I'm thrilled to host Elizabteh Rynecki writing about her amazing book, Chasing Portraits. Thank you so, so much, Elizabeth!
Taped to the outside of my office door is a poster from my documentary film Kickstarter campaign. It’s a montage of my great-grandfather’s paintings along with a few behind the scenes photographs. On the inside of the door is a hurriedly scribbled warning: “KEEP OUT! I’m filming,” which I put outside to drive away distractions (or family members generally) when I am actually filming in my office. I don’t film too often, but it is grand central for the Chasing Portraits project.
For a project that once was a hobby, Chasing Portraits has pretty much taken over my life. The room reflects the myriad of roles (researcher, genealogist, art-historian) I’ve assumed over the years: piles of academic articles, bookshelves crammed with Holocaust memoirs, and cabinets filled with documents Grandpa George saved from the Second World War.
I like to write in my office early in the morning. Not yet distracted by the days’ demands, still warm and toasty in my pajamas, I glare at the computer monitor, hoping the story I seek to tell will somehow magically end up on the screen in front of me. As much as I’d like writing to be a joyous affirmation that just flows from mind to screen, most often for me it is a struggle to get the right words down, and then to edit them to say what I actually meant.
Last year my multiple responsibilities momentarily converged. On the one hand I faced the task of writing an emotionally difficult closing chapter of my book about an Israeli woman in possession of my great-grandfather’s paintings, while at the same time I needed to film a journal entry on my feelings about the situation. It was a moment whose details had not yet played out and as I prepared to film myself, the author in me tried to step back and figure out how to commit the scene to paper.
After I set up the HD camera on a tripod, I tested the mic, sat down, and looked at the LCD screen to assess my bedhead hairdo. That’s when I realized I was still wearing pajamas. Pajamas, because they are so comfortable, are absolutely brilliant attire for writing a book. They are not, however, ideal for showing oneself in the best light on film. But there I was, at 6am, focused on my thoughts about the Israeli collector conundrum while I wondered aloud, “Should I really film this in my pajamas?” As it turns out, expedience (or perhaps laziness and a desire for comfort) trumped vanity: I didn’t change my clothes.
I’d sort of forgotten about the moment, until the other day when Tina, my documentary film editor, included it in a clip she was thinking of using in the film.
“You can’t use that!” I said. I was mortified. No one would take me seriously. I looked, well, I looked like I was wearing my pajamas.
“It shows how you’ve really changed over the course of the project,” Tina said.
Tina, of course, was right. Eight years ago, when we filmed our first segment, I cared a lot about what I looked like on camera. It wasn’t that I didn’t care anymore, but for me the focus had shifted to the story itself, rather than being about me. To the extent I was in the story, I wanted to just be myself, rather than some idealized version of me, although watching myself in pajamas on film is still slightly horrifying.
I’ve learned to be strong in the Chasing Portraits project. Persistence and perseverance move me forward, help me to reach my goals. But I’ve also learned to be more vulnerable both on paper and on film. I hope that in the end, that vulnerability allows the reader and audience a way to get a little bit closer to understanding not just me, but the story of my great-grandfather’s art and my search for it that is the heart of Chasing Portraits.