Words before pictures: Philip Roth


General Photography

It was Tod Papageorge who said “If your pictures are not good enough, you aren’t reading enough.” (ref. via) That’s not what photographers like to hear, is it? They’ve just got used to the fact that they have to spend a lot of time on “social networking” and PR (something that clearly is taking away a lot of time from photography), and now they’re supposed to read? What’s that all about? But maybe writing has more in common with photography than one might think. Maybe looking at photographs has more in common with reading a novel than one might think. (more)

An avid reader myself, I had to think of that when I read an older interview with Philip Roth, one of my favourite writers. At the beginning the interviewer - Hermione Lee - and Roth talk about the author’s approach to writing a book (unless otherwise noted, the following quotes are all by Roth, taken from the Paris Review interview)

“Beginning a book is unpleasant.”

It would seem like photographers could easily agree with that. Beginning something new is unpleasant, if not outright scary. And then how do you work towards whatever it might be you’re interested in?

“Worse than not knowing your subject is not knowing how to treat it, because that’s finally everything. I type out beginnings and they’re awful, more of an unconscious parody of my previous book than the breakaway from it that I want.”

Isn’t that something very much known from photography? Trying to break away from the older work, trying to get to work on something you have no idea what it actually is?

“I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.”

That’s like taking photographs and photographs and photographs, and most of them are junk, and you wonder whether there will ever be anything coming out of those. And that’s before the later edits, which are yet another nightmare…

“I’ll go over the first six months of work and underline in red a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes no more than a phrase, that has some life in it, and then I’ll type all these out on one page.”

So hundreds of photos go into the bin (or remain, as zombies, in Lightroom or whatever other digital tool you might use). How frustrating is that?!

“I look for the liveliness to set the tone.”

That is such a great way to describe the moment when you finally have something, when an image (or maybe a small group of images) hints at its own promise. Isn’t that how this works when you finally have some photographs that seem to be getting at something? Especially since, starting out, you often don’t even know what you’re after:

“What matters most isn’t there at all. I don’t mean the solutions to problems, I mean the problems themselves. You’re looking, as you begin, for what’s going to resist you.”

Because art is work, hard work, and hard work often needs that resistance that you need to push against. No pushing, no art (or maybe just the most superficial art):

“Sometimes in the beginning uncertainty arises not because the writing is difficult, but because it isn’t difficult enough.”

You have to have the guts to admit (or maybe just to realize it) that things need to be difficult. Not just difficult, they need to be difficult enough, to make you sweat, to make you hate everything about them and push and push. What happens to all the stuff that you do along the way, the stuff that gets discarded, those photos that don’t end up fitting?

“I generally prefer never to see them again.”

Should you show what you’re working on to other people, while you’re working on it (maybe even put “in progress” work on your website)?

“It’s more useful for my mistakes to ripen and burst in their own good time. I give myself all the opposition I need while I’m writing, and praise is meaningless to me when I know something isn’t even half finished. Nobody sees what I’m doing until I absolutely can’t go any further and might even like to believe that I’m done.”

I guess not. But at the end, there often is that crisis, when you despair and don’t know whether what you have is good at all. Does that happen a lot?

“Always. Months of looking at the manuscript and saying, ‘This is wrong—but what’s wrong?’ I ask myself, ‘If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what?’ But when I’m asking this I’m also trying to believe in what I’ve written, to forget that it’s writing and to say, ‘This has taken place,’ even if it hasn’t. The idea is to perceive your invention as a reality that can be understood as a dream.”

That’s not a bad way to think of a body of photography, “a reality that can be understood as a dream.” I immediately had to think of another writer’s thoughts here. It was Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky who said (emphasis in the original, found in Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future, nyrb, 2009)

“A dream is the only instance when we apprehend our thoughts as external facts.”

There, I suppose, is a good photography connection, given that we also appear to apprehend our photographs as external facts.

It really doesn’t hurt to read.