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Photography and LiteratureReview - Photography and Literature
by FranCois Brunet
Reaktion Books, 2009
Review by Mark Welch, Ph.D,
Aug 10th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 32)

The effect of photography on the world of literature has brought forth mixed opinions. Some, like Edgar Allan Poe who might be called an early adopter, have been wildly enthusiastic. Poe thought that the new medium was perhaps "the most remarkable achievement of modern science" and capable of "the most miraculous beauty". Others, such as Baudelaire, have been less encouraging, and even Roland Barthes, who has considered the issue more than most and whose own work Camera Lucida forms the comparative theme to Fox Talbot, thought it troublesome.

Brunet, a Professor of American Art and Literature at the Université Paris Diderot, begins his discussion with the reactions to photography, even the foundational debate around what this new invention should be called. He notes that in the very early years when there were still a number of techniques being developed, including the Daguerréotype, it was called sun-painting -- a term at once deeply romantic and rather condescending, as if it were a child's plaything. Fox Talbot, who features large in Brunet's thesis, liked to suggest skiagraphy (to mean drawing with light), but it is John Herschel who is credited with the term photography -- and Brunet points out how this reflects the established print tradition.

Having named the phenomenon, and so being able to categorize it, the debate moved to defining what it was, as well as what it was not. Fox Talbot, publishing in installments from 1844-6, made the first detailed exploration of the medium of photography. looking at it theoretically and conceptually. His The Pencil of Nature serves as one of the primary texts for Brunet. For Brunet it is groundbreaking in that it examines what a new medium may be able to show rather than just imitate -- what is qualitatively different about photography -- and extraordinarily subtle in its argument.

For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth century's photographers did not tend to write about what they did. And neither they nor their medium thought to be the equivalent of the written word. However, beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, and not unrelated to the emergence of documentary photography as a powerful social commentary, serious photographers became established and the photo-book and popular photo-essay became more common. And while the avant-garde work of Man Ray, the social documentary of Dorothea Lange were important, affecting and commented on, what Brunet calls the "global rapprochement" of photography and literature was still some way off.

Brunet notes how photography has absorbed the Romantic notion of the self as the centre, and become the standard form of expression, of establishing self-identity, and preserving memory. How is it, we could ask, that so many people say that what they would rescue from a fire (after loved ones and animals) is the photo collection? How is it that they have become so fundamental to our culture?

Photography is seen as a liberating tool, especially when it came within everyone's reach. From the Box Brownie to the Polaroid Instamatic to the seemingly ubiquitous cell phone camera it has liberated the user, and so Brunet argues gone on to liberate literature from the restrictions of the Romantic form. It has become a very postmodern medium, infinitely variable and spanning the whole spectrum from disposable trash to high art. It has also become a theme within literature itself, forming crucial elements in the plot, but also teasing with the notion of memory.

Brunet does not end with some great overarching statement of grand theory such as photography becoming the new muse of literature. He warns against such judgments. He notes that amateur photography is still rather under-studied, and questions whether such functional photography as mail-order catalogues or police files of the current day are any more literary than those of the 1930s or 1980s. He feels he is only beginning to explore a relationship that is still vital and dynamic.

Brunet has made a very interesting contribution to the literature and raises significant questions, especially concerning "or cravings for life and presence". It is written in an academic style, and may not be easily approachable for the casual reader, but for those students of the media it is an excellent and thought-provoking read.


© 2010 Mark Welch


Mark Welch PhD, British Columbia.


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