"Writing is about discovering things
hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no
point to the process.". W.G. 'Max' Sebald
Regular reader will know I'm a big fan and avid reader of W. G. Sebald's books - especially for their relation to both photography and memory.
I found out the other day that the publisher Hamish Hamilton (John Updike, Zadie Smith, Simone de Beauvoir etc and of course W.G. Sebald ) has a very nice monthly - and free - literary journal, FiveDials, in pdf format. Almost half the latest issue is given over to articles about Sebald's work.
There's an especially interesting essay called The Collected "Maxims" (an intentional pun, as Sebald was not known by his first name, but as Max). This is a collection of Sebald's comments and sayings from the final fiction workshop he taught at the University of East Anglia (where he was a professor), only days before his unfortunate and untimely death in 2001.
"...In the literary world he was rapidly gaining renown: there had been the succès d’estime of his first three books, and then the publication of Austerlitz earlier that year. In the classroom – where David Lambert and I were two of sixteen students – Sebald was unassuming, almost shy, and asked that we call him Max. When discussing students’ work he was anecdotal and associative, more storyteller than technician. He had weary eyes that made it tempting to identify him with the melancholy narrators of his books, but he also had a gentle amiability and wry sense of humour. We were in his thrall. He died three days after the final class.".
What I find so interesting about the words that his students took away from the workshop is that a surprising amount of what he says could easily apply to photography - or at least the best and most interesting kind of photography. Something I also find in reading his books.
Here are a few selections. Just substitute photography/photographer/viewer for writing/writer/reader in most of them:
- By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.
- Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.
- 'Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.
- Oddities are interesting.
- Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. For example, Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.
- I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
- If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
- Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.
- Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.
- Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.
- Don’t listen to anyone. Not us, either. It’s fatal.
And finally the one I started off with:
...otherwise there's no point to the process. Exactly. This is where so much supposedly good work seems to fall down. It's why Ryan McGinley is really a rather successful advertising photographer - but not much else. After all, who hasn't seen nubile young men or women frolicking about in slanted warm sunlight with sparkling dust motes? At least in their dreams and imagination. There's nothing "hitherto unseen" about it at all.
- Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no point to the process.
It's the same with a lot of contemporary "portrait" (for want of a better word) photography - deadpan young women; time wearied old couples sat at their kitchen tables; mentally challenged women on beaches. Most of it is pure style. There's no chance or opportunity for discovery at all. The same can be said of so much urban and suburban cityscape work. How many generic suburban photographs, with neat lawns, clipped hedges and vinyl siding are we going to see? There are some who have shown us things unseen or unnoticed in the modern suburbs and the city - and there are sure to be others who will go on to do the same. But again, it's become just style - with perhaps a cute added little hook (trees wrapped in sacking for winter or whatever it is). But it's not about the photographer or the viewer discovering something unseen. It's about following a formula - deadpan straight on, largish format, muted colours and a little hook or quirk. I could go on, but I'm sure it would just bore you and I know you can come up with plenty of examples yourself. Work that on first glance seem promising but then shows itself to be hollow and empty - despite complying with all the rules that means it will be picked up by those who matter (and unfortunately, it probably will be).
The photos here are just a small few from some of the photographers who do indeed seem to have discovered - or who allow us to discover - things hitherto unseen.