Photography and Literature

By IHTISHAM KABIR

When photography was invented in 1840, literature warmly greeted it. Why? I think the ability of photographs to precisely describe what is in front of the camera caught the imagination of writers who felt less threatened by photography than painters did. Authors as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, John Ruskin and Virginia Woolf were early supporters of photography. Some writers quickly recognized photography’s marketing potential: Whitman and Mark Twain used their photographic portraits for public relations.

A haunting book of poems and photographs by Pablo Neruda and Milton Rogovin.
A haunting book of poems and photographs by Pablo Neruda and Milton Rogovin.
To be sure, photography had enemies in literature. Perhaps the most famous was French poet Charles Baudelaire who repeatedly attacked photography, once warning photographers, “You will never become artists. All you are is mere copiers!”

Novelist Honoré de Balzac was frightened by photography. He believed that all living bodies were made up of invisible layers of skin, and taking a photograph peeled away a layer. Thus, he thought, repeated exposures to a camera can eventually peel away all the layers that make up a person and kill them. But Balzac did pose for photographic portraits. Presumably his ample girth — equivalent to numerous layers — reassured him.

In fiction I have read, the most memorable observations about photography were in Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” where the colorful character Melquiades sets up a primitive photo lab in the remote South American town of Macondo.

The enchantment that the novel’s protagonist José Buendia feels about photography turns into obsession as he tries to photograph god in order to prove his existence.

The Americans by Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac.
The Americans by Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac.
Over the years, many writers have been enchanted by photography’s magic, becoming serious photographers themselves. Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice in Wonderland,” was an enthusiastic and talented photographer.

In recent times, the authors Eudora Welty, Allen Ginsberg, Michael Ondaatje and Bruce Chatwin have pursued photography seriously. Among photographers, Robert Adams and Wright Morris are established writers.

Writers and photographers often collaborate on projects, but memorable results are sparse. Poet Pablo Neruda and photographer Milton Rogovin made a haunting book of poems and photographs called Windows that Open Inwards.

Camera Lucinda -- Barthes' reflections on photography
Camera Lucinda — Barthes’ reflections on photography
Poet Langston Hughes and photographer Roy DeCarava authored a lyrical book called The Sweet Flypaper of Life about life in Harlem. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a classic by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. The book’s subject is America’s Great Depression.

The author Jack Kerouac in the preface to The Americans, a book of photographs by Robert Frank, famously said that “Frank sucked a sad poem right out of the heart of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.”

Philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, John Berger and Susan Sontag have written intellectual discourses on photography. I find Barthes’ Camera Lucida particularly engaging. Discussing a portrait of Napoleon’s younger brother Jérôme, Barthes expresses his absolute amazement that “I am looking at eyes that once looked at the emperor.”

He admits that others might not find this fascinating. “Life consists of these little touches of solitude,” Barthes concedes.

For more on Ihtisham Kabir visit his Facebook page Tangents.

(first published by The Daily Star)


  • Lovely article – very well written. Frank is definitely a source of inspiration. First and foremost a photo needs to tell a story. Curiously for such a popular art, people are unable of even telling their own circumstances, perhaps because they need to hide them, below a mass of technicalities.
    For the internet plebs, Realism is too much to swallow, hence the mass trend is towards beautification. And if you uncover the lid they’ll try to lynch you, in the name of ‘I can do as I please’. Well, that shows…No Franks today..

    • Talking photography, we shouldn’t descend into a class struggle between different elites. To each his or her own, be it realism, composite photography, whatever. There’s a grain of truth though in what you’re saying. So superficial we’ve become, realism looks like hell on earth.

      • There is a dictatorship of the majority of camera owners which is smothering everything with overPP. Marketing wants everybody, but photography requires choices.
        Realsim IMHO is one of the options to go back to, because it tried to be honest, and had integrity.
        If the present photography, and cameras disappeared for something more practical like wearable, do you think that anybody would shed a tear?

  • Andy Umbo

    I’ve always thought books were the way to go in the modern era. I know a lot of photographers doing beautiful work, that can’t sell their expensive prints in galleries, but maybe a self-published book off of “Blurb” or “Lulu” will have some traction, and make more money for the photographer than trying to get picked up by a “photo publisher” or trying to market single prints for a lot of money. I would certainly rather pay $30.00 for a concise and interesting book about some particular subject I was interested in, than $500.00 dollars for one 16X20 print of one pictures from the book. I certainly love ‘wall art’, but the idea of having enough money to buy it any more is gone, the middle class where I am is dying, and along with that, the ability to make the decision to struggle a little to buy art.

    I feel sort of sorry for those in photography, working specifically in the ‘photo and print as pure design’ category, where a display print is the delivery vehicle, as it doesn’t adapt itself very well to book publishing, and if it does, it’s usually high end printing and large format books that make it all an expensive proposition. I knew a photographer once that had great pictures of disaffect mid-western american youth, shot on large format view camera, and printed to 24X36, and priced at a few thousand each. I was really interested in seeing that in book format, and reading the stories and seeing the pictures, but I’m not sure, if I could even afford the two-thousand dollars a print, I would’ve wanted a stark, black & white 24X36 inch print of a small town heroin addict, hovering over my couch every day!