Last night I gave a talk entitled “The Symbiosis of Photography and Text: Using Text to Enrich a Photographic Practice” as a part of the Miniclick series of talks organized by Brighton architectural and interiors photographer Jim Stephenson at Add the Colour Cafe & Gallery. With about 35-40 people in attendance, every seat in the cafe was full, which was fabulous – though I have to say I was a bit nervous, having not done much public speaking since I left full-time classroom teaching about year and a half ago.
I talked for about half an hour, and then asked attendees to participate in an exercise in writing about their own photography, using a step-by-step process to contextualize a picture they’d brought along, and then to share their results with the rest of us. Generally, my talk touched on the close relationship between writing and photography and the ways that utilizing language to create context for our images can engage viewers with the work in an image-saturated culture beyond a simple glance and a moving on.
We can and should integrate text into our photographic practice. I bring this up because it was only after I started to think beyond just getting a good picture of what was in front of me that my work started to coalesce. In the year since I’ve gotten my camera, I’ve won some awards and been selected for several exhibitions but I don’t attribute this simply to the merits of my photography, whatever those may be. The more research and portfolio reviews I do, the more I become certain of one thing and that is our ability to take a decent picture can matter little if we aren’t able to put that picture into context or develop a coherent narrative around it. In other words, as photographers we’ve got to be able to get beyond taking a nice picture (though obviously it’s important to know our craft) to thinking about our intentions and our ability to engage viewers in ways that get beyond a simple glance.
Metaphors for photography and writing are often used interchangeably, and at the level of language these two arts constantly intersect. Photography is a form of writing – literally “light writing” or according to other names it was given in the 19th century, “sun painting / sun writing”, “skiagraphy” (shadow writing) and William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature. We talk about photography as storytelling and writers are sometimes praised for having a snapshot or photographic style, to indicate that their work is particularly vivid. In On Photography, Susan Sontag compared photographs to “quotations.”
Flat vs. round
In literature, E.M. Forster gave us the vocabulary to talk about “flat” and “round” characters, flat characters those that lack emotional depth or complexity, while “round characters are capable of surprise, contradiction, and change”. We might also describe writers who create flat scenes, scenes in which the writer simply tells us what’s happening rather than shows us. Most often, this happens when writers forget that people experience the world through multiple senses – privileging sight over any other kind of sensory experience. As photographers, this is our endeavor: to privilege sight. But imagine how much we can add to the experience of engaging with our work if we make an effort to appeal to our viewers’ other senses.
Photographs, like written pages, are by their nature flat objects but every photograph we take implies all the things we can’t or didn’t capture. So what I’d like practice today is an attempt to make photographs round/to make looking at them a rounder experience. In my writing classes, I often use the metaphor of photography for writing in order to help my students think about their writing as something deliberately composed and constructed from a particular angle with deliberate choices made about what gets included and excluded from the frame. I’m hoping today that we can get the metaphor to work the other way: the photographer as writer.
A picture is worth 1000 words
Everybody knows the cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words. There is an historic tension between photography and writing, and usually this cliché is taken to mean that a picture obviates the need for a thousand words, that if we have a picture we no longer need words. But what if we interpreted that differently – what if we took it to mean that a picture deserves or demands a thousand words? Alfred Stieglitz, for example, believed that “great photos were symbolic constructs that involved conscious choices and thus called for commentary and narrative” (Brunet 98). In On Photography, Sontag argues that photos do not explain – they can only acknowledge (11).
How often have any of us had the experience of seeing a picture that was in and of itself relatively unremarkable until you read the accompanying explanation of the photographer’s process, goal, project, theory or concept? I know it happens to me all the time; “eh, big deal”, I think, until I’m confronted with the words that contextualize the picture for me, that situate it in a time, place, intention. Text is what often gives photos their moral and/or emotional weight.
Approaches to incorporating text
There are three overarching approaches that I’ve taken to this in my own work.
1. At its most obvious we can follow the example of Cartier-Bresson and deliberately include text in the photograph itself, in order to introduce elements like irony or humor or a clear message about what’s going on.
2. We can formulate an intention about what it is we want to illustrate – a theory or a concept – write it down and then shoot to illustrate that. For guidance and direction on this approach for local Brightonites and Londoners, I’d highly recommend the Creative Photography course at Garage Studios, for which one is required to adopt this method to complete the final project. The instructor there, Kevin Mason, really pushed me to think about the intention behind my work, and writing it all down beforehand.
3. We can shoot first and do the research later, using the exercise I’ve appended at the end of this discussion to help us start to pull together what there is to say about the image.
