The Photo-Text in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Summary and Keywords
The photo-text has variously been defined as any interaction in which textual material, whether captions, prose, poetry, quotes, or reportage, is augmented by photographic illustrations. Nonetheless, as a genre distinct from other photo-textual modes of interaction the photo-text took on certain specific qualities from its very inception in the mid-19th century, particularly when it emerged as a book form with a clear agenda and narrative trajectory. The qualities of the photo-text since then have hinged on the importance given to the photographic material, how it is placed and operates vis-à-vis the textual, and on the fact that the interaction between text and photography is intrinsic to the aim and methods of the project at hand. In this respect, the photo-text perfectly encapsulates many of the ideas, themes, and concepts that photographic historians and critics have debated since the popularization of the camera in the 19th century: What is the purpose of photography in documentary terms? Can the abilities of the camera as a realist mode of representation operate as a creative and artistic medium at the same time? To investigate the possibility that there is a distinct heritage of photo-textual work also means thinking more closely about how various tropes and concerns reappear in photo-textual collaborations regardless of decade or century. Across various generic concerns, political or aesthetic, and across various artistic challenges, gendered or class-based, the photo-text remains a medium in which the political nature of representation necessarily comes to the forefront, particularly when we are called upon to consider the ways in which writing affects how we look at photographs and vice versa.
Creating a Working Definition of the Photo-Text
From its inception in 1839, photography was a medium defined through writing. While that may seem obvious, given the Greek etymological origins of the word itself—photo meaning “light” and graphos meaning “writing”—defining the photo-text as a distinct genre is a much more difficult proposition. Understandably, as photography has been consolidated as an art form in its own right, much critical work has sought to decipher the various forms and formats that the photo-textual may take—from works of literature and fiction in which photographs are assigned a crucial if referential role to more modernist and avant-garde experiments in which the very concept of the photo-eye and the camera are used as metaphors for how we see the world.
In this introduction to the photo-text, the onus is on books designed and structured as projects in which writing and photographs are of equal importance. Dispensing with the revolutionary move into digital photography in the first decades of the 21st century, this discussion thus looks at examples in which a photographer—either in conjunction with a writer or on his or her own—sought to create a work capable of synthesizing writing and photography. Accordingly, books that are primarily designed to showcase the work of individual or groups of photographers and which do so without integrating text as a crucial component are not dealt with here, nor is the photo-essay—its shorter and more journalistic counterpart and a crucial part of 20th-century magazine publishing—examined per se. However, despite spanning several national literatures, decades, and genres, the photo-textual examples here contain some unusual but instructive parallels in thematic as well as aesthetic terms.
To think about the photo-text as a book designed and structured as a project in which writing and photographs are of equal importance, in which a photographer—either in conjunction with a writer or on his or her own—sought to create a work capable of synthesizing both writing and photography, consider the collaborations between the British poet Lord Alfred Tennyson and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron in Idylls of the King (1874–1875), Jacob Riis’s New York–based How the Other Half Lives (1890), Weegee’s Naked City (1945), and James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Each is generically and temperamentally very different. Nonetheless, they all share an interest in how the camera’s documentary abilities, its ability to show things as they are, can be heightened by the accompanying text. While this may seem a rather obvious point, the interaction between photography and writing—or, more important, the ways in which this interaction has been theorized—says a great deal about the acceptance of photography as a distinct art form both in the 19th and the 20th centuries.
Surprisingly, although there has been an explosion of books on photographic practice during the first decades of the 21st century, attempts to define what a photo-text may actually be are nonetheless rare, possibly because leaving it generically ambiguous has certain critical advantages. For instance, in Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble’s edited collection Phototextualities—Intersections of Photography and Narrative (2003), the complex and nearly indefinable nature of the photo-textual is foregrounded: “Relationships between the photo-image and the written text and between the verbal and the visual . . . are thrown into relief by artifacts such as the photograph album; the photographic essay; the magazine photo-story, advertising . . . how photographic texts incorporate linguistic material and vice versa . . . the complexities of the image/text dynamic; and the disjunctions of visual and textual literacy.”1 Likewise, in François Brunet’s Photography and Literature (2009), the chapter “Photography and the Book” takes a broadly historical view, outlining the cultural history of the production of books of photographs instead of attempting what Brunet calls an “analytical description of the photo-book’s infinitely varying formats and formulas.”2 Nonetheless, these two textbooks, one a survey of photography’s relationship to literature and the other a series of essays on the theoretical implications of text/image studies, both, in different ways, take for granted that the photographer can be an author in his or her own right. More important, they acknowledge that the relationship between text and image can be more than simply illustrative.
The discourses and methods that articulate photography’s narrative role lie at the heart of the photo-textual, just as use of images together with text inevitably brings the purpose and applicability of photography in general to the fore. In Walter Benjamin’s (1892–1940) seminal work on photography—the framework for later writers such as Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and Susan Sontag (1933–2004), among others—the image/text relationship is crucial for an understanding of photography in terms of politics and ethics. Benjamin’s essays “Little History of Photography” (1931), “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), and “The Author as Producer” (1936) touch, among other things, on the vexed issue of whether photographs need written contextualization to have a proper purpose or whether they can stand alone. In Benjamin’s “The Author as Producer,” the ability “to put such a caption beneath the picture as will rescue it from the ravages of modishness and confer upon it a revolutionary value” is thus seen as paramount. Rather than speak directly about the radical potential of photo-textual interaction, Benjamin asks that the reproduction of photographs be safeguarded through the addition of text.3 While much can and has been written about Benjamin’s comments, his acknowledgement of photography as a potentially powerful and dangerous medium indicates a desire to ground photographic practice through writing. Decades later, Alan Sekula, writing in “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning” (1982), continued the Benjaminian discourse regarding the place and politics of photography within society. For Sekula, photography as a form of communication is not only accentuated by the text that surrounds it, it is in fact always, even if inadvertently, imbedded within similar cultural discourses:
Quite regularly, we are informed that photograph “has its own language”, “is beyond speech” . . . in short, that the photograph is a universal and independent language or sign system. Implicit in this argument is the quasi-formalist notion that the photograph derives its semantic properties from conditions that reside within the image itself. But if we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.4
In making the case for all forms of communication, regardless of whether they are visual or textual, as marked by a variety of culturally determined relationships, Sekula’s reading—much like Benjamin’s—re-politicizes the process of looking at photographs. For Sekula, the interaction between text and images is always a dialectical process, leading “to other levels of meaning” apart from those inherent in the image or the text alone.5
The Art and Politics of the Photo-Text
While Sekula’s comment about “other levels of meaning” refers to a variety of photographic and textual interactions, from official documentation to artistic collaborations, the photo-text itself may be a site or locus particularly suited for the production of these other “levels of meaning.” In this sense, the closest definition of the photo-text is as a place where the attempted synthesis between the referential nature of the photograph—its ability to document recognizable things– and the accompanying text adds a more poetic, creative meaning to the images. In this way, the photo-text articulates an idea of the image as both situated and perpetuated by the surrounding text, a place to archive past stories, events, and lives and simultaneously keep them alive. This idea of photography as “a certain but fugitive testimony” of things past is partly attributable to the French semiotician Roland Barthes, whose iconic photo-text Camera Lucida (1984) used private photographs to articulate a more complex level of text-image dialectics—pushing the idea of the documentary photo-text into a more personal and often psychoanalytical level. In Camera Lucida the genuinely radical nature of the photo-text relies on its ability to merge the documentary and referential with something lyrical as well as narrative.6 In these terms, Camera Lucida—a photo-text in its own right—is perhaps one of the most successful philosophical and poetic exercises in how to combine photographs and writing.
Barthes’s combining of the documentary aspects of the photo-text with a more internal landscape of memory as well as desire set the bar for much subsequent theorizing about photography. Nonetheless, Barthes’s work also owed a great deal to previous artistic movements for which politics and aesthetics were naturally combined within the photographic image. Of these movements, surrealism, in particular, had a seismic influence on how the aesthetics and format of the photo-text may combine its documentary potential with something artistically poetic.7 However, it is worth keeping in mind that while the surrealists were using photography as one way to capture the spirit of the marvelous and the erotic in the 1920s and 1930s through various avant-garde practices, their idea of photography relied heavily on the explorative fervor of earlier 19th-century projects. In thrall to the 19th-century photographs of Parisian streets by Eugène Atget (1857–1927), among others, the surrealists were keen to combine a sense of radical modernity with a more topographic sense of the environment, not unlike the survey and scientific photographic projects of the previous century.8 This topographic instinct, or rather the attraction to the photo-text as a form of index and as a way to archive those things otherwise overlooked, remains a crucial trope for the photo-text in both artistic and documentary terms.
