Mary Macpherson

The photographs of Mary Macpherson – with a dash of poetry

Posts Tagged ‘Teju Cole

The second cousin in the dance – Teju Cole’s Blindspot

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Pairing writing with photographic images is a delicate act. It’s like putting clearly defined meaning up against a medium that speaks another language, and through the pairing suggesting what’s meant to be thought about an image.

The extremes range from a photojournalistic or gallery approach, which sees every image captioned, plus explanatory text, least you foolishly miss the subject’s point of view or what an image is meant to be illustrating.

At the other end of the scale  is the typical Mack photobook where you’re lucky to find the title and the photographer of the work. Any text is usually an oasis on the last page where a few acknowledgements, or line about when or where the work was done, may be offered. That’s when the photographs do the heavy lifting of conveying vision and meaning. Clues and interpretation come from online commentaries, interviews and reviews, but even with this information, meaning is conveyed visually – a kind of pre-language state of paying attention.

In between these extremes, there are essays at the front or back of books – to be ignored or read afterwards – notes to the photographs (think Alec Soth) or captions that pinpoint some critical element that shifts the frame around an image. At the recent William Eggleston Portraits show (see my recent post) I was struck the curator’s pleasure at persuading the photographer to name the subjects or tell the backstory to iconic images that had previously soared in their own mysteries. While the information was interesting, I was glad I’d first experienced the images in my imagination and could love them for their own account. I was interested when, in my project Bent, I captioned the works with the names of trees and added notes at the back of the book about human manipulation of the tree landscape, something about our ruthless cultivation of natural resources popped into focus. The subtle presence of words felt necessary.

Teju Cole’s Blindspot is a true hybrid of text and photographs.(Cole credits the text and photograph pairings from John Szarkowski’s book on Atget as inspiration). Cole’s photographs from his much traveled existence are paired with short meditative texts. Although the pairing is titled with the name of the place, presumably where the image was made, the texts often don’t relate specifically to the image, or stage a tangential take off from a detail. Cole is a master of poetic and philosophic thinking and the pieces are mini gem-like essays that seem at one with his latest book of essays Known and Strange Things. They also form a line back to Open City where his narrator Julius wanders the New York and gives us his insights into a broad range of subjects.

A sequence from Blindspot

Notably, the photographs are not whole views of any part of the world. Rather they’re extractions of sidewalk, construction and building details, featuring juxtaposition and careful composition, along with windows, screens and tarps, which seem to point to illusion, or the fractured nature of our perception. In their fragmentary state it’s easy to see the images as adjuncts to the accompanying thoughts, in the way a whole landscape or person might not be. In a recent interview on the Magic Hour , Cole says he wanted the photographs to be the quieter partner in the text/image pairing, and he’s achieved that.

While Blindspot is interesting reading, the photographs suffer in the dance between text and image. The texts come first on the left hand page, images on the right. In his Magic Hour interview Cole says he wanted to suggest there was more to the photograph than you’ll see by viewing. Even with tangential texts and little direct commentary on the image, I found it hard to respond to these quite cerebral images that were clearly second cousins to the main event, intent on taking you somewhere you were sure to miss if you’d been allowed your own thoughts about the image.

The texts,however, are often quite wonderful – you can read them for their sequences or as references to the blindspots in our reading of the world, or dip in and out of the book, enjoying the morsels. What I couldn’t do was look at the photographs and enjoy them, their language having been set straight by words.

Listen to Teju Cole on The Magic Hour



Written by Mary Macpherson

05/08/2017 at 3:43 pm

Crossover books

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After all the posts about my book and activities, it’s time to write about something else – namely books that are in a traditional form but walk in other territories.

Recently, acclaimed New York based Nigerian writer Teju Cole came to Wellington. I didn’t make it to his session at Unity Books, but I did read his novel Open City. Given that Teju Cole is listed as writer, art historian and photographer, it’s perhaps not surprising that his innovative, and deeply satisfying novel, is a fluid blend of novel, essay and meditation.

Much has been written about the book – so just a quick summary from me. The main character in the book is the introverted Julius a psychiatrist in training, who is part German and part Nigerian. As readers we dwell in his mind through as he journeys around New York, and in one section of the book, Brussels. Through his extremely well stocked mind, and his conversations, we hear reflections and debates on history, both personal and civic, paintings, migrant experience, politics and different cultural experience.

Unlike most novels, firmly in the grip of the narrative arc, reading about Julius is like following ‘a life as it happens’ series of encounters that gives us the illusion of reality. (In his interview with theNZ Listener Cole points out that these encounters and events are in fact carefully curated). This illusion reminded me strongly of the work of US-based British photographer Paul Graham, particular his terrific A Shimmer of Possibility where seemingly raw sequences of photographs have a poetic depth of storytelling and come close to the feeling of film. Of course, the work is again the product of masterful sequencing and layout. Closer to home, a similar feeling is found in the narrative sequences of New Zealand photographer Peter Black in works like Moving Pictures or his book I loved you the moment I saw you.

And what is the excitement of these expansive, multiple narrative works? The traditional forms of novels and photographs are still satisfying and tradition is needed in order to assess the success of a move away from it. But in a fractured global world, that exists as much digitally and as it does physically, and where lives adapt to unpredictable circumstance, perhaps more open, dynamic  forms of representation seem more accurate to our experience.

More to come….

Teju Cole

Paul Graham

Peter Black

Written by Mary Macpherson

22/07/2012 at 12:49 pm

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