The Marriage Of Text And Photo
It was a bit of a blow when John Berger (Ways of Seeing), Robert Pirsig (Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance) and Leonard Cohen all died within a year. I’m not much into hero worship but certain people are kind of constant presences in your life and so these three were for me. I even wrote a haiku.
John Robert Leonard
Berger Pirsig and Cohen -
all in the twelve months
I was quite pleased that this does stick to the traditional 5/7/5 syllabic pattern – though some days I do think there is a vague note of E J Thribb (from Private Eye) about it.
I read a biography of LC last year and wished I hadn’t: I’d never quite realised what a rackety life he had. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Joshua Sperling’s ‘A Writer Of Our Time: The Life And Works Of John Berger’ recently. It turned out to be more an examination of JB’s thought than an autobiography – though nonetheless it turns out that he, too, was something of a lady’s man. What is it about these guys and women, for heaven’s sake?
JB is best known doubtless for ‘Ways of Seeing’ (both TV series and book) and possibly for donating half of his prize money to the Black Panthers when he won the Booker prize in 1972. It caused quite a row.
He’s a fascinating figure: a challenging and visionary polymath, but also verbose, dogmatic and contrarian. Youtube clips like this one show him at his charismatic and charming best. He is sometimes grouped with Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes as part of a triumvirate of authority on photographic theory (though they are all best sampled in small doses, I find).
Of particular interest to me are his thoughts on marrying photography and text - which is essentially what this website is about. Rare is the day I don’t write a haiku of some sort and I did go through a period of trying to combine these with photographs. Here’s an example.
I had in mind the lovely Chinese and Japanese paintings and brushwork you see which often carries text. The Chinese refer to the artwork as the host and the text as the guest. Often the characters are not particularly legible and so the meaning of the text is secondary. The problem with doing this digitally is that the text comes out far too clear and the fonts are too definitive to sit with an image. It would be like branding a puppy.
In 1967 Berger published, with photographer Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man, a book of text and photographs about the life of a country doctor. This was an experimental attempt to match text and image creatively in book form. Berger made the distinction between the private photograph which remains part of a private narrative for the person or family or group to which it belongs and therefore needs no particular explanation; and the public photograph which requires a context before it can make any contribution to understanding. A Fortunate Man was his attempt to work through this idea not simply by creating a straight line of narrative around the photography but by embedding it in a radial structure of words in which neither word nor image repeats the other (as so often happens in conventional news/documentary/photobook forms). He had had some experience of this in his work on television arts programmes and he went on to develop it in two further books (A Seventh Man and A Way Of Telling).
We might see the text/image dilemma as physiological. A photograph will be round your brain’s neural circuits and will have had its effect before a paragraph of text has even got its boots on. If you are given, say, a two-page spread with words on one side and images on the other your eye always leaps to the latter. But when it is done well, the text might be seen as slowing down the image by lengthening the viewer’s cursory glance and the image promotes the words by creating an interest in them. That has presumably been a central issue for all news media since the invention of photography. What about when you want to get away though from such a straight form of communication though? What if the relationship of word and image were to be more irregular, non-linear or poetic even?
You would think that digital technology might have helped but in my experience it has simply reinforced the difficulties. The template I use for this website makes it very difficult to insert text between the images on the photograph pages. In software such as MS Publisher text boxes and image boxes are treated quite separately and you are restricted to a narrow range of fonts and picture formats.
These blog posts are themselves an attempt to put word and image together – though I don’t feel that I have yet reached the transcendental moment when each might inform the other in a less conventional way. I am working on it though and John Berger is a great help.
To end, here’s a photograph I produced recently which maybe could take some words?
walking the streets
at every footfall
the city unfolds