The Documentary Impetus for the Photo-Text
While various artists were rethinking the photographic subject in the 1920s and 1930s as a way to render the internal landscape of the artist, the photo-text was given new impetus by the contemporary political and ideological landscape of the interwar period. In Picture Post in the United Kingdom, Life magazine in the United States, VU in France, and BIZ in Germany, among many others, the use of improved printing machinery and increasingly portable cameras allowed the photojournalistic essay to take center stage. Not only did photographers and writers of the period learn what photography could do through magazine and newspaper work, the wider population’s exposure to human interest stories was also creating an increasingly photo-literate consumer market.9 In the United States, the political and social ramifications of the Depression in the 1930s, aided by the government’s promotion of photography as a way to educate and push for reform, had a massive influence on subsequent photo-textual projects. Aided by institutional funding, an entire generation of documentary photographers were spurred on to create socially conscious photo-texts in which images of destitute Americans sat side by side with informative captions and vernacular writing. Well-known photographers such as Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Walker Evans (1903–1975), and Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971), among others, collaborated with various writers in book-length publications where the accompanying text, sometimes political sometimes sentimental and sometimes both, was as instrumental as the images.10
While the appetite for photo-texts on America slightly waned in the postwar period, critics such as the writer, curator, and photographer Nancy Newhall (1908–1974) were still trying to articulate their own definitions of the photo-text. In her overlooked essay for the first issue of Aperture magazine, “The Caption: The Mutual Relation Between Words/Photographs,” Newhall defined her version of the “additive caption”: “A new language of images is apparently evolving, and with it a new use of words. . . . In the Additive Caption, the basic principle is the independence—and interdependence—of two mediums. The words do not parrot what the photographs say, the photographs are not illustrations. They are recognized as having their own force.”11
While Newhall used the “the additive caption” as an attempt to define a symbiotic relationship between text and image beyond the documentary, others were trying to retain the photo-text’s more social outlook. The New York Photo League offered some resistance to the increasing incorporation of photography into the establishment by heroically trying to maintain photography’s socialist credentials. Politically vilified by the late 1940s, organizations such as the Photo League also suffered from a shift in the type of human interest story sought after by mainstream media. Nancy, whose husband, Beaumont Newhall (1908–1993), had been the first curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had witnessed the rise of the Time/Life emporium and syndicated newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s and was keen for photography to also take its rightful part in the museum. The photographic museum catalogue was eventually consolidated by Beaumont Newhall’s successor, the photographer Edward Steichen (1879–1983). Steichen’s massively successful catalogue for the Family of Man exhibition (1955) remains one of the best-selling photo-texts ever.12 The book presents a selection of photographs from across the world with paragraphs and extracts of text encompassing philosophical sayings, letters, speeches, fiction, and poems. Aside from the various criticisms leveled at the book, primarily because of its perceived cultural imperialist outlook on humanity, the fact that the Family of Man catalogue stayed in print for decades indicates just how popular and accepted the intersection of text and imagery had become by the late 1950s.
The Photo-Text: Beyond the 1950s
While a considerable mass of photographic studies of the 1930s have been instrumental in establishing the photo-text as a highly politicized medium, largely because of the state-sponsored promotion and distribution of images in the United States, the popularity of the photo-text as a reflection of various literary movements and trends remains underexplored. Partly because the postwar period was ideologically driven to perpetuate a version of the photo-text as something predominantly honest, immediate, and in opposition to fiction, analysis of photo-textual interaction tended to focus on the message of the images rather than the textual context.13 However, as John Tagg put it in The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, because all photographs fit into “a cultural strategy of a particular mode of governance: a hybrid of discipline and spectacle, of documentation and publicity; a strategy of management of meaning and identity,” complacency vis-à-vis the “message” of any photo-text has to be acknowledged.14
Tagg’s ideas, in fact, share a great deal with Benjamin’s anxieties regarding the potentially propagandistic nature of photography, and it is notable that if the 1930s had witnessed a rise in photography as an expeditious political tool, the photo-text was consolidated as a distinct genre by the time postwar politics had to deal with the repercussions of the Second World War. In France and the United States, looking ahead toward a democratic future meant also reestablishing the ideological boundaries for a collective sense of nationhood, and often photo-textual works operated within these parameters.15 Of course, these very broad demarcations do not do justice to the concurrent Italian or Spanish contributions to the period, marked as they were by a different set of politics, nor do they take Russian, Eastern European, and Scandinavian photography into consideration, all traditions that were marked by various attempts to navigate national concerns in very different ways.16
If the Family of Man exhibition and catalogue had proved the efficacy of using photographs and text as a way to combine ethnographic practice with a global vision of documentary photography, others were trying to align photography more concertedly with the vernacular tongue and sensibilities of the subjects portrayed. In the 1960s and 1970s, the English writer John Berger collaborated on a series of photo-narratives with the photographer Jean Mohr in which the study of local places became the starting points for various poetic-philosophical ruminations. For Berger and Mohr, the photo-text could thus consolidate a form of native lyricism as well as act as an arena for the exploration of a more engaging, a more intimate form of photographic communication. Berger and Mohr’s work was symptomatic of a whole range of work to come out in the 1960s and 1970s in which the documentary impetus became subsumed within various new forms of fiction and memoir. Much more can be said about how writers such as W. G. Sebald (1944–2001), and Jonathan Safran Foer (1977–) have continued this tradition of mixing memoir, fiction, history, and biography. Facilitated by the presence of photographs, the investigation instigated by Barthes and others into how memory and history can be illuminated through the photo-textual has also spurred new interest in the medium.
If the documentary has survived in its more original reportage form, it is, not unsurprisingly in the context of a rapidly fluctuating media culture in the West, Asia, and Africa. Embraced as a political and artistic tool from the 1960s onward, often despite censorship and low distribution, artists with few means and very limited distribution have nonetheless used the text/image format to render their own environments and the changes wrought upon them both through postcolonialism and shifting paradigms of identity.17 Unsurprisingly, much of this material remains underexplored in the context of Western criticism, the present exercise a case in point. Inscribed and at times subsumed by the ethnographic and at times colonizing gaze of various Western photographers, there is an entire field of research into the role of the photo-text in this context, a field that is slowly beginning to emerge from inside rather than outside native and cultural traditions. The potential for more discernible distribution of photographic material from non-Western areas and for writing on those images from within those communities has nonetheless begun, albeit often for financial as much as for artistic reasons. Particularly in terms of introducing Western audiences to an Asian market, works from places such as China, where the political and ideological rawness of the 1930s photo-text still seems apt and crucial, are becoming increasingly popular. Martin Parr and Garry Badger’s grand photo-book project, a three-volume survey of the best books of photography of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, is a case in point. These surveys are highly aware of their own presence within the wider hierarchy of photographic studies and, in this sense,—for better or worse—are complicit in facilitating the status of photo-text as a collectible object in its own right.18
Such investigations into the effect of writing on photography and the role of photography itself within the market place are—one could argue—offshoots of the consolidation of another “photo-textual” collaboration, namely, between critic and photographer. In fact, the increasingly blurry nature of what it means to be an academic in this field—a writer on photography or a photographer writing on one’s own practice—has marked the discipline from the beginning. In Mark Durden’s Fifty Key Writers on Photography (2012), for instance, those writing from a practice-based perspective and those from an academic perspective overlap more often than not, with some of the most astute work on photographic theory being done by photographers themselves.
These critical slippages, while messy, are also productive, and, as we saw with Barthes, Sekula, and Tagg, the territory of photography studies blurred with something more akin to image text studies does not necessarily have to be detrimental to either discipline. More to the point, a large mass of publications has emerged on what it means to teach visual culture in general. James Elkins’s 2003 Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, articulates the potential pitfalls of using photography as proof that “the distinction between high and low (art) is ‘specious’,” arguing that “the view that high and low are wholly mixed and therefore no longer exist . . . is more a rhetorical stance or an assumption than a condition, a fact borne out by visual-culture texts themselves.”19 Publishers, such as the Mack/Steidl imprint, continue to produce limited-edition photo-books in which—in many cases—the minimalist nature of the photographs seems to signal that despite its oftentimes “low” mundane subject matter, the overall project is still very much “high” art. While there are clearly exceptions, the desire for and commodification of a rarified visual sphere may be a response, in part, to the digitization of the medium. It may be tempting to demarcate the use of photography along generational lines, but the technological advances that make photo-texts democratically available to all are also both an encouragement to their production and a guarantee that no money can be made from them. In this context, the “old-fashioned” photo-text designed to be perused and, in many cases, collected stands as a reassuringly material object in an otherwise increasingly fleeting media world. As publishers of contemporary photo-texts will attest, the attempt to dwell on the interior geography or topography of modern men and women seems as intrinsic to a mature artistic community as the culture of selfies and Instagram does to youth culture.
