Photo-Textualities: Reading Photographs and Literature

Photo-TextualitiesMarsha Bryant, ed.

University of Delaware Press, 1996
ISBN: 0874135516

Literature and photography have been crossing borders since Edgar Allan Poe praised the daguerreotype’s invention in his essays of 1840. This anthology investigates books that juxtapose photographs and written language (photo-texts), considering a variety of examples from America, Britain, Canada, and France. Ranging from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun to Michael Ondaatje’s postmodern novel Coming Through Slaughter and Edward Said’s postdocumentary After the Last Sky, the contributors’ analyses address photo-textuality’s implications for representation and its cultural contexts. A truly interdisciplinary collection, Photo-Textualities features contributors who work in literary studies (English, romance languages), as well as contributors who work in media studies (film, graphic arts).

Part 1, “Photo-Textual Transformations,” shows how traditional assumptions about textuality and interpretation are unsettled when literature and photographs cross borders. Part 2, “Photo-Textual Interventions,” examines representation of gender, sexual orientation, class, race, and nationality to assess the cultural work that photo-texts can perform.

Traditionally, photo-textual studies have been limited to such “classic” examples as Alvin Langdon Coburn’s collaborations with Henry James on the New York Edition, or James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In fact, the genres these books represent – novel and documentary, respectively – have thus far dominated inquiries on photo-texts. Breaking with conventional parameters, this anthology reaches forward to Richard Powers’s postmodern novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which empowers its frontispiece photograph in ways inconceivable to James. Contributors also open up new possibilities for documentary by recovering alternative examples from the 1930s (Men at Work, Letters from Iceland, Three Guineas) and by studying examples outside British and American cultures (A Seventh Man and After the Last Sky). Moreover, the anthology explores the unexamined photo-textual terrain of literary biography, assessing books on James Joyce and Nora Barnacle Joyce.

Photo-Textualities invigorates critical inquiry with its range of literary and photographic genres, including photo-texts that elude genre classification. Besides documentary and biography, nonfiction literary genres include autobiography and travelogue. The range of photographic genres extends to landscapes, portraiture, documentary, tourist snapshots, and media images, as well as to the standard photo-textual forms of published album and photo-essay.

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