Photography and literature

As my major project concerns two literary figures – albeit in relation to the landscapes with which they are associated rather than their works – I feel it is appropriate to give a short historical account of the relationship between photography and literature. That a link between the two genres has always existed is perhaps illustrated by William Henry Fox Talbot’s inclusion in his The Pencil of Nature (London, 1844-46) of the calotype he entitled “A Scene in a Library”:

A Scene in a Library (W H Fox Talbot)

The link was strengthened even further in Fox Talbot’s second photographic publication, Sun Pictures in Scotland (London, 1845) which took inspiration from the life and work of Sir Walter Scott.

Photographs feature in the plots of many celebrated literary works, notably Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1868-1869), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895). Milly Bloom, the daughter of Leopold and Molly in James Joyce’s Ulysses (!922) is learning to become a photographer. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927) contains meditations on photography and many references to photographs. This aspect of Proust’s oeuvre was the subject of a study by Brassaï (Proust in the Power of Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Chicago 2001). Brassaï drew interesting parallels between Proust’s ability in his writing to “fix the moment”  and the photographic image, writing (p. xi):

“In his battle against Time, that enemy of our precarious existence, ever on the offensive though never openly so, it was in photography , also born of an age-old longing  to halt the moment, to wrest it from the flux of duration in order to “fix” it forever in a semblance of eternity, that Proust found his best ally.” .

However, Susan Sontag  (in On Photography, 1977) took a rather different view:

“Whenever Proust mentions photographs, he does so disparagingly: as a synonym for a shallow, too exclusively visual, merely voluntary relation to the past, whose yield is insignificant compared with the deep discoveries to be made by responding to cues given by all the senses…” (p.164).

The photo-novel or photo-romance enjoyed a brief flowering, but in the English-speaking world has perhaps been eclipsed by the graphic novel, such as the cartoonist Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe (London, 2007) and Gemma Bovery (London, 2010). However, the photobook as a means of creating a fictionalised self-narrative (a genre omnipresent in Cindy Sherman’s work) has been exploited by, for example, Sophie Calle in her Suite Venétienne. Jeff Wall’s cibachromes enable viewers to create their own narratives:

A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), Jeff Walls, 1993.

The many photo-essays on literary figures include Gisèle Freund’s  1938 images of James Joyce. Brassaï, whom we have already mentioned,  photographed many of the literary figures in pre-WWII Paris.  As for photographic studies of the landscapes associated with literary figures, the field appears more limited. One example is  the exploration of Proustian sites by François-Xavier Bouchart in Marcel Proust: La Figure des Pays (Paris, 1999). We might also mention Edward Weston’s 1941 photographs in which he set out with arguable success to illustrate Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Other references:

Photography and Literature, François Brunet (London, 2009).

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