Returning to the 19th Century with the Photo-Text
Given the reliance on the advancement of print technology and distribution, the photo-text is naturally defined by and most often situated within the 20th century. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to simply read it as reflective of 20th-century concerns. In fact, its status as a continuously hybrid form, seen in a few iconic photo-texts, illuminates how photography was mediated by many of the same textual concerns in the 19th century as in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to François Brunet, one of the earliest of photo-texts, Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature (1844), “deploys itself as a self-representation of photography, its applications and possibilities, and its inventor’s voice— . . . the allegedly neutral ‘pencil of nature’ . . . the photographic author . . . aligns the ‘art’ of photography with a rhetorical if not literary project.”20 Brunet’s reading shows how the discourse and practice of photography in the 19th century used photography’s referential and documentary capabilities deliberately as part of a wider lyrical and creative endeavor. Rather than see the various strands as antithetical, Talbot’s book—despite operating without precedents—shows an awareness of how the discourse of writing determines that of photography. For Brunet:
Photography—like all nineteenth century inventions—was experienced as an event, and in writing, before it was encountered visually. This preemption of fact by discourse meant photography would be received as an idea or text rather than as a picture. . . . For an invention described as “Nature representing herself” this situation was quite paradoxical: the nature image, before ever meeting the public’s eye, was inscribed as a child of culture.21
The position of photography as “child of culture”—long before it became compartmentalized into various subgenres and styles—reminds us that rather than trace a distinct historical lineage of writing on the photo-textual—it is worth considering the circulation and persistence of certain concerns throughout the canon. As Barthes and Talbot’s work illustrates, regardless of whether writers are writing on photography (in Barthes’s case) or photographers are writing on photography (in Talbot’s case) the photo-text has been mediated by both poetic and literary concerns. A brief look at one of the most iconic photo-texts of the 19th century illuminates the referential use of the camera and its ability to show a particular group of people at a particular moment in time through Cameron’s portraiture. At the same time, while Tennyson’s epic poetry is commonly read as exemplary of a romantic 19th-century tradition, the photographs by Cameron turn the literary into an investigation that in many ways shares a great deal with Barthes’s later concerns. Like Barthes, Cameron used the ability of the camera to create “a certain but fugitive testimony of things past,” in other words, a way to rethink the relationship between image and text.
The Photo-Text as Artistic Collaboration: Julia Margaret Cameron and Alfred Tennyson, Idylls of the King (1874–1875)
After the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson published the first set of his poem Idylls of the King (1874–1875) in 1859, forty thousand copies were sold, and in the following decades Tennyson continuously added and rewrote the poem for publication.22 Idylls of the King, an epic poem on Arthurian themes, had been preempted by Tennyson’s popular Morte d’Arthur in 1842, and the poem—a serialized adventure into the melodrama of Arthurian court and battle, epitomizes the Victorian fascination with the heroic myth of King Arthur as supreme leader and icon (Figure 1). Idylls of the King is also a romance, one of unrequited love and desire, a world where the feminine vies for attention in an otherwise hypermasculine sphere. In this sense, it straddles the masculine world of warfare and subservience to a ruling body and an idealized feminine sphere of absolute fidelity and selfless behavior. All the stranger that this very mythically orientated project would lay the foundation for the first, and perhaps best, artists’ photo-textual collaboration of the 19th century.
Tennyson was a close friend of Cameron’s family and a neighbor on the Isle of Wight, and his friendship with the photographer is well documented.23 As well as supplying Tennyson and other well-known artists with portraits, Cameron photographed her family and servants, often dressed in classical robes and arranged in a variety of tableaus, religious and otherwise. Idylls of the King had been published previously in other formats, and the illustrated version with Cameron’s images was designed as a limited edition collectible item, the accompanying poetry written by hand in pages sitting across from the images, not unlike a diary or an album of family portraits. A juxtaposition is thus in place that paradoxically reverts the mode of production that one may otherwise expect. While the photographs are mechanically reproducible, the accompanying text would have been unique, bearing the imprint literally of the artist’s hand. Whether the writing was that of Cameron or Tennyson is unclear, but as a collaborative process the uncertainty only accentuates the blurred lines between the photographer and the writer in this instance.24 Idylls of the King likewise contains illustrations primarily based on tableaus of characters portrayed by a number of models that reappear throughout, Guinevere and Lancelot embracing, the warrior knight King Arthur in regalia, and so forth. Thus, while the illustrative material is bound together through narrative continuity, the repeated use of certain models, themes, and postures is remarkably consistent. The fact that Tennyson worked on the poem for decades before Cameron’s photographs were commissioned does not, then, detract from the sense of the illustrated edition as genuinely synthetic. Not only do the photographs take the allegorical impulse of the myth of King Arthur as their starting point, one may argue that the handwritten text takes the intimacy of the photographs as its starting point. In this sense, Cameron’s photographs and Tennyson’s writing both indicate a genuine attempt to think about the narrative underpinnings and consequences of the allegorical subjects.
Tennyson’s opus had previously been illustrated with traditional woodcuts, and the decision to have Cameron’s photographs in the latter collected edition also says a great deal about the speed with which photography was entering the vocabulary of artistic practice.25 According to Victoria Olsen in “Idylls of Real Life”: “These contradictory appeals to ‘realism,’ ‘idealism,’ and the hand and eye of the artist/photographer provide the cultural context for Cameron’s photographs of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The result was two lavishly bound, folio format volumes, each illustrated with twelve original photographs by Cameron and accompanied by selections from the recently published Idyll.”26 In her essay “‘Shadowing Sense at War with Soul’: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographic Illustrations of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King,” Marylu Hill argues that the book represents “the tension between past and present, false and true, permanent and transitory,” “the shadowy ground between what is tangibly present and what is irrecoverably lost.”27
For Hill the Idylls are more than an illustrated poem; they are investigations into photography’s relationship to time and memory as well. Largely “a visual counterpart to the tensions inherent in the Idylls themselves,” Cameron’s photographs show an awareness of the ways in which iconicity is bestowed visually.28 In this way, overlaps occur between Tennyson’s use of King Arthur as a study of the past in national and mythic terms and Cameron’s obsession with the allegorical. Speaking of Cameron and Tennyson’s use of a “Double Pastness,” Hill notes Tennyson’s lost world of Camelot as aligned with the past world of the Victorians portrayed through Cameron’s portraits (Figure 2).
Paradoxically, this “Double Pastness” also adds something surprisingly contemporaneous to the project, something that defines it as a photo-text rather than a poem simply illustrated with photographs. Cameron’s images feature an awareness that the referential nature of the subjects, their very realism, coincides with an artistic/poetic choice that is facilitated by the photographic process. For Gerhard Joseph in Tennyson and the Text: The Weaver’s Shuttle, the beginnings of a photographic aesthetic are already present: “The optics of Tennyson’s poetry . . . is a bifocal oscillation between the minute particularization of objects and hazy evocations of the ‘far far away’, between careful focus and out of focus diaphaneity.”29 Cameron’s so-called diaphaneity, or rather what appears to be a deliberate use of soft focus, indicates, then, not so much a forgoing of realism as her awareness of how realism can be manipulated to accentuate rather than downplay the allegorical nature of the Arthurian legend.30
According to Tennyson: “My meaning was spiritual. I only took the legendary stories of the Round Table as illustrations. Arthur was allegorical to me. I intended him to represent the Ideal in the Soul of Man coming into contact with the warring elements of the flesh.”31 In several ways, Tennyson’s comment is relevant to Cameron’s practice as well: if, on one hand, the illustrations use allegorical setups to reenact fairly conventional Victorian ideals, on the other, they use the camera’s abilities to simultaneously counter them. A contemporary audience would have played along with the “legendary stories” being shown, but they would also have known that the models were “real” people pretending to be Arthurian legends.32
Rather than simply provide photographic versions of her contemporaries’ painterly aesthetic, Cameron took the typical scenarios, poses, and arrangements and then stressed the naturalness of the sitter’s face through lighting and exposure. When one looks closer, the portraits rely on facial expressions rather than the surrounding props (Figure 3).
