Thursday, February 27, 2014

Photos and Words: The New Ekphrasis

Thank the goddess for Zite, my news aggregator of choice these days.  (Although it does piss me off a touch that we think it's cool to misspell even German words these days.)  Just yesterday, over the last of my morning coffee, scrolling through my aggregated pieces on classical music and bicycling and chess and photography and, primarily, books and writing, I tapped to read "A Thousand Words:  Writing from Photographs," a blog entry by Casey N. Cep in The New Yorker.  

In a fascinating turn toward the digital age, Casey tells us she "...gave up writing hurried descriptions of people on the subway...and scribbling down bits of phrases overheard at restaurants and cafes."  She actually stopped even carrying her notebook.

So, what is she doing now to supply her writing habit?  Easy, her phone/camera, taking shots of everything from urban scenes to unique stones to odd characters to books or paintings she likes or wants to explore further.  "Photography" she says "has changed not only the way that I make notes but also the way that I write.  Like an endless series of prompts, the photographs are a record of half-formed ideas to which I hope to return."


How often have you noticed some detail or some conjunction or a certain smile and tried to inscribe it in your memory for future use?  I still can recall a gesture, between a young woman and her boyfriend waiting at a crosswalk in downtown DC, a couple of decades ago, and I've yet to use it.  (So it shall remain a delicious secret!)  Of course, no photo could do that gentle movement and touch justice, but I can also recall dozens--hell, millions--of moody skies and ripped boots and faded handbills and tired frowns (but no fracking kitty kats) that I wish I could have grasped more firmly to use in my writing.  No need to frame or compose or foster artistry, just snap the picture(s) and move on.  Brilliant.

But wait, there's of course a but.

Cep goes on in her posting to note that James Wood--yes, him again, and his marvelous book How Fiction Works--warns us that "photographs can deaden prose."  She goes on to quote Wood in a section I just happened to read myself recently, where he bemoans the artsy, yet static, description found all too often in today's MFA-bred writing.  Very true.

But--now here's MY but--I think Wood, no matter how much I love his work and find it inspiring, has misconstrued the interaction of photo and words, and placed the blame on the wrong party.  He seems to feel that it's the photo's fault, somehow, that the brilliant writer was barred from putting that moody sky or those muddy boots into action.  Yet, frankly, good writers know that static description--in prose versus images--indeed deadens their writing and has no place in a well crafted story or novel.  So the fault lies not in the digital silver nitrate, but in the laboring fingers of the writer who too faithfully tries to MIMIC the photo instead of using her words to EVOKE the image in her story.  Even Wood seems to grudgingly recognize this, as he reminds us that the "...unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static because it is much easier to describe than the mobile."

Cep concludes by quoting other writers, like Don DeLillo, who have been inspired by images and have drawn entire novels from a single image.

The bottom line, of course, is that, as writers, we must be noticers, and noticers in a way unique.  So, in my ongoing quest to spare as many trees as possible, I'm going to try noticing on my iPhone, to, as Cep urges us, take advantage as "photography engenders a new kind of ekphrasis."

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