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Collaborations Between the Camera and Written Word

December 08, 1987|ROSS MILLER | Miller teaches English and American Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is a frequent contributor to the Book Review. and

Image and Word, the Interaction of 20th-Century Photography and Text by Jefferson Hunter (Harvard University Press: $25; 233 pages, illustrated)

Photography has never been fully accepted as an art. People who wait in line to see a celebrated show of paintings, a dance concert or a visiting orchestra will more likely show you their slides of Europe than spend time in front of carefully printed and framed photographs.

Art is supposed to be difficult, and the difficulties of photography are not easily perceived. Few can paint, dance or play an instrument in tune, but anyone can buy a camera, load it with film and aim, drop the roll off at the corner store and pick it up with the groceries. Unless reminded of the metaphysical relationship between photographer and image, we might miss the point entirely. Even snapshots retain a measure of mystery. Jefferson Hunter's "Image and Word" considers the meaning of photographs through the collaboration of photographers and writers.

The book recalls the opening scene of Antonioni's film "Blow-Up," where David Hemmings plays a young fashion photographer who has just spent the night at a doss house, where he has taken pictures for a book on London's poor. The film makes the distinction between photography as a tool for revealing character and the daily picturing of surfaces for the fashion magazines. The "blowing-up" or enlargement of images reveals hidden things lost to the human eye. Hunter, an English professor at Smith College, encourages us to think about photography, particularly the kinship between idea and image.

A Connection to the Past

The author quotes Baudelaire's demand for photography to "rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory." In this interpretation, photographs connect us generally to the past. When the strictly personal yields to the universal, specific images evoke a larger, more poetic sense of time.

By putting words to these images and further specifying their meanings, photographers temporarily reverse this process to make a political or philosophical point. The collaboration between Walker Evans and James Agee produced "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," the most celebrated of these partnerships.

During the Depression, Evans and Agee traveled to Alabama to document rural poverty. Evans' photography and Agee's narrative are presented radically as independent texts. Agee called his partner's pictures "monumentally static" to accentuate the way they stopped time. Readers are encouraged to confront the subject twice, to see what they have read and to encounter again in language what they have seen.

Agee argued that the photographs were not "illustrative" and were "coequal, mutually independent, and fully collaborative" with the text. The idiosyncratic use of photography as an art independent of capsule comment in the form of newspaper caption or pithy irony returns the image back into time, with only the company of the viewer and his intense curiosity. Like Walt Whitman addressing future generations in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," the past is present. "It avails not, time nor place--distance avails not, I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence."

Prominent examples are drawn from photographs commissioned in the '30s by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that preserve the suffering of a lost time. The silent dignity of a Dorothea Lange or Arthur Rothstein portrait of individuals set against vast wasted landscapes still retain their power exclusive of the language initially used to complement them. Margaret Bourke-White's photojournalism for Life has also achieved this independence from words.

Hunter provides a comprehensive listing of modern collaborations; however, his study of them lacks any final critical consideration of the necessity or desirability of these interdisciplinary works. Ironically, we are led to the curious conclusion that collaborations are unnecessary.

Although Hunter diligently attempts to reproduce the conditions that produced the partnership or "interdependence" that created books like the FSA-commissioned "Land of the Free," the contemporary need for the collaboration has been lost. The photographs appeal to us directly, without any real need for Hunter's or the original collaborators' intervention.

Although at its best, "Image and Word" goes in the right direction. Writing about Wright Morris' "self-collaborations," Hunter gets closest to the poetics of his subject. "The text will provide people. The pictures will show settings, familiar objects (a pair of boots, kitchen implements, sheet music on a piano, an empty barber's chair); they will furnish a world. For Morris that means furnishing the starting point for the characters' only real activity: imagining."

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