Cameron’s photographs thus walk a tightrope in aesthetic and emotional terms, caught between their referential quality and the lyrical material that they illustrate. In this respect, they also align themselves to the sense of reality and illusion in the poem, with Camelot as mythical territory and King Arthur as the embodiment of faith and nobility. As Margaret Homans argues in “Cameron’s Photographic Idylls: Allegorical Realism and Memorial Art”: “If by a switch of captions the same image can represent different characters, saints and sinners, then the photographs also call attention to the arbitrary nature of typological and allegorical meaning and how it can be assigned to different models.”33 Homan’s point is about the intrinsically manipulative nature of the synthesis between image and text, about the fact that every photo-textual endeavor asks the readers/viewers to engage in an act of faith when we align one medium to another to produce a certain meaning. On a different level, we could also read Homan’s commentary as pertinent to the issue of class and how Cameron was looking for an internal rather than external marker of what she considered a noble form of Britishness, not just in the context of Arthurian legend but in Victorian society as well. Severed from any precise historical signifiers, apart from Tennyson’s mythical landscape, the models engage instead in a series of timeless tableau vivants, gestures, and poses that render them both iconic and very much present.
Whether Tennyson appreciated the modern nature of Cameron’s eye, at odds in many ways with the generic qualities and national grandstanding of Tennyson’s actual prose, is another matter. What we do know is that it will take many more decades before any similar photo-textual collaboration emerges.34 It is perhaps a testament to Cameron’s intuitive sense of photography’s limitations as well as strengths that she maintains a tightrope between realism and lyricism that is very hard to follow. This may also partly explain why the tension between the referential properties of the camera and the poetry that accompanies it are vastly different from the documentary impetus that takes over the photo-text by the end of the 19th century. Despite this, it is worth considering whether even the more overtly documentary photo-texts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries carry vestiges of the lyrical, even sentimental properties of Cameron’s and Tennyson’s project. Conceived under other political circumstances, one project that nonetheless also capitalized on the tension between the realism of the camera and the sentimentality and lyrical properties of the accompanying text was Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890).
The Photo-Text as Concerned Documentary: Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)
Jacob Riis’s 1890 How the Other Half Lives was one of the first book-length studies of “the other half” to incorporate text and photographs for a common documentary purpose. A study of the struggling immigrant population of 19th-century America, the book focuses squarely on the tenements and slums of New York, interspersing commentary by Riis (who was himself an immigrant) with statistics, maps, drawings, and photographic evidence. Having arrived in the United States in 1870, the twenty-one-year-old Riis, a carpenter by training, taught himself to become a journalist and then a photographer. By the 1880s, he was working for the New York Tribune, covering, among other things, the educational efforts of the Tenement Housing Commission. The work he did was in many ways indicative of his era. By the late 19th century, the Social Gospel movement of the Gilded Age had created a rhetoric of goodwill meant to both aid in the advancement of the poor and in equal measure assuage any serious misgivings regarding the consequences of an increasingly rampant capitalism.
This is not to say that Riis was operating purely as a lightning rod on a social level—although one may critique the book on these grounds.35 The genuine radicalism of Riis’s vision was in the decision to combine his own photographic illustrations with an in-depth journalistic study of the various tenements and their occupants. As Riis put it in his autobiography, The Making of an American: “For more than a year I had knocked at the doors of the various magazine editors with my pictures, proposing to tell them how the other half lived, but no one wanted to know.”36 Unable to get his photographs of the tenements published, Riis turned them into an article for the magazine Scribner’s in 1889 under the title “How the Other Half Lives” and then into a book in 1890.
In How the Other Half Lives, the forty-three photographs are absolutely fundamental to the emotional and political impetus of the textual material. Essentially opposite to Cameron’s fine art aesthetic, Riis’s aims were first and foremost to authenticate the claims made in the text and vice versa. As it turned out, Riis’s experience of actually photographing the poor, being physically present in small rooms and tenements, determined not only the narrative gist of the text but also the aesthetics of the project overall. In one of Riis’s more famous images, a woman is posing in the style of Madonna and child gazing in the direction of a ladder (Figure 4). The chapter in which this photograph is set is titled “The Italian in London,” and it both plays on the preconceptions of Riis’s contemporary audience (“With all his conspicuous faults, the swarthy Italian immigrant has his redeeming traits”) and, at the same time, tries to universalize the plight of the woman pictured.37
According to Peter Bacon Hales in “Photographing American Urbanization”: “Riis’s photographs didn’t depend on the rigorous aesthetic discipline of later so-called documentarians . . . . But Riis’s photographs did depend upon a strongly directive moral presence, an authorial voice that might speak with the authority of experiences not held by his audience.”38 The fact that Hale speaks of Riis’s “authorial voice” rather than his authorial eye is telling. Rather than read the affective nature of the book as enabled by the “shocking” images of poverty, the text connotes the moral presence of the author as it directs the readers’ reading of, rather than looking at, the photographs.
To understand the dialogue between image and text, we must again return to the era in which the photo-text was produced. In a 19th-century context, the idea that the photographs could be the primary agent and the accompanying text secondary in a book would have been unusual. Yet in How the Other Half Lives the question of what constitutes realism and how it should be used in the service of documentary verisimilitude or lyrical integrity is as yet unfixed and therefore open to Riis’s particular sensibilities and prejudices. Nonetheless, Julia Margaret Cameron’s interest in photography’s ability to render a sense of passing, both socially and culturally, does carry some similarities with those of Riis. Riis was well aware that How the Other Half Lives flew in the face of those who believed in the natural order of things within a culture in thrall to capitalist progress and still navigating its own misgivings about immigration. Contrary to the belief that the poor were poor because they biologically belonged to the lowest strata of society, Riis’s project hinged on persuading its readers and viewers that peoples’ characters could change with their circumstances. However, in line with the reformist movement that Riis is often grouped with, this progressive paradigm was not seen as contrary to existing religious or even racist beliefs in the late 19th century, and the fact that Riis’s writing unabashedly stereotyped various racial groups was not questioned. Unlike Cameron—for whom the process of portraiture involved lengthier exposure times—Riis’s use of flash technology, coupled with the often awkward nature of locations and subjects, meant that aesthetically How the Other Half Lives was more documentary in style. However, if Riis in this respect presents a counterpart to Cameron’s more allegorical style, the presence of staged tableaus is still very much in evidence.
In the image entitled “Street Arabs at Night, Mulberry Street” (Figure 5) the necessary light and shutter speed required that the image be staged during the day. This sense of performativity extends itself, however, from the visual to the textual and is, in fact, often accentuated by the accompanying text, parts of which read more like popular fiction than sociological study:
I tried one night, not with the best of success I confess, to photograph the boys . . . . They were quite turbulent, to the disgust of one of their number who assumed, unasked, the office of general manager of the show, and expressed his mortification to me in very polite language, “If they would only behave, sir!” he complained, “you could make a good picture.”
“Yes,” I said, “but it isn’t in them, I suppose.”
“No, b’gosh!” said he, lapsing suddenly from grace under the provocation, “them kids ain’t got no sense, no how.”39
In this respect, Riis’s photo-text, while clearly governed by an agenda partly restricted by the sentimentalized language, indicates a particular moral direction, a direction strengthened by the visual language of photography. For Riis the themes, ideas, and images in How the Other Half Lives could sequentially convey a comprehensible narrative from picture to picture, even if the photographs were taken at different times, of different people, and in different social circumstances. Likewise, the fact that the quality varied vastly was of secondary concern, partly because the accompanying text would “explain” not so much what the image was showing but what it was meant to mean. Above all, the photographs had to have a clear and recognizable iconography capable of standing on its own, while at the same time they had to render the text lucid and persuasive through narrative sequence.
The Photo-Text as Pulp Fiction: Weegee, Naked City (1945)
While Riis’s formidable, politically complicated, and occasionally patronizing look at New York’s tenements inaugurated the photo-text as a longer, more focused project, it also validated the idea that text and image could be generated through one overriding sensibility. More important, Riis understood intuitively that without the emotive images of “the other half” the dogmatic and at times lurid accompanying text would not be effective, nor would the photographs appear authentic without the text providing the necessary information. One photographer who very clearly benefited from this tradition, taking upon himself the mantle of self-taught observer/photographer, was another devotee of “how the other half lives”—namely, a photojournalist from the 1940s, Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee. Weegee’s collection of photographs from the 1945 Naked City stands out as the first attempt to publish off-the-cuff tabloid photography in book form, and it does so with a text that is as idiosyncratic and at times brutal as the images themselves.
