What is seen and what is said

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Dartford, Kent (2007)

In 1936 the writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans were commissioned by Fortune magazine to produce an article on the lives of poor sharecroppers in the American South. The ethos of Roosevelt’s New Deal produced a whole series of collaborations between writers, photographers, artists, composers, choreographers and ethnologists, encouraged and funded to portray the lives of everyday American life in all its regions and cultures. The article eventually led to a book which was published in 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, now regarded as one of the great books of the 20th century. In his introduction, Agee wrote quite specifically on the relationship between the words and the images: ‘The photographs are not illustrative. They, and the text, are coequal, mutually independent, fully collaborative.’

The subject of how writers and photographers work together is, not surprisingly, something which deeply interests us. When Jason and I started working together in 2005, the relationship began, necessarily, as a matter of trust. After nearly ten years of collaboration, clearer understandings as to how we see our different roles have emerged, partly helped by reading and talking about other people’s work. Apart from the Agee/Walker collaboration, both of us admire the work of John Berger and Jean Mohr. Of his experience of the relationship between words and photographs, Berger once wrote:

‘And so they work together, the written lines and the pictures, and they never say the same thing. They don’t know the same things, and that is the secret of living together. The photos are a reminder of everything which is beyond the power of words…and the words recall what can never be made visible in any photographs.’

These are our sentiments entirely, and although we have spent a lot of time together, walking and talking, we soon realised that the practicalities of our different roles involve entirely distinct working practices. Rarely are any photographs taken or extensive notes made on our joint forays into the suburbs and countryside, which are principally exercises in immersion rather than documentation. If Jason becomes interested in a place he returns again (and often again and again), waiting for a particular light. Photography is required to be done out in the field, in situ, whereas the writing is invariably done back at home in London, with visits to the British Library or Essex Record Office if there is a need to check historical or topographical facts.

The photographs are immediately almost inviolable: shot on film rather than digital, there is minimal manipulation or adaptation afterwards. Editing largely involves selecting the strongest and most appropriate photographs – not manipulating them to make them fit. By contrast, the writing process involves endlessly adapting and changing the text right up to the moment of publication, attempting to get the right words in the right order. In a way the photographs come into being fully composed, whereas the text is provisional until solidified in print, and design adds a fuurther element in the overall ‘balance of power’.

It was clear when we first started working together that Jason and I broadly shared the same understanding of why landscape matters, an understanding that has been developed and enriched over time. In an interview with Jason in Creative Review, shortly after the publication of The New English Landscape, he said that:

‘I still believe that photography, and particularly landscape photography, has an important role in establishing concrete knowledge about a particular place. I am interested in what people value within a landscape, the ways they connect with the landscape around them, and how photography can explore the relationship between landscape, history and meaning.’

These comments echo something Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida about landscape photography, which was that such photographs ‘must be habitable, not visitable.’ Representing how a place has been inhabited – and is inhabited again through words and images – is what we try to do. Barthes also famously described photography as capturing a moment which has now passed and can never be recovered again – as such a photograph is like a memento mori. It could be that the dynamic achieved – through the juxtaposition of words and photographs – arises from the fact that while writing appears to bring people and places back to life again, photography is about recording landscapes and settlements before they disappear. Through this chemistry of word and image, absence and presence are conjured into being.

There is more to discuss on this matter, clearly, and other people’s thoughts are welcome.

 KW