a story best told by Block herself.

After the bitterness, wistfulness, anger, and confusion conveyed in the book, Bertha Alyce, the video, gives us an oddly sympathetic impression of Block's mother. The even-handedness with which Bertha Alyce, the person, is approached gives the viewer a sense of trust in the evidence gathered in the book. There are no cheap shots. Granted, Bertha Alyce in most of the sessions is old; and some of the more self-reflective comments come after she has suffered a stroke. But she still comes across as struggling: a woman near the end of her life, trying with not a little confusion, to understand the ramifications of that life and her relationship with the daughter who questions her.

If there's hope here and new life, then so be it. Although we see and hear Bertha Alyce: Mother exPosed voyeuristically, all of us have had mothers and fathers; and each of us, in different ways, have navi­gated the lived pages of a similar family book. And in the end, we share Block's conflicted but enduring understanding of parental love. This book is a testament both to Gay Block's tenacity and to the tenacity of that love itself. One wonders, finally, if Block wants this story to end. Or if in fact it can. Where she goes next and the way that Bertha Alyce goes with her, seems to be the open question.Peter Brown is a photographer from Houston. His books are Seasons of Light and On the Plains. He has photographed his family for many years.