Thus, while it is useful to think of Weegee as operating on a continuum with someone like Riis, the interwar period’s effect on the photo-text clearly influenced Weegee’s way of working. The United States in the 1930s saw the consolidation of the photo-text both through government funds and through an increased appetite for collaborations that incorporated photographs with clear political and aesthetic aims and tactics. In fact, no other period spawned quite so many publicly funded photo-textual collaborations, and no other period has yet to generate such a significant amount of writing on photography. Thus Weegee must be understood as a distinctly post-Depression era photographer, whose documentation of the working-class streets of New York differed from that of his predecessors. Like Riis, Weegee has also been read variously as an unashamed voyeur of the human misery and fragility of urban life and as a highly skilled, oftentimes emphatic renderer of “the other half” of New York. A product of a different literary era, Weegee in his oftentimes jocular, occasionally sentimentalizing descriptions of the urban is influenced both by hard-boiled detective fiction and a more journalistic jargon, reflective of the speed with which he supplied images to the daily papers to make his living. Not unlike Riis again, Weegee argued that his forte as a writer was the fact that he was not a writer per se, but simply a misunderstood journalist of human interest stories; in reality, Weegee understood that with the right sequencing and introduction, his photographs could operate as a coherent book. As Weegee puts it in the very first chapter of his autobiography from 1961: “My typewriter is broken. I own no dictionary, and I never claimed that I could spell, and if Shakespeare, Balzac and Dostoyevski could do it the hard way, in longhand, so could I. . . . Everything I write about is true . . . and I have the pictures, the checks, the memories and the scars to prove it.”40
Weegee’s iconic shots of dead gangsters in the gutters of New York or young lovers kissing at Coney Island in the dark are meant to prove his unique ability to illuminate the secrets of the city, despite the fact that many other tabloid photographers at the time were engaged in producing similar images. In Weegee’s case, the intent of the writing was twofold, to prove that the photographer himself was a part of the city he photographed—that is, that he bore the “scars” of the crimes he witnessed—and that the meaning of the images was legible to the person photographing them. Nonetheless, Weegee is always wearing his hard-nosed journalist persona rather obviously. After all, in the introduction quoted earlier he references three of the most iconic writers only to set himself apart from them. Instead of having the professional photojournalist observe how “the other half lives” with a dispassionate eye, Weegee presents himself from the outset as emotionally entangled with his project. In Naked City Weegee’s disclosure, his undressing of the inhabitants of New York (and it is no coincidence that Weegee loves photographing mannequins being dressed or undressed in New York shop windows) is as much a form of self-disclosure as it is outright voyeurism.
With the caption “The flower of America’s pure white womanhood is saved from a fate worse than . . . death,” Weegee’s tendency to pun nonetheless has a political point. This image of a mannequin being dismantled is situated in the section entitled “Harlem,” and without much ado Weegee’s tongue-in-cheek commentary on the intersections between racism and commodification is just one of many instances where he mimics the rhetoric of white superiority as a way to critique its shortcomings. Unlike Riis, then, Weegee is less interested in providing an explanatory narrative that may neatly compartmentalize the chaotic images of the city’s underworld. Instead, Weegee’s writing constantly reminds us of the photographer’s familiarity with the anarchic episodes he witnesses. In a famous one-page sequence in Naked City, Weegee’s caption “For the first time, an accident is photographed before and after it happened” precedes three images of a street peddler being hit by a car and subsequently dying, almost as though the photographer’s predictive powers caused the accident.41
Weegee’s New York thus becomes more a staging area for a collapse between the private and the public than an index of how the city is changing.42 In fact, Weegee thrives by photographing situations that he considers permanent fixtures within the urban environment. Similarly, the layout of the three photographs is more akin to a film strip or a series of comics in the newspapers, references that deliberately add a particular narrative element to the visuals of the spread. The various sections of Naked City are designed to accentuate the abilities of the photographer’s eye, providing an alternate guidebook to New York that titillates as well as shocks. Both Riis and Weegee may be slumming to a large extent, but for Weegee it is clearly crucial that he presents himself as comfortable with rather than morally affronted by the events he witnesses.
Capitalizing on his nickname, allegedly born of his uncanny ability to, like the Ouija board, foresee events before they occur, Weegee seems to undermine the abilities of the camera. Yet, in a literary context, the moniker seems to point to the legacy of the investigative photographer as a figure of detection, an investigator into the signs of the modern landscape. Like the hardboiled detective, Weegee operates on the margins of the city, a liminal figure capable of stepping in and out of the world he portrays. Hence the many images of gutters, sidewalks, doorways, and windows, as the peripheral entrance points between the private and the public become the domain of the photographer. Naked City does not end with an image of the typical New Yorker, the everyman or everywoman with whom Weegee claims he identifies. Instead, it culminates tellingly with the image of a forlorn and bedraggled Alfred Stieglitz, the most famous of American prewar photographers: “Alfred Stieglitz, in his cubby hole in the back of an (sic) Madison Avenue office bldg. He sits here lonely & forgotten. . . . He has destroyed over 30,000 priceless platinum photographs of his works.”43 This is not simply Weegee congratulating himself on being able to capture an icon of photography; it is another memento mori of a soon-to-be-dead photographer in a book that with its many images of corpses seems intent on mixing the living with the dead.
The image of Stieglitz alone after a lifetime of collective endeavors also fits into one of the main themes of Naked City, namely, the loneliness of modern life. Contrary to How the Other Half Lives, Naked City presents the urban as more about solitude than overcrowding. If modern life is about inevitable alienation, it is an alienation that mirrors that of the photographer. In this sense, Weegee’s role as social documentarian shifts in a direction that is distinctly modern, indicative not only of the imbedded photographer laboring under his or her outsider status but of the photographer as the recorder of what remains the same, despite political and social change.
For critic Miles Orvell, Weegee’s detached voyeuristic eye is antithetical in this sense to the social documentary movement of the 1930s.44 Nonetheless, Weegee’s canny use of captions, both externally and internally and in the form of advertising and signage, adds an extra layer to the inscriptive nature of photography itself. If Riis’s city environment was often oversaturated with details, Weegee goes for the minimalist detail, the gangster’s hat in the gutter or the torn seam on a woman’s stocking—subject matter that may be in a Walker Evans photograph as well. In the end, Naked City’s autobiographical impulse comes through in the text’s relationship to the images, the fact that the sensibility of the images and the writing is so persuasively uniform in its outlook. At one level, this is what ensures the self-reflexive nature of the book; at another level, it allows for an extremely adept use of the writing as a voice-over to photographs that may otherwise appear simply grotesque or exaggerated. Weegee took the subject matter of Riis’s original reform politics and turned it in a markedly more contemporary direction, collapsing the boundaries between journalistic objectivity and authorial manipulation. There’s a trace of postwar cynicism in operation here, but the desire to become one with the subjects photographed was a fundamental part of the photo-textual projects of the 1930s as well. This collapse between the objective nature of the camera and the subjective nature of the writing is fundamental to a project that preceded Weegee’s, namely, the photo-textual collaboration between the poet and writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans.
The Photo-Text as Modernist Experiment: James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)
Not far into his most defining book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee famously decreed, “The camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time”45 To some extent, while this was the closest Agee ever came to defining in exact terms what he perceived the role of the camera to be, it was nonetheless very close to what lay at the heart of the collaboration between him and the American photographer Walker Evans. Agee, a Harvard graduate and published poet, was working as a journalist for Fortune when he was paired with Walker Evans in 1936 and sent south by Fortune’s chief editor, Henry Luce, to produce a feature-length study in prose and photographs of the lives of three southern sharecropper families.