American Dream series
The first approach is something I’m deliberately attempting on a series of street photos I’m working on that illustrate the American recession and the economic decline of the southside of Indianapolis, my hometown. I’m using text in the content of the photos themselves here in order to create juxtaposition, contrast, irony – hoping to highlight consumerism as American religion and the dissonance between America’s image of itself and material reality.
I took the second approach with my Masks series (shot for the aforementioned course at Garage Studios), attempting to illustrate Judith Butler’s theory on the performativity of gender, one of the photos which then went on to win an award from the European Women’s Lobby on images of feminism.
With my Telephone Games series, I simply knew I wanted to shoot the location and it wasn’t until I wanted to exhibit the work and I realized I needed something coherent to say about the pictures that I was forced to start considering how they all fit together. With this particular series, I realized that the very subject matter – phone boxes – was all about words and verbal communication/language and thus that was the key to connecting them. Thus for this series, with the help of my husband, I put together an audio guide, engaging the viewer on an aural as well as a visual level. This is the approach for which the forthcoming writing exercise proved invaluable.
Photography as a Literary Art
Cartier-Bresson, who made a point of incorporating text into his photos, called photography “the most literary of the visual arts,” which begs the question of what it means to be literary. Does “literary” simply imply the use of text? What’s the difference between a literary piece of writing and one that’s not? I would argue that the appellation “literary” suggests the artist’s grounding in the historical, social and cultural context of his or her work and an engagement with the context, an idea of where she wants her work to fit in. Literariness has to do with allusion, imagery (though not just in the visual sense – I mean in terms of fullness of sensory appeal), style and character and importantly, a claim to deliver truths about human nature or the human experience.
Language & Perception
In On Photography, Susan Sontag calls photos a “grammar”, which suggests that they are a structure, a way to make sense of the world/ or that they order the way in which we see the world. As photographers, we see through cameras. But what is it that directs the way we see or directs the kinds of things we look at, that we are even capable of seeing in the first place? Philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein, Diane Ackerman, etc would argue that we must look to language for that. “The limits of my language”, says Wittgenstein, are the limits of my world. This is the idea that says, that for which we have no words we can have no thought, and that for which we have no thought, we can have no words.
What’s called “linguistic relativism” or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is this idea that language predetermines our perceptions. What’s interesting about this is that the roots of our written language are in pictures themselves. For example, when we look at the history of the Roman alphabet, we must go back to the Greek and then the Semitic alphabet, which started with cuneiforms.
When it comes to photography then, our use of language may determine what we’re even capable of seeing/looking for/looking at through our cameras or what we can see when we look at a picture. What this suggests to me is not so much a competition between writing and photography but an organic fusion of the two.
An Unremarkable Photograph
What I’m going to show you now, deliberately, is an unremarkable picture I took in Thailand, a basic happy tourist snap of the sunset – shot with a point and shoot. You might look at this picture and think, yeah, nice sunset – a serene scene, calm, tranquil, tropical, lovely – seen it a thousand times, whatever. I’d like to think, however, that once you’ve read its caption and title, it becomes somewhat more interesting.
Koh Tao, island lazing in the Gulf of Thailand, was untouched by the developers’ trucks until the beginning of the last decade. Koh Tao is yoga pillows on teak decks, boundarylessness, green papaya salad, open air salas, cushions on sun-warmed sand. It is bamboo mats, rolling roti carts, portable baby banana pancakes, sarongs, coconut steamed in banana leaves. Koh Tao is candles burning in placid water, phuang malai, night-blooming jasmine, constant construction, forklifts, fresh concrete, making way. Beauty perched on the precarious verge of ruin, the island’s construction forebodes its destruction already begun.
The residents are ill-equipped to manage the mounds of trash out here in the middle of the Gulf, garbage piled underfoot behind every bungalow giving lie to the controlled lushness of front gardens, Tiger and Singha beer bottles, empty flasks of Sangsum whiskey stacked in pyramids beneath the salas, plastic water bottles burning en masse, insidious fluorocarbons breezing up and out of the flames. As of yet, the plumeria bushes, the groves of palm, the stray roosters shrieking at the passing of every hour, the baskets of orchids dangling from the pink flowering branches of Javanese cassia—all of these remain more prominent than the refuse, but in the softening light of Thai sunsets, lonely fishing boats against a horizon, silhouetted against a dropping sun, petals begin to look as if they should rightfully drop from the trees. I wonder, with what strength can they keep holding on? Does a petal drop with the installation of every new concrete block?
For the writing exercise I used to come up with the above description and the audio guide and commentary on Telephone Games, please see the next blog post.