Words vs. Images

Contemporary fiction writers speak on the role of photography and the image in their writing process.

The following note first appeared in Aperture magazine #217, Winter 2014, “Lit.” Subscribe here to read it first, in print or online.

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.

Tom McCarthy

Maxime du Camp, The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, 1852 © HIP/Art Resource, New York


I’ve become very interested recently in the idea of the negative and how this photographic concept is relevant to fiction. Almost the very first image in my next novel, Satin Island, is of a picture looming into view from noxious liquid in a darkroom, like some kind of fish approaching through murky water; I use it as a metaphor for thinking or remembering. So the mechanism of photography stands for me as a kind of analogue for what it is to bring data, memories, or whatever into a coherent image— and ultimately, for what it is to write.

In my novel Remainder, which is all about trying to reproduce an ideal, if mundane, scenario (walking down a staircase, exchanging words with a neighbor, etc.), the hero is, in a sense, making a print of a negative of something that was never based on reality. The negative really is a negative. It’s a memory of something that never existed. So, like a photographer, he’s trying to bring this reality of the image out of the darkroom. He’s trying to actualize this picture, or world, from the darkroom of his mind—and it never quite goes right.

Like many writers, I take lots of photographs and work from them. When I was writing Remainder, I walked around Brixton in South London (this was back in 2000) with a camera and a Dictaphone. I photographed the texture of the sidewalk, the reflections in puddles, the letters from the gas and electricity holes, and other markings in the street. But I was also recording running commentary, because ultimately, as a writer, you’re dealing with words. Even if those words carry or generate images, words are still your currency. So I was using the Dictaphone to say, “Here in the street is this, and you can see the a andof airports reversed in this puddle.” I typed it all up, word for word, even the “umms” and “ahs” and repetitions, and pinned it all to my wall—the photographs as well. More recently, with C, my last novel, which is set a hundred years ago, I looked at lots of old photographs—of Alexandria, Egypt, and London in the 1920s—and again transcribed them, turned them into words. I was reading Flaubert’s accounts of going up the river in Egypt with the photographer Maxime du Camp, an amazing piece of writing. Flaubert says, “this is all fake; we’re just in some panorama.” There’s one passage detailing the bright sunlight falling on the black skin of their servants against this silvery rock. It’s an incredibly photographic description.

Perhaps in the end the difference between image and word isn’t relevant. Because ultimately it’s all scriptural: things such as light or ink mark and are recorded on surfaces, and that’s an event of writing. I also don’t think there’s a massive categorical distinction between digital and analog photography, or digital writing on a laptop and writing on a typewriter or by hand. We live in what Michel de Certeau calls the “scriptorium.” Everything is written. We’re within a set of networks of archiving, recording, transmitting, and making visible, or hiding and eavesdropping. This is totally anticipated in Greek literature and Hamlet. The advent of the NSA or of the Internet doesn’t change that. It just builds on a situation that’s already there. I recognize this is a very writerly vision, because everything else ultimately becomes inscription. So yes, maybe for me, photography is a branch of writing.

Tom McCarthy’s novels include Remainder (2006), Men in Space (2007), and C (2010), which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His next novel, Satin Island, is forthcoming from Knopf in February 2015. McCarthy writes on literature and art for the New York Times, the London Review of Books, and Artforum, among other publications.

Mary Gaitskill

John Stezaker, She (Film Portrait Collage) II, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Petzel, New York

I take pictures with my phone if it’s something beautiful and I want to remember it, or if it’s something interesting. Recently I was having a very emotionally fraught conversation with someone—we were quarreling, actually—and then the quarrel sort of ended and I went for a walk down the road to  clear my mind while he took a shower. We were staying at someone’s house in the country and there were these incredibly beautiful animals, which I thought were cows. One of them was staring at me and when I stared back it trotted up to the fence. It was a bull, a very young bull. There were two of them. They were beautiful, bulls with the eyes of Bambi, blue eyes. And there was also a little miniature donkey in the field, which came up to check me out too, and I was so excited by this. I went back to the house, and I said, “You’ve got to come out; there’s these beautiful animals.” So we completely forgot about the quarrel, and I took pictures of the animals, which were sweet but also primal. Something like that I like to keep on my phone.

I have some books of photography, mostly books that people gave to me. One of them is a book of photographs of Nabokov and his family that I like very much. I get pleasure out of looking at pictures of him and of his wife and relatives. I like looking at pictures of women, actually. What I like to do most with photographs of people is to cover one half of the face with my hand and look at it, and then do the same with the other half. Most of the time one side of the face wears a different expression than the other. The face is usually bifurcated. It’s rare that you have somebody who looks the same on both sides of their face— I think Hitler actually does look the same, or maybe it was Stalin; it was some psychopathic leader. In some people the difference is really extreme; it looks like two different personalities. If I look at photographs of myself, there is some version of this going on. One side of my face looks quite young, wholesome, like a cheerleader, and then the other half looks positively lunar, like someone who is not part of the world. Many people are like that. They have a strong personality show up in one half of their face and another personality show up in the other half. It’s weird. But it’s weirder or at least more unusual when there is no difference— at least in my casual explorations of photographs.