One may surmise, then, that Agee’s writings would be largely about the social and economic hardship of the people surveyed. However, as in most of Agee’s work, a mixture of generalized philosophy and personalized commentary immediately detracts from any distinguishable focus in Famous Men. Instead, Agee utilizes Evans’s photography of the sharecroppers and their surroundings primarily as a metaphor for a particular visionary practice. Despite their respective reputations—Walker Evans’s as a preeminent photographer of the American scene, affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, and Agee’s as a talented if erratic writer—their meeting owed as much to the zeitgeist of a decade steeped in documentary endeavors as it did to their unique talents. Coming in the wake of two other influential photo-textual collaborations (Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces  and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s American Exodus ), Famous Men was partly constructed as a direct response to the perceived stereotyping of a now-defunct agrarian culture in Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces.46 For Agee, such attempts manifestly proved the near impossibility of documenting abject poverty without demeaning one’s subjects. Rather than a series of case studies, the three families became a springboard for an investigation into the philosophical ramifications of documentary representation itself, something complicated by the fact that his subjects “exist, in actual being, as you do and as I do.”47 To complicate matters further, Agee felt it incumbent on him to critique the appeal Famous Men inevitably would hold for its liberal middle-class readers. For Agee, the only way to manage this was to enact the very impossibility of the project itself through a stylistic mix of prose, poetry, essayistic writing, and fiction with Evans’s untitled black-and-white photographs of the sharecroppers preceding the text itself. Unlike Lange’s and Bourke-White’s photo-texts, in which text and images were consistently interspersed and aligned through both commentary and caption, the decision to begin Famous Men with Evans’s untitled photographs turns the photo-textual exercise into something decidedly different (Figure 6).
Without any guidance from captions or titles, the reader is left to make his or her own connections regarding the relationship between image and text, between narrative and illustration. In this sense, the photo-text in its entirety becomes both a response to the images preceding it and a form of extended commentary. At the same time, Agee references photography as a metaphor for the visionary aspects of the poet/writer’s eye, a perspective that shares a surprising alignment with Julia Margaret Cameron’s search for aesthetic truthfulness as underlying the creative process. According to Agee, “without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands,” Famous Men would reunite the documentary perspective of previous Depression-era projects with a transcendent candor equal to any modernist text.48
Such aesthetic concerns did not, however, prevent Agee from also positing that photographs were the most effective way to force the reader to recognize the obligations of economic and social privilege. If both Evans and Agee felt that the accompanying writing needed to “explain” the meaning of the photographs, it was only insofar as it would safeguard the images from being misread as exploitative in any way. This paradox—wanting the photographs to be coherent in themselves and yet informed by the accompanying writing—is complicated by the melodrama simultaneously enacted in Famous Men, namely, that between Agee’s desired emotional kinship with the sharecroppers and his perceived kinship with Evans. Although the territory is very different from Julia Margaret Cameron’s response to Tennyson’s poetry, the project’s impetus—at least for Agee—hinged on a similarly romantic vision of the artist, and this too complicates matters.
By the 1940s, most picture magazines, Fortune included, were using human interest stories on American industry, economics, and business as a way to provide an optimistic outlook on the U.S. economy rather than as a way to criticize domestic politics. Initially entitled Cotton Tenants: Three Families, the book was renamed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Agee after a quote from Ecclesiastes, indicating the move from a journalistic remit to something altogether different. Titles with religious subtexts, such as Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s American Exodus (1939), Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), to name a few, had also played on the mythic and diasporic dimensions of the Depression era. Thus, while Agee wanted Famous Men to be neither a conventional Fortune piece nor the type of photo-textual collaboration made popular by Caldwell and Bourke-White, it too was part and parcel of a larger 1930s obsession with documentary aesthetics and its ability to accurately reflect what it meant to be an American. As Agee put it in his prologue to Famous Men, how “to deal with the subject not as journalists, sociologists, politicians, entertainers, humanitarians, priests, or artists, but seriously.”49 This fact was not lost on contemporary critics such as Alfred Kazin, for whom Famous Men was not only “written to end all documentary books . . . it represents a revolt against the automatism of the documentary school . . . an attack on the facile mechanics and passivity of most documentary assignments.”50
Alfred Kazin was writing on Famous Men in his seminal On Native Grounds (1945), a book that sought to trace how the American literary voice was shaped by and, in turn, shaped national and artistic concerns. Similarly, Lionel Trilling’s Kenyon Review essay from 1942, “Greatness with One Fault in It,” linked Agee’s more experimental prose with a distinctly moral agenda. For Trilling, the ornate descriptions of the sharecroppers, rather than alienating the reader, allowed a convergence between the individual artistry of Agee and Evans and the collective plight of the sharecroppers.51 For these early critics, Agee’s style was more akin to such high modernists as William Faulkner and John Dos Passos than ethnographic scholarship.
Since then, assimilating Agee into a canon of high modernism has proved less straightforward. Following the resurgence of interest in Famous Men in the 1960s, William Stott’s Documentary Expression and 1930s America (1973) and, later, Maren Stange’s Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America, 1890–1950 (1989) and Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work (1997) have emphasized its importance as a document of its time. For Stott, Agee’s tendency to be “exuberant, angry, tender, wilful to the point of perversity” while also “romantic and even sentimentalizing” did not detract from the book’s documentary qualities.52 According to Keith Williams in “Post/Modern Documentary: Orwell, Agee and the New Reportage” (1997), “questions about reality, truth, subjectivity and language raised by modernist writing . . . swarm back towards, and are even welcomed into, Agee’s text. . . . The debate about realism was for Agee par excellence the point at which politics and poetics become indivisible.”53 Williams’s reading of Agee as somehow acknowledging modernism’s limitations is symptomatic, to some degree, of what started to happen to the photo-text as it entered the 1950s and beyond. Despite massive changes in the American landscape and infrastructure, it is telling that Walker Evans’s sombre black-and-white portraits in Famous Men, the interiors of the sharecroppers’ homes with their Spartan preindustrial furniture and bare wooden walls have remained iconic emblems of a particular type of “Americanism” (Figure 7).
While Walker Evans’s continuing status as the photographer of 1930s Americana indicates our attraction to a certain type of iconic imagery, Famous Men’s reentry into the canon of American literature has proved a hard one. In this respect, the vast difference in how Agee and Evans devised the book—with a seemingly disproportionate amount of writing compared to the initial photographs—has meant that it functions less seamlessly as a photo-text than the other 1930s documentary work previously mentioned. Unlike Riis and Weegee—for whom a certain urbane superiority marked the ordering of the cityscape—Agee wanted to mark his literary territory through the discomfort he felt in the rural environment. In this sense, the book counters while at the same time responding to the structural strategies of previous photo-texts. Inserting it into a canon of high modernism becomes one way to embrace its obtuse structure, but it may also do the book a disservice in terms of thinking about it as a photo-text in its own right.54 If anything differentiates Famous Men from its documentary precursors—Riis’s, for instance—it is its attempt to inscribe into the very fabric of the book the issue of image-text relations. Even if it, in the end, leaves the question of supplementarity hanging, it does so in the hope of having created a photo-text in which both photography and commentary function as symbiotic entities.
The Photo-Text: Into the 21st Century
If Henry Luce, the managing editor of Fortune, can be credited with allowing the pairing of Agee and Evans, their shared interest in providing a working definition of vernacular American culture has remained a powerful theme in subsequent photo-texts.55 Nonetheless, if Famous Men is marked by the problem of representation, both in terms of its format and the difficulties of doing the sharecroppers justice, it is also a book that could not have been written without the influence of the European models that lay the foundation for the work of such critics as Roland Barthes and Alan Sekula. From psychoanalysis to surrealism, from 19th-century realism to 20th-century modernism, the photo-text maintains a distinct interest in cross-fertilization in terms of national borders. Moving onward from the 1940s with the photo-text as a visible forum for the exportation of nationalist ideas and ideals as much as a forum for domestic introspection, the photo-text became a place for a more discernible introspective, private form of interrogation by the late 1950s. Agee’s posture of universal understanding may have been hard to stomach for contemporary audiences in the 1940s, but—as previously mentioned—it was nothing compared to how Steichen’s Family of Man elevated the artist/photographer into a “seer” of universal truths across cultural and ethnic differences. For Barthes, for instance, The Family of Man was precisely the sort of generalized visual rhetoric that exemplified the problem of mixing photographs of nations and people without the accompanying writing having a discernible political agenda or any sense of specificity.56 Just as Evans’s photographs of the sharecroppers in Famous Men were partly about the illuminative potential of a lost pastoral America, Barthes intuited that the photo-texts of the future may look at the past with a stronger sense of nostalgia than warranted. As it turns out, this has indeed often been the case; Weegee’s desire to use the vagrants and petty criminals of New York as proof of the magnetism of street photography, while reflective of social concerns, seems strangely nostalgic in the wake of subsequent books of street photography. For Weegee, the urban streets were places of intimacy and ceremony as much as violence and crime, thus providing a suitable setting for photo-texts that speculatively sought to render the “voice” of the people as much as their faces.
