Recovering a lost photograph
Christl took this picture, but never saw it
This is a story about grieving. Grieving and celebrating.
Christl, my wife of 42 years, died of pancreatic cancer, at home, three weeks after she was diagnosed, refused treatment, and went into hospice care to die on her own terms.
One day, eleven months later, I spent many hours looking through a camera card of hers that contined hundreds of photographs she took while walking around by herself on a visit to her native Vienna in 2011.
She saw the world like the painter she was — a place alive with inexplicable beauty, energy, depth, and delight. Many times, these pictures show the kinds of things we looked at and talked about together. Looking at these pictures was like being there with her, seeing through her eyes, hearing her tell what each scene was about.
She had shown me some of these when she got back home — including one she called “the Russian woman in furs,” admiring a display of expensive jewelry, embedded in layers of reflection. We got that one printed and framed it for an exhibit.
As if for balance, she photographed a cheerful window display of girlish angels as they rolled out Christmas cookies, one singing, one tasting the batter — their hair formed from pastry dough. (That is so Viennese!)
Everywhere, Christl saw children, women with babies, and Madonnas with the Christ Child. After all, this was the Christmas season in Austria, a majority Catholic country.
I thought of Christl at that age, shepherded around by pleasantly strict nuns with a band of obedient little girls who would become grown-ups with a solid foundation and a rebellious spirit.
This joyful dad showed her the infant he cradled in a sling. She had to have asked to see it.
Many times in our life, I saw Christl ask people if she could take their pictures, and I never heard anyone say no. People liked having her take their pictures. When she put the full power of her attention on them, they felt appreciated. They felt heard. They felt seen.
Among the shrines all over our home — from the huge Kwan Yin to the little sacred stones — Christl always had a Madonna with Child — several, really. And throughout her photos of Vienna, she found the Madonnas, both the traditional ones in art and altars, and the ones at this moment radiantly alive and loving their children.
No walk through Vienna would be complete without finding delight in some kind of weirdness, such as the headless figures in this lingerie display, with their elaborate headdress in the style of Fasching, the coming Austrian carnival season that is its counterpart to Mardi Gras.
This traditional solstice monster posed to have Christl take his picture on the subway — and smiled.
Packs of horned creatures swirled through the nighttime crowds at the great outdoor Christmas Market, ancient spirits of the earth, let loose for a time to tease and terrify.
No trip around Vienna would be complete without pausing in an elegant shop to taste a pastry, mit schlag — the whipped cream that is the secret sauce of Austrian cuisine.
I have left out the hundreds of photos of streets, buildings, statues, fountains, those magnificent doorways, a pub in a cellar dating to Roman times, the Danube, the great ferris wheel, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the great courtyards and ornate interiors, the Lippenzaner stallions (she had a photo of one in a stable), and people just being people where they live. I wanted to use pictures in which Christl shows us the city she saw and loved.
Now we get to the picture this article is about.
Christl took a series of photos on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace.
Then one photo was completely black. Only a couple of spots suggested that this had been an attempt to photograph something, but it had failed due to a problem with the exposure.
I wanted to see that picture. I wanted to see what she had seen.
Using Photoshop, I entered that blackness and worked with it, little by little adding light, gradually saturating the emerging forms, watching the blotches of pixellation spread and the sharpness melt away — as I brought back from oblivion the picture she intended to make, and never saw.
It was like creating a new memory of her.
After a marriage that filled 42 years with life, Christl Kaserer Grow died Feb. 15, 2021, three weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 76. Read more about her in “Home Birth, Home Death,” “At the Nude Beach in Vienna,” “Christl’s Resume as a Mom,” “Christl and the Icon Panties,” “A Myth that Guided Christl’s Life.”