Are images trumping the written word? Even in the age of instant visual communication via Instagram and Snapchat, this isn’t a new question. Photography critic and curator Nancy Newhall wrote in 1952, in the first issue of this magazine, of which she was a founder: “Perhaps the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born.
Lew Thomas came to photography late, when he was already in his thirties, and never quite shed his outsider status among the photography establishment of his native San Francisco. An influential figure in the Bay Area art scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Thomas, aside from making and showing his work, also organized group exhibitions for local nonprofit art spaces and museums, and published books with Donna-Lee Phillips under the imprint NFS (Not-For-Sale) Press.
PBS Documentaries In the late 1960s, PBS aired a series of documentaries on contemporary art. These beautiful thirty-minute black-and-white films introduced me to the work of Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Barnett Newman.
I lived in Paris mostly from 1955 to 1965. This photograph, called Boulevard Saint-Germain, Before the Deux Magots Café, Paris 1959, is by Sergio Larrain. The Café Deux Magots was a favorite hangout of mine, at least when I was flush enough to afford it.
Krakow, Poland, is called a “festival city,” and indeed, the city hosts many: literature, film, music (from classical to contemporary), and, finally, Photomonth, the most important photography festival in the country. After 1989, i.e., following the fall of communism, the Krakow photography scene was reborn, along with the rest of the country.
Of the influential British art critic and novelist John Berger, writer Geoff Dyer deems most striking Berger’s “ability to keep looking, staring at a picture until it yields its secrets.” Dyer’s comment appears during the following exchange with critic Janet Malcolm.
Of all the various practices of photography—advertising, industrial imaging, family albums, and the rest—it is perhaps photojournalism that brings together word and image most often and most necessarily. Usually it involves two people—a photographer and a writer—collaborating, ideally.
What kind of pressure does photography place on the written word today? Aperture recently spoke with contemporary fiction writers Teju Cole, Mary Gaitskill, Rivka Galchen, Tom McCarthy, and Lynne Tillman about photography and the role of the image in their writing process.
At midcentury, New Directions press published an unparalleled group of writers, packaging challenging literary works in austere and often experimental photographic covers that matched the freshness of the writing inside. New Directions, one of the most significant publishers of modernist literature, was founded on a failure.
Literary and personal histories coalesce in Moyra Davey’s elegant works in photography and video. For her ongoing “mailer” projects, begun in 2006 and included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Davey folds photographs made with a point-and-shoot camera and printed on durable paper and mails them to various recipients, including family and colleagues; when unfolded and displayed in grid formation on gallery walls, the images, photo-letters marked with sections of colorful tape and postage stamps, bear the traces of transit.
I shall always refuse to be a photographer: this attraction frightens me, it seems to me that it can quickly turn to madness, because everything is photographable, everything is interesting to photograph, and out of one day of one's life one could cut out thousands of instants, thousands of little surfaces, and if one begins why stop?
Beginning with her 2009 series Today I Wrote Nothing—comprising twenty-two photographs of poems composed from fragments of a brief 1937 journal entry by then-imprisoned Russian author Daniil Kharms—Natalie Czech has produced a distinct body of work that blurs the acts of writing and photographing, reading and seeing.
Erica Baum is fascinated by the printed word. Whether scavenging newspaper clippings, vintage paperbacks, or halfcleaned chalkboards, she reveals unexpected poetry in the language that permeates everyday life. She approaches these materials almost scientifically, creating discrete but concurrent series of images that straightforwardly document their sources.
Few words were as loaded for William S. Burroughs as to shoot. The novelist loved his firearms (the fatal wounding of his wife Joan Vollmer during a game of William Tell in a Mexico City bar in 1951 didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for guns), and few writers are as closely associated with their heroin habits as the author of Junky.
They are everywhere in the writings of Samuel Beckett, these ancient, hunched figures on the point of collapse—looking as if they will snap or fold in two. They huddle inside filthy dens in his fictional trilogy (Molloy, 1951; Malone Dies, 1951; The Unnamable, 1953).
Japanese novelist and playwright Kobo Abe (1924-1993) was a celebrated writer well before the international success and critical acclaim of his novel The Woman in the Dunes (1962). His first publication, the story collection The Wall—The Crime of S. Karma (1951), catapulted him into the literary limelight and invited comparisons to Franz Kafka.
Following an earlier project on shopping centers made around the time of the 2008 economic crash, Sarah Dobai began photographing shop-window displays in London and Paris. Literary references, from Tennessee Williams to Raymond Carver, have appeared in Dobai’s past projects, so it is fitting that she began to relate her images of windows to Nikolai Gogol’s darkly humorous 1842 tale, “The Overcoat,” which tells of the life and death of lowly government clerk Akaky Akakievich, who spends his days drearily copying documents until his life is transformed when he acquires a bespoke overcoat.
In 1959, John Cage delivered a series of short stories as a lecture, and subsequently performed them live and then recorded them with his frequent collaborator David Tudor. The resulting album, Indeterminacy, was released as a tworecord box set by Folkways Records in the same year, and consisted of Cage reading his stories out loud in one room—in no particular order, and at various speeds— while Tudor, in another room beyond Cage’s earshot, simultaneously played miscellaneous selections from Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Fontana Mix.
The Lonely Ones is not alone—it is the second of its kind. Photographer Gus Powell’s photobook The Lonely Ones is, in his own words, a “cover album” of the original, written and illustrated by William Steig in the early 1940s. Steig was a regular New Yorker illustrator and author of beloved children’s books like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Spinky Sulks and Shrek (to name the ones still on my bookshelf).
The handmade maquette for Germaine Krull’s unfinished photobook Roman was long believed lost, along with most of the German avant-garde photographer’s pre-World War II archive. In her 1976 memoir, Krull described the project as “...a book only with photographs.