As these few photo-textual examples show, the shift from a use of photographs as a way to render the meaning of a text—whether the purpose is predominantly creative or documentary—to the use of text as a way to legitimize or explain images, was always fluid. Rather than distinguish between a predominantly documentary/social perspective and a more biographical, introverted one, the most interesting photo-texts are perhaps those in which the two categories intersect and become indistinguishable. Certainly, both Riis and Weegee knew to capitalize on their personas as intrepid investigators, the iconic status of their respective photo-texts largely informed by the governing voice of one commentator, one photographer. In similar ways, the emotional as well as representational power of photography has always been determined by what we ultimately write about it, regardless of whether that writing is critical or personal. For Julia Margaret Cameron, the difficulty of defining exactly how to render the epic and lyrical nature of Tennyson’s poetic landscape became the impetus for a new way of thinking about portraiture and, more widely, how such abstract ideals as beauty and truth may operate within photography. While we may feel that we are now operating in a visual landscape whose sophistication is such that we no longer have these concerns, the best photo-textual work nonetheless elicits the same questions. Unsurprisingly, in various studies and in the endless reams of essays on Barthes and Fox Talbot, for instance, their books are read as both essays on photography (photo-essays) and forms of illustrated autobiography. While the desire to conflate all of these genres is evident in Barthes’s work, the inherent ambivalence and impossibility of defining the photo-text itself was already present, as Brunet pointed out, in Fox Talbot’s initial attempts at writing on the subject. In the photo-texts briefly examined here, the space wherein the objective and the subjective collapse, where the text illuminates the fissures and subtexts of the visual material and vice versa, is the most potent example of photo-textual interaction.
Rather than provide a cohesive explanation of what the photo-text is exactly, we can then compare some of the many discourses that the interaction between text and photography has offered. Similarly, it is hard, given the nature of how photographs and text are now disseminated, to assess whether there will be a turn toward introspection within the photo-text, as the digitization of photography now puts the means of production into almost everyone’s hands along with their smartphones. Perhaps the photo-text will experience a return to the concerned journalistic impulse of the 1930s, given that more people are able to access political and even radical visual material from across the globe.57 For the writer W. G Sebald, for whom photography as a found object became an indispensable entry into thinking about the mnemonic underpinnings of writing, the use of images and text proved the intrinsic link between visual and modernist practice in a very literary sense. In the photographer Sally Mann’s photo-text Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, the archival photographs of her family become a way to discuss her own psyche and acknowledge the historical antecedents of her own practice.58 Such examples proliferate and they prove, perhaps, that the photo-text as tangible object continues to have an unabated fascination for artists across both mediums.
Links to Digital Materials
On contemporary writing and photography: Shaj Mathew, “Welcome to Literature’s Duchamp Moment,” New Republic, May 18, 2015.Find this resource:
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Archives of American Photography.
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Picturing the 1930s; a useful resource credit listing for further research into the period.
Department of Photographs, “Walker Evans (1903–1975),” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Article published October 2004.Find this resource:
Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division.
Centre for Creative Photography: a vast collection of American photographic materials.
International Center of Photography, New York: archives of Weegee’s work, among others.
On International Photographers and Projects: Magnum Photos.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, “Julia Margaret Cameron”.
New York Historical Society, “Jacob Riis”.
Allred, Jeff. American Modernism and Depression Documentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 2000.Find this resource:
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.Find this resource:
Berger, John. Understanding a Photograph. Edited and introduced by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics, 2013.Find this resource:
Bezner Corbus, Lili. Photography and Politics in America—From the New Deal into the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.Find this resource:
Blinder, Caroline, ed. New Critical Essays on “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.Find this resource:
Brunet, Francois. Photography and Literature. London: Reaktion Books, 2009.Find this resource:
Burgin, Victor, ed. Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan, 1982.Find this resource:
Durden, Mark. Fifty Key Writers on Photography. London: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:
Eisinger, Joel. Trace and Transformation: American Criticism of Photography in the Modernist Period. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Entin, Joseph B. Sensational Modernism: Experimental Fiction and Photography in Thirties America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Gidley, Mick. Photography and the U.S.A. London: Reaktion, 2011.Find this resource:
Hanson, Paul, ed. Literary Modernism and Photography. London: Praeger, 2002.Find this resource:
Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Orvell, Miles. The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture—1880–1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.Find this resource:
Puckett, John Rogers. Five Photo-Textual Documentaries from the Great Depression. Studies in Photography 6. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.Find this resource:
Rabb, Jane M., ed. Literature and Photography—Interactions 1840–1990. Albuerqueque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.Find this resource:
Rabinowitz, Paula. They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary. London: Verso, 1994.Find this resource:
Sontag, Susan, On Photography. London: Penguin, 2008.Find this resource:
Stimson, Blake. The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.Find this resource:
Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: MOMA, 1966.Find this resource:
Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History—Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. London: Hill and Wang, 1989.Find this resource:
Examples of Seminal Post-1945 Photo-Texts
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. London: Canons, 1967.Find this resource:
Brecht, Bertolt. War Primer. Translated and edited by John Willett. London: Libris, 1998. First published 1955 by Kriegsfibel.Find this resource:
Calle, Sophie. Suite Vénitienne. Translated by Danny Barash and Danny Hatfield. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988.Find this resource:
Dyer, Geoff. The Ongoing Moment. London: Little, Brown, 2005.Find this resource:
Hughes, Langston, and Roy DeCarava. Sweet Flypaper of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. The Inhabitants. New York: Scribners, 1946.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. God’s Country and My People. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. The Field of Vision. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. Photographs and Words. Friends of Photography Press, 1982.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. The Home Place. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. First published 1948 by Scribners.Find this resource:
Morris, Wright. Time Pieces. New York: Aperture, 1999.Find this resource:
Safran Foer, Jonathan, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. London: Penguin, 2005.Find this resource:
Saroyan, William, and Arthur Rothstein, Look at Us, etc. etc. New York: Cowles, 1967.Find this resource:
Sebald, W. G. Vertigo. Translated by Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Penguin, 2001.Find this resource:
Sebald, W. G. The Emigrants. Translated by Michael Hulse. London: Vintage, 2002.Find this resource:
Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. Translated by Michael Hulse. London: Vintage, 2002.Find this resource:
Steichen, Edward. The Family of Man. New York: MOMA, 1955.Find this resource:
Strand, Paul. Tir a’Mhurain: Outer Hebrides. Text by Basil Davidson. London: McGibbon and Kee, 1962.Find this resource:
Strand, Paul. Living Egypt. Text by James Aldridge. New York: Horizon Press, 1969.Find this resource:
Strand, Paul. Ghana: An African Portrait. Text by Basil Davidson. New York: Aperture, 1976.Find this resource:
Strand, Paul, and Nancy Newhall. Time in New England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950.Find this resource:
Strand, Paul, and Cesare Zavattini. Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village. New York: Aperture, 1997.Find this resource:
(1.) Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble, eds., Phototextualities—Intersections of Photography and Narrative (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), 3.
(2.) François Brunet, Photography and Literature (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 36.
(3.) Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” repr. in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin (London: Macmillan, 1982), 24.
(4.) Allan Sekula, “On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,” repr. in Thinking Photography, 86.
(5.) Allan Sekula, “A Walk with Allan Sekula Through His Exhibition Polonia and Other Fables,” in Realismus in den Künsten des Gegenart, eds. Dirck Linck, Michael Lüthy, Brigitte Obermayr and Martin Vöhler (Zurich, Switzerland: Diaphanas, 2010), 241.
(6.) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (1980; London: Vintage, 1993), 93.
(7.) For more on the interaction between surrealist photography and text, see Rosalind Krauss, Jane Livingston, and Dawn Ades, L’Amour fou (New York: Abbeville Press, 1985); David Bate, Photography and Surrealism (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004); Ian Walker, City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2007); and Marsha Bryant, ed., Phototextualities: Reading Photographs and Literature (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996), amongst others.
(8.) See Berenice Abbott, “The World of Atget,” in Berenice Abbott and Eugène Atget, ed. Clark Worswick (Santa Fe, NM: Arena Editions, 2002).
(9.) See Daniel H. Magilow, The Photography of Crisis: The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012); James L. Baughman, Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); and David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (London: Steidl, 2014).
(10.) See Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor, American Exodus (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1939); Margaret Bourke White and Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: New Modern Age Books, 1937); and James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Houghton Mifflin Books, 1941).
(11.) Nancy Newhall, “The Caption: The Mutual Relation Between Words/Photographs,” originally printed in Aperture 1 (1952), in From Adams to Stieglitz—Pioneers of Modern Photography (New York: Aperture, 1999), 136.
(12.) Edward Steichen, Family of Man (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955).
