“A Life on Paper”
translated from the French by Edward Gauvin
The Siegling-Brunet collection without a doubt constitutes the most extensive gathering of photographs consecrated to a single person.
Kathrin Laetitia Siegling was born on January 12th, 1939 in London. She died in Amiens, where she had moved with her husband François Brunet, on April 14th, 1960. She lived, then, some 7,750 days during which, at the rate of some dozen shots every twenty-four hours, her picture was taken 93,284 times. To the best of my knowledge, the negatives were never preserved, but the 93,284 prints were. Meticulously numbered and ordered, they occupy five large metal trunks I acquired at the public auction of the Brunet estate, in 1974. Must I add that, at the time, I made off with the lot for next to nothing? Neither principal ballerina, nor movie star, nor Olympic champion in any way, nor even muse to a famous man, Kathrin Siegling never in her life enjoyed any notoriety likely to confer upon her image any market value. Victims of a lack of imagination too widespread to waste time stigmatizing, Brunet’s heirs sold off the chests containing in its entirety an iconography unique in all the world: the life of a woman captured and made fast hour after hour, from her birth to her death.
It seems an opportune time here to sum up the life and to sketch the portrait of the strange and tormented man who was, in the last part of his life, Anthony Mortimer Siegling, the father of Kathrin.
The fifth child of a Cheshire baronet, he was born in 1890 and fought on the front at Artois during the First World War. The eve of the Second found him successfully practicing business law in London. After a brief engagement, he married Louise Mary Atkinson. He was forty-eight years old. Louise Mary, thirty years his junior, died of puerperal fever shortly after giving birth to Kathrin. The cruel brevity of his happiness late in life explains, for me, what must be called Anthony Siegling’s “madness.” Fiancé, husband, father, and widower in the space of little more than year, he never got over the death of his wife. He might have, as has been known to happen, conceived a morbid rancor toward the child. He did nothing of the sort. Au contraire, toward her he devoted an affection legitimate in theory, but excessive in its manifestations—in one of them, at least.
The disappearance of someone dear to us leaves an emptiness to be filled in one way or another. The psychologists call this slow healing “grief work,” and we know what risks we run when it is not carried out: asthenia, heightened vulnerability, decline . . . Lost in grief, Anthony Siegling took it into his head to recover, to resurrect Louise Mary in the barely formed person of Kathrin. Better yet, through his young daughter he would possess all that had eluded him in her mother’s life. He would spy upon her childhood and adolescence, keeping successive images of these, opposing their erosion by the acid tide of time as no one before him had ever done.
His financial security facilitated the realization of what would have been, for a poorer man, a dream with no tomorrow. His professional obligations preventing him from pursuing his project with the necessary assiduity, he took on a photographer-in-residence to whom he gave the task of taking snapshots of Kathrin at regular intervals from morning till night. He himself had long practiced photography as a hobby. Every night, upon returning from the city, he proceeded to develop and print the day’s harvest of pictures.
We must imagine what these twenty years of unyielding routine, for him and for her, were like. For twenty years, Anthony Siegling went to bed only by way of the airless chamber, bathed in red light, that was his darkroom, after having selected, enlarged, developed and fixed, washed and dried a dozen portraits of his daughter. What could his thoughts, his state of mind have been—his exaltation and, almost certainly, his occasional exhaustion? In his infinite patience, night after night, picture after picture, was he able, in discerning an almost imperceptible change in Kathrin’s features, to surprise time at work? For truly, the mystery of time itself is caught in the continuity of the Siegling-Brunet collection. Kathrin’s appearance remains unchanged from photo to photo, and yet the first show us a newborn, and the last a woman dead at twenty… But the father’s passion, in every sense of the word, cannot make us forget the daughters. According to my inquiries, seven photographers succeeded one another at her side. I located and interviewed several of them. The most intelligent and sensitive of them, John Cory, told me unhesitatingly that he considered Anthony Siegling criminally insane, that the man had made of Kathrin’s life a road to Calvary. She was thirteen when he had taken up his duties at the Siegling household. He lasted only a few months, so greatly did the job displease him. I can still remember the very words he used to describe him. “Monsieur,” he told me, “that was not photography. It was espionage, persecution, mental cruelty! The poor child seemed to me a hunted animal… There was about her something of the doe who forever hears a twig snapping beneath the wolf’s paw. A sweet child, yes, but pale, pale, a drawn look, the flicker of anguish in her eye… And so many tics! She blinked all the time. You must understand, it wasn’t humane to put a young girl through all that. I wanted to leave it all. I explained myself to her father. He didn’t listen. He threw the last paycheck in my face. We almost came to blows. Bah! He was insane, that’s all there was to it!”
Kathrin died after falling down a flight of stairs at her in-laws’ house in Amiens, in the spring of 1960. She had just married François Brunet. She had met him during a ceremony commemorating Haig’s Army and the combat her father had seen. François Brunet was a press photographer. The day they met, he was covering the event for a major regional paper.
As for me, despite the rejections I’ve come up against till now, I have not despaired of someday convincing a patron to finance the museum of my dreams, where the collection with which chance has entrusted me will finally be exhibited in extenso. For I cannot keep myself from believing that the destiny of Kathrin Siegling-Brunet and the 93,284 photos that recreate her belong henceforth to the artistic heritage of humanity.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud has faithfully pursued, over the last thirty years, his muse of the fantastic outside the fashions of contemporary French fiction. His novel La Faculté des songes (Grasset, 1982), the third of seven, won in 1982 the prestigious Prix Renaudot, while his ninth and most recent collection of stories, Singe savant tabassé par deux clowns (Grasset, 2005), was awarded the Bourse Goncourt for achievement in the form.
Edward Gauvin is a young translator currently living in New York. His translation of Châteaureynaud's "Le Courtier Delaunay", the author's first appearance in English, was published last November in Words Without Borders, which also featured his work on novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint in April. He has also translated French comics and plays. (5/2006)