26 March 2015

Three fine things

One of the great perks of working for a university is access to an excellent library. Right now I have several books on loan from Massey’s library, and yesterday, walking to the car carrying three of those, I thought how they summed up my major interests — my delights, or perhaps even passions (or, less kindly, obsessions). One was Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, one was Jerry Thompson’s Truth and Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing, and one was Jean Dr├Ęze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions.

Writing, photography, and India. I can think of worse interests, worse things to be passionate about or obsess over — cars, golf, and reality shows, for example. I’m sure cars, golf, and reality shows can be defended as worthy obsessions, but defending them would sound like rationalising — an attempt, after the fact, to justify the indefensible. In contrast, I find it harder to see how defending an interest in writing, photography, or India could be criticised as mere rationalisation, but I’m biased.

I'm not just biased, though: I’m also comfortable with these kinds of contentious assertions, at least when I make them or when they’re made by people I like. (In fact, I might even like them more when someone I like makes them, because then I don’t have to make them and can instead keep quiet and appear reasonable and fair-minded, although I’m not.)

But back to my three delights (not the only ones, of course, but they’re right up there at the top with a few others). As I thought about them, I realised how well they complement each other. Writing and photography — well, the way they go together should be obvious. Conversely, they sometimes work against each other, as is the case in a great many books where either the text or the photographs dominate, one subordinate and usually diminished as a consequence. Coffee table books, for example: great photographs (sometimes), but even when the text amounts to a work of literature (as, for example, John Fowles’ text accompanying Frank Horvat’s photographs in The Tree), that text would have been better read independently without the distraction of photographs that compel the eye to linger (the more haunting of Horvat’s photographs in The Tree, to use that example again).

Perhaps, though, that potential conflict between writing and photographs creates the kind of challenge that leads to something better — not conflict, but a kind of creative tension. No great work of art ever comes easily, except perhaps to geniuses, whose existence I doubt, having been disappointed so often by their works. For writing and photography, the challenge remains, in my view, unmet — I’ve yet to see the book I want to see: one where the text and the photographs don’t just avoid competing with each other but complement each other in a way that creates a greater work of art than the two simply juxtaposed.

And India? Well, what better subject for writing and photographing? That should say it all, so I’ll say no more, bearing in mind Amartya Sen’s quotation from one of his teachers, economist Joan Robinson, who said, ‘...whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.’

How true.

1. The mention of the three books in the first paragraph should not necessarily be taken as a recommendation because I haven't read them yet. I have, however, now read much of Phillip Lopate's book and have found it enjoyable and thought-provoking. 

1. At Leh, October 2014.
2. On the flight from Kazakhstan to Kathmandu, September 2014. You can see a larger version of this photograph on The Ruins of the Moment.

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor


butuki said...

Well, if your writing blog posts don't do an excellent job of merging writing and photography, I don't know what does. Then again, maybe the blog format lends itself well to this mixture. To me, drawings seem to clash more with writing in blogs than photographs.

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Miguel. I do agree that photographs and text seem to work together better in blogs than physical books, but I don't know why. Maybe our expectations of a blog are lower, or maybe narrower, than of a book? A monitor, no matter how good, still can't match a beautifully produced book; a fine print will always greatly outclass the same photograph viewed on a screen. Again, I don't know why.

You might be right about drawings clashing more with text compared to photographs, but I'd love to see you post more of your drawings. They have an energy and sense of spontaneity that delights me.

Lydia said...

You will have to trust me on this, because you are too close to your own work to detect it: You hit the mark in this regard better than anyone else I know.

"For writing and photography, the challenge remains, in my view, unmet — I’ve yet to see the book I want to see: one where the text and the photographs don’t just avoid competing with each other but complement each other in a way that creates a greater work of art than the two simply juxtaposed."

pohanginapete said...

Thank you, Lydia :-)

vegetablej said...

I haven't read the book you mentioned but I doubt somehow the writing and pictures are from the same creator and maybe that's the trouble, because who can pair the words and photographs better than the artist/writer? And in the case of your blog, you do an excellent job -- I think the words and photos do spark more thought together and certainly add to the beauty of it all.

On a tangent, I wonder if you've read,_ The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry_ (Rachel Joyce)? It's a book that seems to contain nearly everything in life and it's probably best imagined rather than illustrated, as almost all novels. A really admirable, spare writing style. I really recommend it, but get out the tissues. :)

pohanginapete said...

VJ, thanks for the vote of confidence :-) As Miguel wonders, though, the blog format might be more forgiving. I'm not sure about your suggestion that text and photographs compete more when their creators are different people, though. If they're produced by one person, that person might be more likely to try expressing the same things through the two different media, and it seems inevitable that either the person's a better writer than photographer or vice versa. One medium might too easily become mere illustration for the other.

In contrast, the differing perspectives of a separate writer and photographer potentially add breadth or diversity, and perhaps also that creative tension. I say 'potentially' because my argument seems O.K. in theory but I can't think of a satisfactory example that supports it!

Thank you also for the book recommendation, VJ. It's on my list now :-)