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Worth a Thousand Words? Writers and Their Photography
Several well-known writers have also been talented, prolific photographers, and this book recommendations piece highlights photography books by novelists and poets in our circulating collection. See this accompanying slide show with samples of their work. —Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
"As I gathered these [written] impressions it became apparent that I was making images with the characteristics of photographs, such as the eye for detail and the aura of detachment, of impersonal observation. It was clear to me, however, that a writer who wanted a picture of something might well take it rather than describe it.” –Wright Morris
August Strindberg’s (1849-1912) reputation rests on plays such as Master Olof and Miss Julie and their influence on generations of playwrights. An exceptionally
prolific writer (he wrote over sixty plays and many books of fiction, autobiography, and more), Strindberg also found time to paint and photograph. As a photographer, Strindberg explored imaginative realms of inspired experimentation that mirrored his interests in alchemy, science, and mysticism. In the 1890s, he built primitive photographic tools that had no lenses, and going a step further, Strindberg even developed images using no camera at all. By directly exposing photographic plates to the night sky, he created a series called celestographs, while another camera-less process produced beautiful, muted saline crystallizations that he called photograms. Strindberg also took portraits of himself and his family that show an interest in more traditional photography. Strindberg: Painter and Photographer (2001) contains a splendid sampling of his visual art as well as essays that place it in the context of his written work and the artistic atmosphere of his time.
The social writings and fictional works of Jack London (1876-1916) are still popular, appealing to a wide range of readers. Far less known are his photographs, despite the fact that he produced nearly 12,000 between 1900 and 1916. Jack London: Photographer (2010) contains over 200 images in series covering lives of the poor in the East End of London (1903; also see his book People of the Abyss), the Russo-Japanese War (1904); the San Francisco Earthquake (1906), the Mexican Revolution (1914), indigenous islanders of the South Seas (1907-8), and more. At their best, London’s photographs share many of the qualities of his writing: immediacy and rawness, an interest in the lives of marginalized people, and a generous reckoning with the humanity of his subjects.
Before publishing the novels and stories that made her famous, Eudora Welty (1909-2001) took “several hundred” pictures in her native Mississippi during the Great Depression. Welty was employed by the WPA—but not as a photographer. She was actually a publicity agent, and her photographs have “nothing to do with the WPA. But the WPA gave me the chance to travel.” Although similar in subject matter and setting to many photographs by WPA/FSA photographers, Welty revealingly calls her pictures “snapshots” and considers them not social documents but a “family album.” There is a refreshing ease to her pictures, a spontaneity and range that is attributable to Welty’s ability to “move through the scene openly and yet invisibly because I was part of it.” This ability, combined with her keen eye, produced images that often hold up better than many of the well-known pictures taken by WPA-employed contemporaries weighted with documentary and social purpose. The Library has two books of her photography: One Time, One Place (1971), which contains an introduction by Welty; and Eudora Welty: Photographs (1989), a more extensive and slicker selection with an introduction by Reynolds Price and a lengthy interview with Welty.
“In both cases, writing and photography, you were trying to portray what you saw, and truthfully…a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a story, in all its depth, tries to do.” –Eudora Welty
Wright Morris (1910-1998) published nineteen novels, several short story collections, and acclaimed volumes of memoirs. His novel The Field of Vision won the National Book Award in 1956, and Plains Song won the American Book Award in 1980. Much of his fiction is set in the Great Plains and Midwest and has been compared to Sherwood Anderson for its often bleak depiction of American life. Morris was also a very active photographer, publishing several collections of images beginning in the late 1940s and exhibiting his work several times at MoMA. Familiar objects—tools of everyday living, vernacular architecture—were Morris’s chosen subjects, particularly when they: “impress me as icons, with a sense of their own—a mystic meaning proper to themselves… [where] exposure to human use has shaped them… American ruins, the old, the worn, the declined, the time-ravaged, the used, abused and abandoned aroused me.” If you like Walker Evans or William Christenberry, you may like Morris's work. The Library owns over 30 titles by Morris, including the photographic works Photographs and Words (1982) and God’s Country & My People (1968). A notable example of Morris’s groundbreaking work with “photo-texts” or “visual novels” is The Home Place (1948), where full-page photographs alternate with the novel’s text.
Philip Larkin is, of course, one of the giants of 20th century poetry. He also wrote two novels, Girl in Winter and Jill, was a jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph (see Larkin's Jazz: Essays and Reviews, 1940-84 and All What Jazz: a Record Diary 1961-1971), a librarian, and an enthusiastic, talented photographer. The Importance of Elsewhere (2015) includes about 200 of his pictures, with biographical information and context provided by Richard Bradford, author of the 2009 Larkin biography First Boredom, Then Fear. Larkin's portraits of friends, lovers, and himself, and his images of rural landscapes and village churches, "display the full range of his poetic sensibility, from the melancholic to the comical" (New Yorker). And speaking of widely read 20th century poets and photography, if you are a fan of the Beats, check out Allen Ginsberg’s book of photographs Beat Memories, which chronicles Ginsberg’s friends and associates (Burroughs, Kerouac, Corso, Robert Frank, Harry Smith, etc.) in eighty intimate photographs with handwritten captions by Ginsberg. The book also includes an essay on Ginsberg’s photography and an interview.
“…it’s like having a telescope into time to see moments or instances that now seem sacred and glamorous, more tragic, poignant certainly, because the moment has passed.” —Allen Ginsberg
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) began taking pictures in 1856 while still known as Charles Dodgson and employed as a math lecturer at Oxford. Portraiture was Carroll’s main interest, and several famous Victorians sat for pictures, including Tennyson, Charlotte M. Yonge, John Ruskin, the Rossettis, and more. But it is his pictures of children—particularly the children of H.G. Liddell, his college dean—that are best-known. Carroll’s friendships with his young subjects and the photographs he took of them provided the direct inspiration for internationally beloved children’s classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. His photographs are artfully, meticulously arranged, but where they truly succeed is capturing the personality of his subjects, catching their fleeting youth and vividly recording it. His portraits compare favorably with contemporaries such as Julia Margaret Cameron, and photographers, photo historians, and critics agree that his work would likely be well known even without his fame as a children’s author. The Library has three books devoted to Carroll’s photography: Simon Winchester’s The Alice Behind Wonderland (2011), a brief look at the photographic origins of Carroll’s books; Lewis Carroll, Photographer (1969) by Helmut Gernsheim; and Reflections in a Looking Glass (1998) by Morton Cohen, published in conjunction with a traveling exhibition and containing dozens of nicely printed images.
Teju Cole writes about photography for the New York Times but is known to most of our members for his 2011 novel Open City, a critically acclaimed bestseller that topped many a year-end “best of” list, won an NYSL New York City Book Award, and continues to circulate regularly at the Society Library. In June 2017, Cole published a book of photography called Blind Spot, a sort of episodic, lyrical travel essay merging words and images. Cole’s subjects are generally at first glance “ordinary”—no splashy shots of recognizable landmarks here—and each color photograph is accompanied by a terse caption disclosing the location of the picture. A paragraph or two of dense, allusive, associative, meditative text reflecting on the image appears on the facing page. One may be intially reminded of color photographers like Stephen Shore, Joel Myerowitz, or Wiliam Eggleston, but Cole's way of merging pictures and words is his own.
"I know a lot of photographers who are a lot better than me, who don't have a big, pretty coffee table book like I have. I'm lucky." —Allen Ginsberg