Some people, when their intimate relationship implodes, ritually tear or burn the photographs chronicling their time together.
Hinda Schuman took those images and made a book.
Schuman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer photographer who now freelances and teaches classes from her East Falls studio, documented the dissolution of not just one, but two, relationships — her 10-year marriage to a man and her 27-year relationship with a woman — in Dear Shirley, a book that uses photographs, typed letters, and hand-scribbled captions to tell its intimate, harrowing tales of love and loss.
Schuman, 70, was born in Brooklyn and married Jeremy Birch in 1971. Their wedding invitation is printed in Dear Shirley, along with a snapshot from the ceremony — she in a floor-length white caftan, he in a suit — that’s been ripped down the middle, the two halves placed imperfectly back together.
The image signals what is to come: In letters that start in 1978 to Shirley, a close friend, Schuman confides that Birch is sexually attracted to another woman. At the same time, the series captures the mundane details of Schuman’s life at the time:
Jeremy is having an affair with Nancy. The Subaru needs a new engine. I have a pinched nerve in my leg. All of New York City wants to come and see the foliage and stay with us.”
Black-and-white photographs of the couple — looking pensive, looking angry, looking anywhere but at each other — document how a relationship devolves not in a single moment but gradually, with distance supplanting intimacy. At the same time, Schuman was discovering a new sense of communion with Susan Toler, an employee at the women’s crisis center in Brattleboro, Vt., where Schuman worked. “I like her very much,” she wrote to Shirley in 1981. “We have so much in common … It’s the first real deep communication I’ve felt outside of these letters for a long time.”
By 1983, the couple had separated, then divorced, and Schuman moved to Philadelphia to begin a master’s program in photography at the Tyler School of Art. Eventually, Toler moved here, too. Dear Shirley traces their relationship from an early, tender kiss through a fraught period of living apart (while Toler was in law school in Washington) to the promise of an entwined future.
“But here we are, together on 49th Street, supporting each other all the way. As happy and as solid as any two women can be,” Schuman wrote to Toler in 1985.
In the final photograph of the book’s first section, Schuman is staring at her own partial image in a medicine-chest mirror. Most of the mirror reflects a door that — it’s hard to tell — may be open or closed.
The book’s second half, titled “A True Story,” depicts what happened next: a partnership that splintered into absence and busyness, missed signals and tense silences. The photographs in this section are in color, shot with a digital camera and accompanied by hand-written captions. “I had to fill out an emergency contact form for a job … I just froze. So I wrote ‘911,’ ” reads one, next to a photograph of Schuman’s head, viewed upside-down as though to indicate the 180-degree tilt in her world.
The penultimate photograph of “A True Story” is of Toler, nude from the waist up and reading in bed, her gaze fixed on a magazine, while Schuman, clothed, stares grimly at the camera. “I’m done,” reads the final caption. “I can’t do this anymore. It’s over.”
In the book’s first part, the letters to Shirley are typed on leaves of translucent paper, so the reader can view the photographs through the letters or lift the pages to see the pictures unobscured. Text and images “can stand alone, but they can also go back and forth and play off each other,” Schuman says.
Dear Shirley began as her master’s thesis, a photo-epistle of her marriage and her coming out. “I called it a ‘wall book.’ But in the mid-1980s, queer stuff wasn’t sellable or what people wanted to show.
“When Susan and I had been together for 25 years, I said, ‘I’d like to update the story.’ Then our relationship, which was a little teetery at the time, really started to nose-dive. I started thinking that I would be documenting the demise, the downfall.”
It took a colleague to suggest the two trajectories belonged in a single book, one that could take a highly personal story and make it resonate for readers. “If I’m going through it, that probably means there’s 97,000 other people going through it, but they don’t necessarily talk about it,” Schuman says. “They say, ‘I’m getting married’ or, ‘I’m getting divorced,’ but you miss what’s in the middle of that. I think it needs to be discussed.”
When Schuman worked at the Inquirer, her most memorable assignments involved photographing people on the margins — children affected by AIDS, a family forced to live in a motel after their trailer burned down. In her studio, photographs are pinned with tiny magnets to a wall covered in sheet metal: vibrant, arresting images from Cuba and Mississippi, along with a few pictures from Dear Shirley.
It wasn’t difficult to turn the camera on herself, Schuman says. “I’m an absolute believer that all photography is the photographer trying to make sense of themselves. Pretty much every photograph is in some little way a self-portrait.”
For Dear Shirley, Schuman secured Toler’s blessing to publish the images and captions about their relationship. She is no longer in touch with her ex-husband. And perhaps most heartbreakingly, her letters to Shirley end abruptly; the longtime friend apparently could not accept Schuman’s relationship with a woman, and she stopped writing back.
But the book has an unexpected, upbeat epilogue: after an eight-month separation, Schuman and Toler reconciled. They married, in Brooklyn, in 2014. Schuman hopes readers will take hope as much from the couple’s artfully documented travails as from their eventual truce.
“Every relationship, I can guarantee, has some struggle, somewhere. Rather than burying that, we should honor that and be proud of that. Tomorrow will be another chapter.”
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