(13.) See Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Lili Bezner Corbus, Photography and Politics in America—From the New Deal into the Cold War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); Sharon Corwin, Jessica May, and Terri Weissman, eds., American Modern: Documentary Photography by Abbott, Evans, and Bourke White (Chicago: Chicago Art Institute, 2010); Joseph B. Entin, Sensational Modernism: Experimental Fiction and Photography in Thirties America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and William Stott, Documentary Expression and 1930s America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
(14.) John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1988); and The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 54; and Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: Gender and the Rhetoric of History in American Political Documentaries (London: Verso, 1994).
(15.) Edward Steichen’s publication of the catalogue for the exhibition The Family of Man in 1955 is the preeminent example of this. See Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). For a comparative study of U.S. and Russian state-sponsored photography see Leah Val-Bendavid, Propaganda and Dreams (Zurich, Switzerland: Edition Stemmle, 1999).
(16.) See Giorgia Alu and Nancy Pedri, eds., Enlightening Encounters: Photography in Italian Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015); and Patricia Keller, Ghostly Landscapes: Film, Photography, and Aesthetics of Haunting in Contemporary Spanish Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).
(17.) The American photographer Paul Strand is an excellent example of this post-war tendency; prolific in his desire to use the photo-text as a collaborative form he produced a series of photo-texts in which his own photographic eye could work with writers native to the regions represented. For more on Strand’s photo-textual projects, see Elena Gualtieri, Paul Strand Cesare Zavattini: Lettere e immagini (Bologna, Italy: Bora, 2005); Maren Stange, ed., Paul Strand: Essays on His Life and Work (New York: Aperture, 1990); Peter Barberie and Amanda N. Bock, eds., Paul Strand—Master of Modern Photography (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014); Paul Strand, Ghana: An African Portrait, text by Basil Davidson (New York: Aperture, 1976); Paul Strand, Living Egypt, text by James Aldridge (New York: Horizon Press, 1969); Paul Strand and Nancy Newhall, Time in New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950); Paul Strand, Tir a’Mhurain: Outer Hebrides, text by Basil Davidson (London: McGibbon and Kee, 1962); and Paul Strand and Cesare Zavattini, Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village (1955; New York: Aperture, 1997).
(18.) Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The PhotoBook: A History, 3 vols. (London: Phaidon, 2006–2014).
(19.) James Elkins, Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003), 52–53.
(20.) François Brunet, Photography and Literature (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 44.
(21.) Brunet, Photography and Literature, 16.
(22.) For an overview of the complicated publication history of the various editions of Idylls of the King, see John Pfordresher, “A Bibliographic History of Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’” Studies in Bibliography 26 (1973): 193–218.
(23.) Cameron’s friendship with Tennyson is charted, among other places, in Julian Cox and Colin Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs, with contributions by Philippa Wright and Joanne Lukitsh (Los Angleles: J. Paul Getty Publications, 2003); and Colin Ford, Julia Margaret Cameron: A Critical Biography (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Publications, 2003). Virginia Woolf’s only play, Freshwater (1923, rev. 1935 and published London: Hogarth Press, 1976) is based on Julia Margaret Cameron’s (her great-aunt’s) life.
(24.) For more on the writing of the original text in Idylls of the King, see Barbara and Alan Lupack, Illustrating Camelot (London: Boydell and Brewer, 2008), 42, and the catalogue entry for Idylls of the King at Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin http://norman.hrc.utexas.edu/photoPublic/fullDisplay.
(25.) For more on the original illustrative material, see Mike Weaver, Julia Margaret Cameron 1815–1879 (London: Herbert Press, 1984).
(26.) Victoria C. Olsen, “Idylls of Real Life,” Victorian Poetry 33.3/4 (Autumn–Winter 1995): 371–389.
(27.) Marylu Hill, “‘Shadowing Sense at War with Soul’: Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographic Illustrations of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King,” Victorian Poetry 40.4 (Winter 2002): 446.
(28.) Hill, “‘Shadowing Sense at War with Soul’,” 447.
(29.) Gerhard Joseph, Tennyson and the Text: The Weaver’s Shuttle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 446.
(30.) For more on the publication history and popularity of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, see Kathryn Ledbetter, ed., Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context (London: Routledge, 2006).
(31.) As quoted in Weaver, Julia Margaret Cameron 1815–1879, 66.
(32.) Carol Armstrong, “Cupid’s Pencil of Light: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Maternalization of Photography,” October 76 (Spring 1996): 115–141.
(33.) Margaret Homans, Royal Representations: Queen Victoria and British Culture, 1837–1876 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 289.
(34.) See John Thomson, Street Life in London (London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1878), for an example of a photo-text that straddles the end of the 19th and 20th centuries in terms of photographic aesthetics. For an overview of the history of this work see: http://photographyhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/john-thomson-street-life-in-london-1977.html.
(35.) For context and criticism relating to Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, see Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, ed. Hsia R. Diner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), and Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, eds., Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York (New York: New Press, 2007).
(36.) Jacob Riis, “Extract from The Making of an American,” in How the Other Half Lives, ed. Hsia R. Diner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 184.
(37.) Riis, “Extract from The Making of an American,” 34.
(38.) Peter Bacon Hale, Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization 1839–1915 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 28.
(39.) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, ed. Hsia R. Diner (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010) 116.
(40.) Arthur Fellig (Weegee), An Autobiography (New York: Ziff Davis Publishing, 1961), 7.
(41.) Weegee, Naked City (New York: Da Capo, 1945), 206.
(42.) Preceding Weegee’s study of New York, the photographer who introduced Eugène Atget’s images of Paris to the United States, Berenice Abbott, published Changing New York (New York: Museum of Modern Art,1939), a collection of photographs produced for the Federal Art Project in the 1930s, with commentary by the critic Elizabeth McCausland.
(44.) Miles Orvell, “Weegee’s Voyeurism and the Mastery of Urban Disorder,” American Art 6.1 (Winter 1992): 18–41.
(45.) James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), 11.
(46.) Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pierce, 1937); and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939; Paris: Jean Michel Place, 1999).
(47.) Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 11. The initial project as submitted to Fortune magazine is reprinted as James Agee and Walker Evans, Cotton Tenants—Three Families (New York: Melville House, 2013).
(48.) Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 11.
(49.) Agee and Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, xv.
(50.) Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (San Diego: Harvest, 1945), 495.
(51.) Lionell Trilling, “Greatness with One Fault in It,” Kenyon Review 4 (1942): 99–102.
(52.) William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 288.
(53.) Keith Williams, “Post/Modern Documentary: Orwell, Agee and the New Reportage,” in Rewriting the Thirties: Modernism and After, eds. Keith Williams and Steven Matthews (New York: Longman, 1997), 163–181.
(54.) David Madden and Jeffrey J. Folks, eds., Remembering James Agee (Georgia University Press, 1972). Examples of collected essays are John Rogers Puckett, Five Photo-Textual Documentaries from the Great Depression, Studies in Photography 6 (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984), and Thomas F. Barrow, Shelley Armitage, and William E. Tydeman, eds., Reading into Photography: Selected Essays, 1959–1980 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982).
(55.) Wright Morris’s many photo-texts include The Inhabitants (New York: Scribners, 1946), The Home Place (1948; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), The Field of Vision (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), God’s Country and My People (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), Photographs and Words (Friends of Photography Press, 1982), and Time Pieces (New York: Aperture, 1999). For more on Wright Morris’s photo-texts, see Caroline Blinder, “The Bachelor’s Drawer: Art and Artefact in the Work of Wright Morris,” in Writing with Light—Words and Photographs in American Texts, ed. Mick Gidley (London: Peter Lang, 2009), 63–81. See also Caroline Blinder, “Wright Morris,” in Fifty Key Writers on Photography, ed. Mark Durden (London: Routledge, 2013); and Alan Trachtenberg, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris (Merrell Publishers, 2002).
(56.) Roland Barthes, “The Great Family of Man,” in Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), 100–102.
(57.) W. G. Sebald’s novels are notoriously difficult to categorize because of their mix of photographs, both found and taken, and biography and fiction. See Vertigo (1990; London: Harvill, 1999); The Emigrants (1992; London: Harvill, 1996); The Rings of Saturn (1995; London: Harvill, 1998); A Place in the Country (1998; New York: Random House, 2013); On the Natural History of Destruction (1999; London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003); and Austerlitz (2001; New York: Random House, 2001). Brunet, who notes the surge in testimonials and autobiographical writings by photographers prior to and around 1900 as well, points out the antecedents of such practice in Photography and Literature (London: Reaktion Books, 2009), 90.
(58.) Sally Mann, Hold Still (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2015).