For my novel Veronica, I made a puzzling underuse of photographs. I don’t know why. Considering the narrator is a model, I don’t think there are any descriptions of what she looks like in pictures. I think there’s one instance in which she describes herself in a picture with another woman, but she mostly describes the other woman. It seems like she might have a picture of herself, framed and up on a wall, and I kept thinking I should put that in there, but it just intuitively never interested me. It’s kind of odd. For research on being photographed, I went on stories I heard from women who had been models, but the better stories were from stylists and assistants who would describe things more bluntly. I also had the experience of being photographed by a fashion photographer; it was a book-jacket photograph taken by a former fashion photographer—he was the most bullying person I’ve ever had my picture taken by, just incredibly aggressive. He wanted to constantly keep me off balance. It’s a very good picture, though, so it works. He did a good job. Maybe he was looking for tension and drama in the picture, and I do look frightened and horrified—what’s funny is that people who don’t know what happened think I look frightening or intimidating! I guess fear can be frightening. But I would never work with him again.

I don’t especially feel pressured as a writer by the presence of images. I guess this is because I’m a very visual person and tend to express ideas and feelings with images, sometimes kooky images. The thing I dislike about a lot of images, say, online or otherwise present in culture, is that they tend to be flat and unimaginative, yet they have a strong visceral impact— and because they’re so omnipresent, people expect to be “talked to” in that language and it seems like they aren’t as open to a more individual vision. It even seems scary and weird to them maybe. But maybe that’s always been true. I don’t know.

Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991) and Veronica (2005), which was nominated for the 2005 National Book Award. She is also the author of the story collections Bad Behavior (1988); Because They Wanted To (1997), which was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1998; and Don’t Cry (2009).

Teju Cole

Mishka Henner, Noordeinde Palace, The Hague, South Holland, 2011. Courtesy the artist

In a response to a recent article on “seeing machines” by a contemporary photographer I really like (Trevor Paglen), another contemporary photographer I really like (Mishka Henner) wrote something intriguing. Paglen’s piece was about the expanded reality of photography in the present time. So much of this photography, Paglen argued, was about a given machine following a certain script to do a particular kind of seeing. In his thoughtful response, which agreed with and tried to think through the implications of Paglen’s arguments, Henner described the result as follows: “a world with no auteurs, one where style and the single viewpoint are irrelevant, and where poetry and lyricism are mere follies.”

This caught my attention. I am ready to let the auteurs go, and in the age of Instagram and drone photography, the single viewpoint has indeed been taken off its pedestal. But: are “poetry and lyricism” truly “mere follies”? I hope I’m not misreading Henner here. I do feel that his work with Google Maps, like Paglen’s on secret sites and the American security apparatus, are part of the great work being done that help us visualize the New World Order. My question, then, is: what about the old world order? This still lives on in quite a powerful way inside all of us. It’s not all motherboards and circuits and optical recognition software. We may be on our way to becoming androids, but we are not there yet: we still have a hunger for poetry and lyricism, an intense hunger that is difficult to satisfy. I think this, in part, is why Paglen and Henner and other photographers don’t limit their works to the theoretical. Yes, they have great ideas. But they turn these ideas into prints, editions, shows, books. Many of them still center their work on the tactile elements of paper, ink, and binding. The stuff could be really far out conceptually, but much of it still ends up in a frame on the wall of a gallery. And I think that’s great.

So that’s what I think of when I take or look at photographs: I want images that address the predicaments of the present moment, in a political sense, but that also allow for poetry and lyricism. In any case, those things may not be necessarily divorced from each other: paper has to come from somewhere; the equipment used to make a camera is made from materials that are traded on the world market, including materials that come from conflict zones. Machines have lyricism (once we learn to see it) and poetry comes at a cost (if we are willing to admit it). The connection this has to my writing? I try to apply those same goals (of politics and poetry) to the written word, too. So, we may be awash in images and words these days, but poetry still matters. It is still as elusive as it ever was, and, just as ever, it is still worth chasing down.

Paglen’s text and Henner’s response can be read here: blog.fotomuseum.ch/2014/03/ii-seeing-machines/

Teju Cole is a photographer and the author of two works of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief (2014) and Open City (2011), for which he won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Cole wrote the introductory essays for On Street Photography and the Poetic Image, by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, and Touching Strangers, by Richard Renaldi, both published by Aperture.

Lynne Tillman

Found photographs. Courtesy Lynne Tillman

Found photographs. Courtesy Lynne Tillman

I started writing my new novel, Men and Apparitions, because it’s said we live in “a glut of images” and also because of the belief that there’s a crisis in art photography, with cellphones and everyone taking pictures all the time. I began to think: What does that mean? How would you narrate that story? How do you make characters who are based in images, in some sense, or whose lives seem to be based on images?

