Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2010
François Brunet Photography and Literature London: Reaktion Books, 2009. 144 pp.; 30 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781861894298)
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Literature and photography grew up together, François Brunet observes in his valuable survey of interactions between the two forms. At the invention of photography in 1839, literature was taking shape as a specialized type of writing, most often fiction and poetry, “an individual pursuit with a reflexive, aesthetic ambition, as well as a claim to deliver truths about society” (10). Consequently, William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature (1844–46) deserves to be understood not only as the first photography book but as an assertion of “photography as experience,” as “expression of the self,” along the lines of contemporaneous literary explorations (32). Likewise Talbot’s photogenic drawing of a stanza of Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon” bespeaks not only the Waterloo rivalries of British and French inventors of the medium but Talbot’s tacit belief in the medium’s suave poetic scripting of the world (28–29). And his pleasure at having captured “the most transitory of things, a shadow” is a Wordsworthian feat of having portrayed, in the play of little things, a “private dream, a solitary adventure, and something of a chance event” (30).

Even the profound separations of photography and literature show their underlying togetherness, Brunet notes. Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981) is only the most fabled of “a century and a half’s history of literary discoveries of photography” (65; emphasis in original). Starting with writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lady Eastlake, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., poets and essayists have expressed their amazement at the medium’s “ability to certify reality” (85) and how that ability might challenge, undermine, or glorify literature’s own mimetic ambitions. Likewise, starting with the wise ambivalence of Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson toward the new medium—each was reluctant to be commemorated (116)—writers have kept their distance from photography yet drawn themselves ineluctably near it in their refusals, defining literature by its opposition to photography’s crude powers of popularity.

And when other writers have submitted grudgingly or gladly to being made famous—from Charles Baudelaire (by Félix Nadar) to James Joyce (by Gisèle Freund)—this cult of a “writer’s photographic stardom” asserts some commonality, across the great divide separating the poet’s organic labors from the photographer’s click, between what is written and what is shown, and for purposes other than publicity (71, 127). Call it the law of Tennyson’s or Tolstoy’s beard—the photographic visage where the writer comes to be, as an intensified sum of erudition and genius, rather than simply appear as the odd and passive being (nicely lit, pensive or smiling) who happens to have written the poetry or fiction. Such was the faith of the photographer and the writer in the medium’s ability to express the tangle of thought.

Those days have gone the way of all credulities, Brunet notes. He writes of the “declining eloquence of photography in the late twentieth century,” referring perhaps to the loss of naïve faith in the medium’s indexical revelations of people and places (114) and to the replacement of those vaunted powers by a self-conscious photographic storytelling. (Michael Fried’s recent discussion of the shift in street photography in the early 1980s from Garry Winogrand’s faith in the decisive moment to Jeff Wall’s orchestrated simulations of Winogrand-like situations is paradigmatic in this regard [see Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, 235–40].) Brunet notes too that back in 1980 Barthes knew his amazement was insufficiently academic and distanced—that it was “losing ground, and that those concerned to keep the old amazement at its realism alive . . . would henceforth need to inculcate this experience in postmodern audiences raised in skepticism” (85).

Those audiences presumably are the ones Brunet has written for (we all do). Eloquence and amazement appear at a remote distance. Pictorially, these qualities are like an image of a stream across some furry stretch of time, a pictorialist landscape, as naively done up in doctored tones of feeling as those of the photographer Peter Emerson, and as wise and inexcusably optimistic as that of the American philosopher who was the photographer’s distant relative (96): a remote and pretty sight, framed so well, of a world we do not believe in. The survey format, not to mention Brunet’s vast knowledge and sense of fairness, allows him to handle this naïveté with care and compassionate distance, as if held in tongs but held nonetheless. He respects and writes informatively of the faith of Holmes and others enraptured, enthralled by things we would scarcely acknowledge now being burned by.

But lurking in the measure and inclusiveness of Brunet’s survey is the sense that given his choice he might side with the dreamy and the self-expressive, with the magical and charmed, with the inexplicably personal—the virtues he attributes to Talbot in the foundational Pencil of Nature, and to Barthes in Camera Lucida—rather than our era’s more habitual skepticism. Ending his book with shadowy and morbid self-portraits by Hervé Guibert (a French photographer who died of AIDS in the 1980s) and Hippolyte Bayard (another French photographer who portrayed his own oblivion as a forgotten inventor of the medium in the 1840s), Brunet provides a view of photography and literature as from first to last the melancholy pursuits of solitary authors.

True, the authorship is under erasure: Bayard’s Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), no less than Guibert’s untitled photograph of his writing desk, belong with W. G. Sebald’s increasingly salient definition of literature as a type of “fictionalized autobiography” that would reconstruct “personal as well as public remembrance in non-didactic ways” and be for us now, in view of the disastrous twentieth century, the only kind of self-expression that might answer to the times (139). But the drowning—the unfashionable and degraded yet persistent sense of personal fates that would possibly “deliver truths about society” (10)—remains direct all the same.

Photography and literature, in their outmoded forms, both appear in this book like the rotten wood of a shipwreck: an understructure of earlier craft, a remnant of different transport, buried by the superstructure of all that’s happened since—all the subsequent development that requires a historian as wise as Brunet to address and so help submerge. But the curious effect of the book, to me at least, is to emphasize what is suppressed, so that what I see showing through the splendid variety and extensive field of skeptical forms is the phantom outline of the forgotten vessels.

To think this—and to have wished that Brunet might have brought the old craft and its quaint bardic powers a little more to the surface—is not to consign oneself to a nostalgia for the world of wise authors and incisive photographers making work purporting to be directly about human experience. I can believe that the human voice has always sounded as though in a cave, and that to the extent it has ever been present it has taken the form of an echoed cry of amazement at having made the hollow the speaker stands in. Instead it is to wonder at what literature and photography still can be: unsettling forms of revelation, opposed to placid public and academic uses. In Brunet’s book their impacts come across in a somewhat shielded and padded way, partly a result of the author’s admirable understatement but also symptomatic perhaps of his unwillingness to acknowledge the unabated powers of directness that photography and literature can still possess.

Alexander Nemerov
Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

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