Books

A Graphic Memoir About Learning to Cope with What’s Left Behind

Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir uses photos and the death of her uncle as touchstones to illustrate parallel forms of decay and loss.

Kristen Radtke, Imagine Wanting Only This

At the center of Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is the death of her uncle, with whom she is very close. The book begins when she’s a child, young enough to still be amazed by catching fireflies with her uncle, whose rare, life-threatening genetic heart condition is mentioned within the first few pages. But the majority of the story follows Radtke’s college and post-grad years when she is studying photography and exploring ruins and abandoned mining towns. Her black-and-white illustrative style often breaks with the traditional panel format for a mix of full-page collage spreads where the text floats in the white space of the images, creating an expansive landscape on the otherwise confining page, or utilizes the format of the medium in which her character is exploring — a sketchpad or letterhead as she writes to her friends, or a computer browser as she researches — layering in historical photographs when relevant.

At one point, in hopes of finding interesting urban landscapes to photograph, Radtke and her college boyfriend travel to the abandoned town of Gary, Indiana. There they discover the ruins of a church scattered with photographs in plastic bags covered with dirt. In the oft-parodied mindset of an art student, Radtke immediately says, “Let’s take them. For an installation.” Later, after doing some research on the site, she discovers that the photos were in fact carefully placed items in a memorial to another photographer, Seth Thomas, who was killed by a train while shooting near the site the day before his 24th birthday. Seth’s photos are all that remains of him — both literally and metaphorically — and the dirt they brushed off were his ashes, which his friends had scattered around the site. Radtke’s boyfriend is horrified by this discovery, shouting, “Kristen, you stole this guy’s memorial. I knew we shouldn’t have taken them.” But she holds on to the pictures. Seth’s photos and the death of her uncle are touchstones throughout the book, serving to illustrate parallel forms of decay and loss.

From Imagine Wanting Only This
From Imagine Wanting Only This

Whereas the literal linking of photographic remains and actual remains risks being obvious and trite, Radtke avoids this nostalgic notion of the photograph by contrasting it with a more modern one. In our hyper-documented age, most images are exchanged digitally and aren’t given the emotional weight of printed pictures. The excess reduces value: Why select the 10 best photos from a vacation when all 100 can easily be uploaded and shared to a Facebook album, or posted on Instagram as they occur? Radtke suggests that the compulsive sharing of images, this overwhelming desire to document, is related to the ability of these images to say remember and I was here. But as the abandoned towns and ruins she visits demonstrate, documentation does not deter decay; even what’s left behind eventually fades.

While she is away in school, Radtke attempts to keep in touch with her uncle. An image of her empty living room with a splashy word bubble coming out of her phone says, “Hey sweetie, it went perfect, the doctors said I had no fat on my heart because I’m so big and strong.” The panel below that shows a cell phone open to a picture of her uncle covered in wires in a hospital bed, the “DELETE” selection hovering over it. “I didn’t like looking at it, the wires and tubes and orange goo on his arms,” her narrative explains. While she continues to hold on to Seth’s photos despite their molding and leaking, she does delete the unsettling picture of her uncle. Radtke explains, “I never connected the image to my uncle directly. His pain is something I have no concrete memory of considering.” After her uncle passes away, Radtke laments to her boyfriend, “I just can’t believe I deleted his message, and then he died later that day.”

From Imagine Wanting Only This

Radtke is certainly not the first to parallel an exploration of photography with that of death. Most famously, Roland Barthes did this in his seminal book Camera Lucida, in which the death of his mother figures heavily into his analysis of photographs as referents. But Radtke interrogates this established reading by contrasting the treatment of printed images and digital ones, extended further to contrast physical and digital detritus. One of the book’s most visually and emotionally striking moments occurs several months after her uncle’s death. While home before leaving to travel abroad, Radtke finds an old cassette tape of an interview she did with her uncle as a child. She climbs into a car (the only available means to play a cassette tape!) and puts it in. The visuals splice together her uncle’s words coming from the dashboard with her childhood self conducting the interview, as well as her present-day self curled in the car listening. Surrounded heavily by a solid black background and vertical lines, the images are stark and dramatic, successfully giving the impression of how startling it is to hear the voice of a dead loved one emanating artificially into a dark garage. Rather than over-determining this experience, she lets it hang as the final image of the chapter, asking: How do we cope with what’s left behind? How do we deal with the physical and digital detritus after something has been abandoned or someone is no longer with us?

After her uncle’s death, Radtke continues her urban exploration, seeking out more deserted towns and ruined buildings. While abroad, she watches the clichéd travel photographs pile up and thinks, Every city we visited afterward began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future. Instead of continuing in that vein, she decides, “Let’s go someplace more exciting. I want to go somewhere no one else I know has been.” At some point during this trip, she misplaces Seth’s molding bag of photographs, which she’s been carrying around for years. Then she stumbles upon a documentary about urban explorers that mentions Seth. Ruins are often born in the wake of stasis, she thinks. That’s easy enough to sense. Maybe being stuck is what killed Seth.

From Imagine Wanting Only This

Radtke’s memoir documents what’s often brushed aside as a “millennial” problem: the restlessness of staying still while simultaneously wanting to be rooted, to be present and known — to mark something as one’s own. Radtke expresses this sentiment while she is living in Iowa City during graduate school: “It was an easy place to feel you’d conquered. It was a whole new kind of ownership … I was never again going to live in a town of houses so filled by people that I knew. I didn’t want to sit still, but I didn’t want to lose anything, either.”

From Imagine Wanting Only This

The photographs degrade like the cities and buildings Radtke desperately seeks out, leaving behind only ruins, which decay like bodies after one has died. As she travels, visiting more and more sites of things that once were, her images bleed together — chests cut open to reveal hearts in the center of abandoned cathedrals, memories of her uncle merged with historical accounts of past residents — as she struggles to make sense of how something or someone can go from being so full to so empty. “And when you love and then cannot continue that loving? And when the walls of a heart designed for protection turn in on themselves? What can be made of the spaces that we cannot witness?” she wonders. Bearing witness, staking claim, and documenting life loom large. Recalling her travels to the Philippines and beyond, she explains, “There were a people nothing like us. These were a people who did not have what we have now. We forget that everything will become no longer ours.” Even our bodies.

In her final revelations of the book, she returns to this claim: “Who knows what will be significant when we have all moved on to whatever is waiting or not waiting? You will have touched nothing on earth.” Everything rots, decays, and disappears, despite the metaphorical significance and seeming permanence given to physical remains, just like the digital detritus carelessly left behind from years of trying to claim and provide permanence. In the end, nothing remains.

From Imagine Wanting Only This

Imagine Wanting Only This is now available from Pantheon.

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