photography, writing and the spaces between
Aperture, the venerable photography magazine, has dedicated its winter issue to an investigation of the interplay between words and images. Are we becoming more visually literate? Is our image-rich culture putting pressure on the written word? What do images accomplish better than words, and vice versa? Obviously, these questions lie at the heart of what I’ve been doing here at The Literate Lens for almost three years, so I was pretty excited to get my hands on the issue.
The question of whether images are supplanting words is not a new one. As the issue’s introduction points out, when Aperture was launched in 1952, critic and curator Nancy Newhall wrote (pretty damn presciently) that “perhaps the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images being born. Perhaps the printed page will disappear and even our records [will] be kept in images and sounds.”
Clearly, though, there has been an additional change in the last few decades. Old models of both writing and photography have become less viable, ceding to technological innovations. But what does it all mean? Which models are still valid, and what new ones are being created? Should we be celebrating these changes or mourning our losses?
Of course, these are difficult questions, and at first, the issue’s content doesn’t seem to address them head-on. There’s a lot of looking back rather than forward, with articles examining the photographic output of William S. Burroughs, a rediscovered 1930 novel-in-photos by Germaine Krull, and the way Walker Evans brought literary influences to bear on his photographic practice (and was a lyrical writer in his own right).
Rather than examining the differences between word and image, a lot of the articles go out of their way to emphasize similarities. In the article on Walker Evans, Evans is quoted calling photography “the most literary of the graphic arts” because it can have “qualities of eloquence, wit, grace, and economy; style, of course; structure and coherence; paradox, play and oxymoron.” Elsewhere, novelist Lynne Tillman posits that “fiction is another form of image-making,” and novelist Tom McCarthy suggests that “ultimately it’s all scriptural: things such as light or ink mark and are recorded on surfaces, and that’s an event of writing” (though he admits this is “a very writerly vision”).
In one fascinating article (again, looking at history), artist and writer Carmen Winant tells the story of New Directions, a publishing house that, in the 1930s, pioneered the use of artistic photographs on fiction and poetry book covers. Prior to this, book covers had been mostly text-based, but in order to boost sales, publisher James Laughlin began using black-and-white photographs on his covers. With their clean designs and creative techniques (double exposures, extreme close-ups, negative images, long exposures) the New Directions covers set a distinctive tone, communicating the Modernist sensibilities of writers like T.S. Eliot, Franz Kafka, and Henry Miller. “By using pictures to describe words, rather than the other way around, they jettisoned the artificial boundaries between the two,” Winant writes. Ever since then, book cover design “has become inexorably entangled with the experience of encountering, and traveling through, literature.”
Still, despite all these spirited arguments for word and image correspondence, there are differences. These are expressed in different—and eloquent—ways by some of the writers in the issue. Poet Ann Lauterbach talks about “the silence that every photograph compels us to acknowledge.” In an email conversation with writer Janet Malcolm, novelist and theorist Geoff Dyer writes of “the eternal question about photography…Is a photograph defined by what’s in it or by who took it? Well, a bit of both, obviously.” Fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have to grapple with that question because it is removed from the lived moment. In that sense, it can sometimes be less complicated to consume and analyze.
Are images trumping the written word? In my view, they aren’t (though admittedly, as a writer I obviously have a vested interest in believing that). After all, blogs and tweets are proliferating just as fast as Pinterest and Instagram posts. And nor is everything about brevity. The last couple of years have seen a resurgence of the long novel, with notable examples by debut novelists Matthew Thomas, Garth Risk Hallberg and Emma Cline. And if newspapers and magazines are dying a slow death, long form journalism is still alive and well online.
So what does the future hold? In Aperture, the writer who I think most gets to the heart of this matter is Teju Cole, both a novelist and a photographer (his 2012 novel Open City won the Pen/Hemingway award for first fiction). In a short but resonant piece, Cole suggests that although we’re living in a New World Order of Instagram, drones and optical recognition software, “we still have a hunger for poetry and lyricism, an intense hunger that is difficult to satisfy.” This urge of ours to transcend the mundane (or alternatively, celebrate it), is, Cole suggests, the very thing that makes us human. The poetic word and image “still matters,” he writes. “It is still as elusive as it ever was, and, just as ever, it is still worth chasing down.” In the end, I think it’s that urge that matters most, and not whether it’s expressed visually or verbally.