Words and Images

As anyone who has taken my writing classes knows, I’m continually intrigued by the history and possibilities of photographs in what they can and can’t show us.   More particularly, I’m intrigued by the relationships between writing and photographic images, and the potential insights that come in that intersection between narrative and image.

In an experimental essay at Guernica magazine, writer Amitava Kumar and writer and photographer Teju Cole collaborate on a what is termed an “ekphrastic project exploring how Cole’s paired images intersect with the works of artists ranging from Sontag to Singh.”  The result is a pairing of two photographs from two different places with writing and Kumar’s reflections that fragment a singular idea about any one photograph.

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British photographer Jim Naughten’s work is on display at the Klompching Gallery in New York until May.  Naughten’s photographs often explore our perceptions of the past.  He uses his camera to capture the traces of history alive today.  In the press release the gallery notes:

In the case of the Hereros, it is the adoption of 19th Century European clothing, originally introduced to the Herero people by German missionaries, traders and immigrants during the time of Deutsch-Südwestafrika. Taken out of the context of the subjects’ everyday lives, the portraits are photographed against the stark backdrop of the Namib Desert. Each figure is isolated, bringing forth the vivid colors of voluminous petticoated gowns, cattle-horn-shaped headdresses and colorful military uniforms, to center stage in a spectacular fashion. The unusual vantage point presents the subjects—although anonymous—as empowered, stoic and regal.

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In a recent interview at The Morning News (where more images of his work are on display), Naughten spoke of the origins of this recent project:

A friend and I decided to buy motorbikes and ride across Southern Africa after college. I took my old film camera not quite knowing what I would find to photograph and more or less stumbled into Namibia and across the Hereros during that trip. I was spellbound. I was not expecting to see deserts, ghost towns, Bavarian architecture, First World War relics, or tribes wearing Victorian-era dresses. I felt as if I was on a Wild West movie set where they had ordered all the wrong people and props. I photographed both the Herero and Himba people on that trip, but always had it in the back of my mind to return and make a more accomplished body of work on the Herero.

I find his images striking in the contrast between the figure and the pale backgrounds of the desert. His images do hold a photographic beauty in both image and subject.  But there is something unsettling in decontextualizing the Herero in this way, something strangely distancing in how he presents them more as dress, as costume, than people.

And finally, there is fascinating new site Dear Photograph that presents an exchange between old and new by staging an older photograph in a contemporary setting.   Or as the site describes it more accurately:

[the] idea is taking a snapshot — usually one featuring one or more people and dating from the film-photography era — and holding it up against the original setting so that past and present blend into a new work of art. The images contributed by the site’s readers are wonderfully evocative. Looking at the family photos of strangers was never so transfixing.

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This increasingly popular site plays with the idea of a photograph, transforming the present into the past, and the past into the present.  It also plays with the lines between private album of family photographs and public images.

Each of these photographic projects rests to a great extent on turning an image into time, and time into a layered image, multiplying the meanings and mysteries each presents.      In my mind, this is what a photograph can still accomplish more than any other medium.

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