Poetry and Photography

  By John Veldhoen

A recent article by novelist Rick Moody on the Aperture Foundation website has to do with Teju Cole and the joining of literature and photography. The article notes examples of prosody in combination with the photograph, and includes a reference to W.G. Sebald’s novels, which utilized photographs, but were in most ways formally different than the type of photobook that combines words and images, inasmuch as Sebald used the photograph as a superimposition, or a means to weave through his narratives a thread, but what that thread is, what the photograph does to a text, or how it relates to it, or how photography is like, or different from literature is hard to define. There is a book about Sebald that is a delight from a few years ago for any interested reader who wants to see the breadth of influence that Sebald has had on the visual arts, or seeks a definition that I cannot provide in the space I have.

I recently read Yves Bonnefoy’s “Poetry and Photography” and struggled with it. I write that I read it, but the truth is that I finished far short, at the section where Bonnefoy references a work by Stephane Mallarme entitled “Igitur” that I did go on to read, and found deeply disturbing, and so also Bonnefoy’s definition of photography in turn, as it stems from his reading of the same vein of French symbolism. It makes me wonder, especially, what Bonnefoy’s reading of Shakespeare may be like, given that he was the preeminent translator of the Bard into French. In my school career, I wrote about Hamlet several times, until finally never wanting to write about Hamlet again. The last time also required a delve into Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams”, which yielded correspondence to a conceptualization of reality similar to Bonnefoy’s (and Mallarme’s) idea of poetry. All of this in turn, relates philosophy, and science, as it presupposes a worldview that we are, as Bonnefoy writes, “vain forms of matter; we are not”. When the reader asks if Hamlet’s madness is real, the question ought to be what is meant by “real”?

The Canadian philosopher Ian Hacking is a great deal of help answering the question with a concept he calls “elevator words”: “facts”, “truth”, and “reality”. Photographs and writing concatenate into series of facts that perspectival illusion aligns as truth, but all throughout, regardless of the perspective or the facts interwoven as they are, there is little reasonable way to reject reality. To use some poetic language, in my mind I can have a picture of an ibis and a cockerel. One is a thing that I have seen in real life, the other is one that I have never seen, but I can imagine, or can have had described to me, or I have seen pictures of. Regardless of being different, they are equally dependable. Even if they are not both experientially facts, or empirically true (although if I am given a preference, I would rather not have to infer). Still, I can say that they are both real. Reality is not a figment of my imagination in the way that Mallarme, Bonnefoy, or Hamlet would relegate photographs of a cockerel, or an ibis, or the ibis and cockerel themselves. Reality is not reduction, or construction, ironically. There is nothing devoid of form and substance. Realism and symbolism in literature, or in photography, communicate through the displacement of each other, and move together in a constant direction. Whatever these arts achieve depends on the degree to which they can be used to appreciate the scope of that direction.

All of which is all admittedly abstract, don’t you think? I mean, there are probably writer-photographers and photographer-writers. Sebald was a writer-photographer “Searching for Sebald” makes clear. But if you take Robert Adams as an example it is less crystal. I think Adams is a writer-photographer also, his books “Art Can Help”, “Beauty in Photography”, “Along Some Rivers”, and “Why People Photograph” are favorites of many of our customers, and the staff working at The Camera Store. Adams received a doctorate in English literature in the 60’s, and has written lucidly about the practice of photography for decades. His camera is the eye of his mind, but his pictures never feel like a superimposition of his mentality onto things as they are. I think this is because in the books of photographs that he has published he has allowed his photographs to speak for themselves. He has become an artist-photographer-writer. Yves Bonnefoy suggested that using the word poet should only used when speaking of someone else who deserves the title. The same could be said about using the word artist. My favorite book of Adams’, entitled “An Old Forest Road” has some lines from a few poets, W.S. Merwin and William Stafford, and a few sentences by Thoreau, but it speaks volumes.

Writing can become a caption to a photograph. The photographs that are in writer-artist Sebald’s novels are the inverse of the effect we normally experience in magazines and newspapers, where words capture pictures. The narrator’s recollection of his eyes adjusting and seeing like animals and their eyes in a nocturama of low light in the novel “Austerlitz”, and the gaze of philosophers and painters, means to anthropomorphically superimpose two different kinds of gazing, and the photograph captions a conceptual universe. Many photographers can take this kind of conceptualization and make use of it to create richly varied and deep bodies of work. This a practical suggestion.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.