Aperture #217 – Editors’ Note
Are images trumping the written word? Even in the age of instant visual communication via Instagram and Snapchat, this isn’t a new question. Photography critic and curator Nancy Newhall wrote in 1952, in the first issue of this magazine, of which she was a founder: “Perhaps the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born. Perhaps the printed page will disappear and even our records [will] be kept in images and sounds.” Penned more than sixty years ago, Newhall’s words sound remarkably prescient now that photographs have come to be described as “chatter” and the culture of books and reading is shifting. A New Yorker blog post earlier this year detailed how smartphone pictures had superseded note taking in one writer’s process; a recent New York Times article proclaimed that “The Emoji have Won the Battle of Words,” referring to the popular pictograph lexicon used in text messages.
We hope (and are fairly certain) that the latter isn’t true, but this issue is set against a backdrop where images are, arguably, placing significant pressure on the written word, whether or not this is a new or old problem. The prolific French writer Hervé Guibert, an accomplished photographer in his own right, prophetically feared that photography could “quickly turn to madness, because everything is photographable.” He is joined in this issue by William S. Burroughs and Kobo Abe, novelists who moonlighted as photographers. Writers Geoff Dyer and Janet Malcolm never developed a practice as photographers, but both have thought deeply and written extensively about images, navigating the tricky business of translating the visual into the verbal. A group of contemporary fiction writers offer varying takes on the pressure images place on what they do—Lynne Tillman smartly reminds us that “fiction is another form of image making,” and Teju Cole makes a case for poetry and lyricism in the age of automated images. Gus Powell, Moyra Davey, Sarah Dobai, and Eamonn Doyle have all looked to works of literature to inform their work as image makers, whether by adopting a formal constraint, borrowing snippets of language, or riffing on a theme. Taking a cue from Burroughs, creator of the “cut-up,” Natalie Czech and Erica Baum reanimate found language— from tactile, printed book pages to unlikely commercial objects (like the effects pedal above)—prompting viewers to reflect on how language can be both read and seen.
Words as inspiration for image making, words as images, images as open-ended fictions, documentary under the influence of fiction—as in the case of Walker Evans and his interest in writing and French literature, explored here by David Campany—are just some of the ways in which image and language brush up against each other in these pages. Perhaps novelist Tom McCarthy gets it right when he says, “in the end the difference between image and word isn’t relevant because ultimately it’s all scriptural…photography is a branch of writing.”