Sam Twyford-Moore on photography books

Good writing about photography is hard to find. There are millions of photography books – instructions, owner manuals, individual artist monographs, digital camera guides for dummies – but few books of critical writing dedicated to the art. Usually it takes a non-expert stepping into the field to offer a different perspective and bring the book to attention. Janet Malcolm began writing about photography for The New Yorker in the late 1970s, seemingly building on the work of Susan Sontag’s seminal On Photography – collected essays primarily published in The New York Review of Books – but in a far more accessible manner. These early essays were eventually published as Diana & Nikon: Essays on the Aesthetic of Photography, which was her first published book. The collection is not unloved but is mostly ignored when it comes to talking about Malcolm’s oeuvre – which is a shame, because it is the key to unlocking the masterful non-fiction writer than she would later become.

Writing about photography seems to have been a strategy, intentional or otherwise, for Malcolm to train her eye for her later non-fiction work – the incredible descriptions of physical details in her later New Yorker essays, and books like The Journalist and the Murderer and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, seem to have their origins in her writing on the American photography greats: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Robert Frank, William Eggleston and the titular Diane Arbus. It is difficult to imagine Malcolm’s incredible and horrific visual survey of a derelict house of one of Plath’s neighbours at the end of The Silent Woman without going over the revolutionary ordinariness of the clutter found in the photos of Eggleston and Frank. Indeed, a Paris Review interview with Malcolm opens with the interviewer admitting her ‘own blind spots with visual detail’ when it comes to describing the room in which the interview is taking place as Malcolm gently debates what should be included. Or there is this built up description of a volume on Arbus, published in conjunction with a retrospective by San Franscico Museum of Modern Art, which Malcolm detested:

The book reminds me of a porch I know with a lovely view of a valley, but where no one ever sits, because it is crammed from floor to ceiling with mattresses, broken chairs, TV sets, piles of dishes, cat carriers, baby strollers, farm implements, unfinished woodworking projects, cartons of back issues of Popular Mechanics, black plastic bags filled with who knows what.

This precise list-making is surely something that is learnt by observing and collecting the details of photographs. British novelist and essayist Geoff Dyer acknowledges as much when he writes that Walt Whitman’s poetry ‘at times, read like extended captions in a huge, constantly evolving catalogue of photographs’. Dyer approaches many of the same Canon-ical figures found in Malcolm’s book in his 2005 non-fiction work The Ongoing Moment. The book serves as both a tour of and love letter to America from an outsider looking in, one casually flipping through the family album of an entire nation. Dyer, modelling himself on his hero Barthes in Camera Lucida, who makes the same confession, stresses that he does not own a camera. The writer who considers photography is always an outsider, as he doesn’t have access to the visual exactness of the photographer himself.

At the beginning of his career, Dyer was devoted not to Barthes but to John Berger – the seminal figure whose arts criticism and various ‘Ways of Seeing’ opened up his fiction writing to formal experimentation. For Dyer’s part, his novels also have strong visual codes. The sharp satire of the Venice Biennale in the ‘Jeff in Venice’ half of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi would not have been possible without his early explorations of arts criticism, but neither would have the incredibly detailed physical descriptions of Varanasi in the second half. Between fictions, Dyer was developing strategies for divergence in his non-fiction writing. Indeed, The Ongoing Moment has a curious structure, not chronological nor biographical, but by object, moving from benches, fences, roads, gas stations, figures in the distance, photographs of other photographers – a process of looking elsewhere. It’s not called a framing device for nothing.

parke-midnightImage by Trent Parke

Dyer has long written about photography and in his collection of assorted non-fiction, Working the Room, he wisely positions his writing on photography at the front of the book, before moving into more menial literary criticism. Even better is when he combines the two. Here, Dyer compares Australian photographer Trent Parke’s epic two-year roadtrip around Australia in Minutes to Midnight to Patrick White’s Voss.

Despite some home-grown success stories such as Parke – the first and only Australian member of the infamous Magnum collective – there aren’t too many Australian critics dedicated to photography. Helen Ennis is the sole writer who comes to mind. Ennis also works as a curator and historian in Canberra. Her ongoing investigations into the work and life of Olive Cotton have been appearing in literary magazines recently and her Photography and Australia, published as part of Reaktion Books’ excellent Exposures series, is a useful survey and beginner’s guide, if relying a little too heavily on her trained curatorial approach, lacking the cultural zig-zag of Dyer.

There is, however, the legendary Ross Gibson, who goes about things differently. His underrated The Summer Exercises is based on various video and multimedia projects, in which he accessed the archive of crime scene photographs held at the Justice & Police Museum in Sydney and created something unusual. On his blog, Accident Music, Gibson wrote a haiku every Sunday night based on a selected image. These are, in my opinion, the best examples of photography inspiring creative production in this country. Gibson is a professor at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney. I worked at the university for close to three years, but it was only in my last couple of months of the job that I discovered COFA’s library, and specifically, its photography book section. As a reader, it was like discovering a new brand of literature; many of the monographs were as carefully plotted as any novel. Reading Robert Frank’s The Americans was like speeding through On The Road in a single sitting (indeed, Kerouac provides a nervy introduction). On these shelves, San Francisco born Alex Webb was the undiscovered great of travel writing; he just happened to be taking pictures instead. Here too were Parke’s rare early books, Dream/Life and The Seventh Wave, like a pair of lost Australian novellas – and for the likes of Dyer, ripe for writing on.

Sam Twyford-Moore is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He will direct the 2014 Emerging Writers’ Festival.