Reading Dorothy Braudy

By Selma Holo

Until the end to the nineteenth century and the increasing popularity of photography, cultivated men and women of that era were accustomed to draw and paint images of the people and places they encountered, ensuring that they would have the visual tools to recall them (either for pleasure or profit) in the days that lay ahead. Amateurs relied on the sketch as the principal prod to memory, even as Goya did when he obsessively drew the fetching Duchess of Alba, or Canaletto when he repeatedly recorded the buildings and piazzas of Venice. Sketchbooks were at the ready for visits to friends and family as well as for day trips- and certainly were always packed away for the much anticipated grand tours. Whether precise, detailed observations, casual sketches, or idealized fictions, the resulting images allowed for the recollection and reshaping of time past-for purposes as many and varied as the artist who made them.
When cameras came along, the sketching mania slowed down to a crawl even as the collective desire to “catch” the fleeting moments of life accelerated- in direct proportion to the ease of the new technology. Dorothy Braudy’s family was no different than any other in this respect. They took snapshots occasionally, and they stuck them away in albums and drawers. Finding them in shoeboxes, saving them from trashcan, without thinking of any purpose other than preservation, Dorothy collected this stash of black and whites taken of her family over the years. Then, one day, after a lifetime of dedicating herself to creating paintings based on her own immediately observed/ sometimes imagined reality, Dorothy realized that her snapshots were the trove of raw material she would assiduously mine for her next body of work. These photographs would escape their origin as the recordings of disparate instants taken by no longer identifiable thumbs pressing camera buttons. Rather, she decided, she would transform them into a painting cycle reflecting her life as they chronicled it. In so doing, she would stamp these fragments of time with her highly evolved style- she would transform those odd lots into art.
And so she studied all those images, each snapped in a second by parents and friends, aunts and cousins, and maybe even by some strangers. They became her “sketches.” Produced without effort, they triggered a massive effort of selection and then painting-an effort whose whole has come too far to exceed the sum of its parts. Excavating these remnants of of her family’s life, she has succeeded in constructing a cohesive narrative entirely her own which would certainly never have resulted as it did should any one of the characters in that mass of photos been the one to tell the tale.
Like any good curator (and storyteller) Dorothy chose the pictures that were most resonant for her: traveling in time and space, beginning about a century ago with her parents as children in California and Kentucky, traveling through her own childhood, her marriages, her children’s lives, and ending with the beginning of her life with Leo, her husband of many years. She chose these pictures at first because they were important to her emotionally, succumbing, as she describes it, to the “mystery” that each one contained for her. No doubt, as Walter Benjamin described it, she also surrendered to the “irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy¬† of that long-forgotten moment¬† the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.”
But by the time Dorothy painted the complete cycle of paintings, the cantos of her life, that sense of contingency had been absorbed into something much larger. Transformed by her Bonnard-influenced palette and her own solid formal groundedness, these paintings become, in a sense her artistic witness to the world at that time. They also mark another stage in the history of the representation of self in the time I described at the beginning of these remarks. Instead of, however, deriving from the skilled, personal sketch, these paintings emerge from the common image-making style of our own time. The end product, Dorothy’s cycle, reminds us of the essential role of art in the service of memory. Her pile of photographs, originally interesting only to her and her family, has entered into this larger artistic space and now belongs to us all.