The literary landscape – some random reflections
Seamus Heaney, the Northern Irish poet refers to, “this feeling, assenting, equable marriage between the geographical country and the country of the mind …” (The Sense of Place in Preoccupations (1980)).
My particular photographic interest is landscape (or perhaps more accurately topography) as it affects and influences the work of authors or poets. As a means of accurately documenting what I will refer to loosely as “literary topography” the artist’s paintbrush and the camera are clearly the most appropriate tools: of the two, the latter is certainly the most practical and convenient! One may argue that work of literature or a poem should be judged as a self-standing creation divorced from the reality of the places where the author or poet lives, where he spent his childhood or indeed where his travels take him. I would disagree with that approach. For example, much of the poetry of Yeats and Heaney can only be fully appreciated or understood in the context of the landscapes which they knew and loved – the west of Ireland in the case of Yeats, rural Northern Ireland in the case of Heaney. The same could be said of Philip Larkin many of whose poems reference his upbringing in Coventry, his education at Oxford and the city of Hull where he spent much of his adult life.
I have already documented photographically the loci of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. Sussex, where I now live, is a county brimming with literary associations – Blake, Shelley, Kipling, Belloc, Virginia Woolf to name but a few. In my photographic practice, I hope to explore the relationship between the Sussex countryside and the life and work of these and other literary figures.
There could of course be a broader discussion on the relationship between the written word and the pictorial image, whether a traditional work of art such as a painting or a photograph. The world’s major galleries are replete with works of art from the Renaissance painters to the pre-Raphaelites depicting episodes from the Bible, mythology and literature. An alternative perspective would be to consider the influence of the pictorial image on literature. For example, Anthony Powell’s sequence A Dance to the Music of Time takes not only its title, but also its structure from Poussin’s painting in the Wallace Collection in London. In Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, paintings – to which there are over 200 references – are integral to the narrative: for example, the death of the novelist Bergotte in The Captive, the fifth novel in the sequence, occurs while he studies a “little patch of yellow wall” in Vermeer’s View of Delft.
Proust also took an interest in photography. However, he contrasted the photograph as a means of capturing the fleeting instance negatively with the power of memory, considering in Susan Sontag’s words its “yield …insignificant compared with the deep discoveries to be made by responding to cues given by all the senses…” (On Photography, The Image World, 1977).