My protagonist in the novel, Zeke, is a cultural anthropologist, an ethnographer, not a photographer himself. His field is photography, family photography in particular. As a child I was very interested in our family photographs. My father shot a lot of 8mm films, too, before I was born, and I would take out the projector when I was eight or nine, very young, and all by myself watch these home movies, which, as I think about it now, seems funny. In part it was because I was the baby of the family and quite a bit younger than my sisters, so there was an already established family I’d entered. Seeing these films, I guess, gave me some sense of family history. I am not using these for the book, but I’ve found some family albums at flea markets and borrowed friends’ found photographs. In the novel, I do want to do some analyses of photographs.

Zeke, my character, goes off theoretically in some wild directions—the novel form allows me to do everything I can think of. It allows me to be unaccountable, also—unaccountable to so-called “facts.” Some of what Zeke thinks about photography and cultural anthropology is credible, and, I think, there’s some interesting theory about images, but some of what he comes up with is wack. If I were writing a straight essay, I couldn’t do that, and it wouldn’t be as much fun to write.

I don’t usually take photographs for what I’m writing. But if I go to an art exhibition and I think that I’ll want to remember something, I’ll take a picture of the work if I can, or of the way the work has been installed, if the security guards let me (though never with a flash), as an aide-memoire. But I don’t do that for writing. I still might write notes, use words to remember, because I’m working with words. They’re my medium. Mostly I rely on my memory—it’s a memory game I play with myself, and sometimes lose.

To photograph is to step out of the moment. When we photograph, we are objectifying. We look at something, shoot, and it becomes a kind of object. It may be a picture of an event, a tree, a person. But in the end you have a representation, just that. It is an abstraction. I think photography, like writing, is a translation, from the impossible Real to the page. I think of translation and representation as being close kin. Taking a photograph, like a selfie, is a way to record a moment, and to proclaim Being, which writing also does, in a sense. People think writing, especially fiction, has been subsumed, even vanquished, by picture making. But fiction is another form of image making. Words are images too. I’m hoping to finish the novel at the end of this fall. If not, I’ll shoot myself. I will use a camera.

Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short-story writer, and critic, whose most recent book, her second collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, was published last spring. She is currently working on a novel titled Men and Apparitions.

Rivka Galchen

Karl May as“Old Shatterhand,” n.d. © Jan Sagl/Anzenberge

I don’t particularly think of photography as an inspiration or as a constraint. And yet photography is so enormously powerful and pervasive, to think it has no effect would be like thinking the shape of a guitar doesn’t affect the sounds made with it. Even though I love both personal and professional photographs, I don’t use them as part of my writing process. It’s as if they obliterate something for me. I did once take some video footage for a piece that I was writing about an annual festival in Germany around the work of Karl May, who wrote many adventure tales in the late nineteenth century about a German among Native Americans in the American West, even though he had lied about having ever visited America. But I didn’t use the video footage, or the snapshots. My notes had done the essential culling, a kind of thinking, and the images just flooded that thinking away.

Photographs, though, are better at communicating some things that I once would have tried to put into words. When I want to communicate with my family, say, in a postcard kind of I’m-thinking-of-you way, I just send a smartphone photo of, probably, my daughter. Words now gravitate to where they’re most ideal, in a certain way, and this has pushed language toward two different, not very related places: the contract and the joke. There are no pictogram contracts. Of course words are still good at ordinary communication, but they are irreplaceably good, at least for now, in the contract and, well, maybe joke is not quite the right label, but in a very particular kind of entertainment. For example, think of how often headlines in the Onion rely on a kind of half-rhyme with some clichéd phrase, like, “Loved Ones Recall Local Man’s Cowardly Battle with Cancer”—the effect here can only be produced by the way we process language.

Where does all this leave the novel? The novel must remain ideal for something, right? Though I don’t think we know what, yet. It seems best to keep our noses down and let the abstractions reveal themselves in time. Prognostications can be fun, but are best understood as fictions. If I were going to guess where the novel will go, and what it will become uniquely capable of, it seems to me that it may drift toward more genuinely private spaces and, at the same time, more political spaces. Private in the sense of inner dialogue; political in the sense of legal language, or nation naming… it’s telling how a bill on, say, small dairy farms, requires four hundred pages not just of pork but also fine specification. Novels can play with the way language has moved into these realms, or they can rebel, but, either way, language is their medium, and where the medium has moved matters. The form will surely continue to document the external world, as it always has, but that aspect may become less essential. Though maybe the pressure the image has placed on literature, compressing the field into a smaller country, will paradoxically allow for an opening up into something unforeseen, an unexpected vastness. It’ll feel like those dreams of terraforming Mars.

Rivka Galchen is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances (2008), and a collection of short stories, American Innovations (2014).