The photograph is evidential so when it comes together with text we are conditioned to expect the words to support that function. The printed press and magazines rely upon this association and advertising continually exploits it so whilst it is never a clear cut relationship we are experienced with dealing with it. However, it is less usual for the writer of fiction to embed their text with photographs, or, is it?
James Elkins whose blog is a “book project …. drafts for chapters that I am continually revising” (1) on the subject of writing with images points out that the history of writing with images could start with ancient Greek manuscripts, illuminated medieval documents or even with Egyptian hieroglyphs but for the student of photography the subject starts to get interesting in 1874 when Tennyson’s Idylls of the King was published including twelve photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron.
Idylls of the King comprises twelve narrative poems that recount the Arthurian legend and Cameron, using her normal method of conscripting family and friends to act as models, created tableaux to illustrate the poems; so on one hand the photographs are illustrations of the poems but the text and the staged images are both fictional so the genre of literature with embedded photographs was a complicated medium from the very start.
The tradition of using photographs as a foil for poems appears to have continued until the present day. Terry Pitts (2) who maintains a blog that focuses solely on the subject of literature with embedded photographs lists dozens of contemporary books of this type and many of these are poetry collections.
The most frequently mentioned novels with embedded photographs are the works of W.G.Sebald, a german writer who died in 2001. I have only seen facsimiles of various pages from Seabed’s Rings of Saturn (1) so I am no position to discuss his work but in a helpful essay about the writer Rick Poyner says:
“Sebald makes of photographs and other visual material, such as architectural plans, engravings, paintings and restaurant bills. He drops these uncaptioned images into the text, providing an additional level of documentary “evidence,” and you become convinced that Sebald really must have undertaken the walk or visited the building that his narrator describes.” (3)
So, taking Poyner at his word, this establishes a reference point for a recently published example of this unusual genre that is made more interesting because the writer is a photographer (i). A general description of Philip Brookman’s Redlands (4) would have some similarity to Poyner’s description of Sebald but there are also differences.
Redlands could be described in many ways; it is a novel and a photo book; each could stand alone with the photo book forming a visual narrative that bears comparison with the final sequence of images included in John Berger and Jean Mohr’s Another Way of Telling where they have experimented with the idea of a creating an image only narrative.
On their own, as with Mohr’s series, Bookman’s images are individually and collectively ambiguous, there is no fixed meaning but collectively it alludes to a visual diary comprising photographs, pages from an artist’s notebook, archival vernacular photographs and mixed media collages. In Another Way of Telling we read Mohr’s photographs as a narrative because Berger and Mohr instruct us to do so but they are readily interpreted as a chronological series so the viewer conforms with the authors’ instruction with no great difficulty. In Redlands the sequencing itself is ambiguous, the chronology less obvious so it is the association with the narrative text that compels us to find the visual narrative.
Once combined text and photographs work together to create a single inter-connected narrative. Bookman has opened his own photographic archive to select a series of images then written a novel that flows within the framework created by the photographs. Occasionally the links between the two narratives are strong, the text anchoring the meaning of the photographs as firmly as any caption, but these are the exceptions.
The story is narrated by Kip, a young boy who grows up in Mexico whilst his estranged mother brings up his sister Addie in Redlands California. On the death of his mother Kip and his father return to the US; Kip begins a journey that takes him back and forth between California and New York, searching for a sense of purpose and some understanding of the mother he never knew, becoming a photographer along the way after reading the horoscope shown at the top of this essay.
Brookman describes the book as a “juxtaposition of fiction and the documentary practice” (5) and sees it as a “cinematic novel”. For the non literary critic the documentary practice is easier to understand. The photographs are part of the visual diary that Brookman has developed since his teenage years recording a perspective on his life so in that sense they are documentary but their meanings are changed by the text that punctuates them. They are of places that Brookman has been, people he has known but by sharing the same space as the novel they start to represent places that Kip has been and people he has known. This challenges the truth of documentary photography and exercises the modifying nature of text. The pictures inevitably inform the text but not to the extent of making direct connections that effect the imagined visual appearance of the characters or events but I understand Brookman’s point about their cinematic nature when used in this way. The words become a sound-track that speaks over a series of movie scenes or perhaps it is more that the pictures form a sight-track over which the words are read, they contextualise rather than modify the text.
Without the text the photographs are too eclectic to form a coherent photo book, more scrap book than series, apart from a frequent return to the theme of immigration, I failed to find a consistent message. The text creates that meaning by showing how Kip looks at the world – we quickly accept that they represent his choices – his photographs and their eclectic nature reflect his state of mind: enquiring, directionless, confused and struggling with the relationship with his parents, sister and girlfriend. As Kip also narrates the story we are simultaneously seeing through his eyes, over hearing his conversations and sharing his thoughts and it is this synergy in the way the narrative unfolds that defines the book.
Notes on Text
(i) Philip Brookman is a consulting curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and describes himself as a “curator, photographer, film-maker and writer” (4). He has worked closely with Jim Goldberg and mentions his work, Raised by Wolves. as a key reference point.
(4) Brookman, Philip ( 2015) Redlands. Göttingen: Steidl
(1) Elkins, James (ND) Writing with Images (accessed at Writing with Images 21.6.16) – http://writingwithimages.com/?page_id=475
(2) Pitts, Terry (ND) Where literature and art intersect, with an emphasis on W.G. Sebald and literature with embedded photographs (accessed at Vertigo 21.6.16) – https://sebald.wordpress.com
(3) Poyner, Rick (2010) W.G.Sebald: Writing with Pictures (accessed at Design Observer 21.6.16) – http://designobserver.com/article.php?id=23618
Capps, Kriston (2015) Redlands by Philip Brookman, Reviewed (accessed at Washington City Newspaper 20.6.16) – http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/arts/books/article/13047056/redlands-by-philip-brookman-reviewed
(5) Brookman, Philip (2015) Making Redlands: A Novel in Words and Pictures (accessed at NGA 20.6.16) – http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/audio/brookman-redlands.html
Bareman, Karin (2015) A ‘Real Page Turner’ in this LA Fiction: Philip Brookman’s ‘Redlands’ (accessed at ASX 20.6.16) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2015/07/a-real-page-turner-in-this-la-fiction-philip-brookman-redlands.html