June 2, 2011KR Blog

A Double Exposure: A Roll On Poetry & Photography

Last Saturday, I sandbagged my preparations to drive into the mountains with my wife for the holiday weekend. The FedEx truck would soon arrive and disgorge a box, which would in turn disgorge a new camera–a new model of the Lomo rangefinder camera I have loved for the last eight years–I planned to christen at 9,000 ft. At precisely noon, the package arrived and we were safe to leave.

The camera, it turns out, has a flaw in its advance system, so it pretty well mangled my film, including a roll of previously-exposed Kodak Elitechrome I planned to double over, creating a (semi-accidental) palimpsest, one time burned over another.



So I’m not, as I had hoped, filling my eyes with an amateur’s late-Brakhage treatment of life.



Instead I’m thinking about what might be possible once I can exchange the damaged camera for a functional model–and using the extra time to think about poems and poem-and-text combinations.


Ekphrasis is not exactly what I have in mind–though I enjoy the distortion of time and the photographic plate or frame that occurs in poems like Natasha Trethewey’s “Photograph of a Bawd Drinking Raleigh Rye” that read the singular synchronic moment of the shot by moving across or into it in diachronic language. That tension is one thing, but we often read such poems without the photograph at hand–and I expect that many writers would suggest the test of such a poem is whether it can work without the image, if the poem can evoke the image clearly enough that the poem comes to take the place of the photograph. Otherwise, the photograph might seem like a caption.



This is what the arrangement of Deborah Luster and C. D. Wright’s original presentation of One Big Self worked to avoid: it was clear, as Wright’s long poem appeared in sections alongside Luster’s plates, that each artist was working in the same place and in the same time, but the language was never a reading of an image, and an image was never serving to amplify part of the poem. The two were related, but they were not mutually dependent–evidenced in part by Copper Canyon’s republication of Wright’s poem in a single volume without the photographs (where, I think, the poem’s architecture is actually easier to apprehend and appreciate).



Like Luster and Wright’s book, Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s recent book Selenography presents poems in a facing-page format with Polaroids by Tim Rutili (Rutili is a member of the band Califone, about which Wilkinson has made a documentary film), where the tension between the two art forms introduces some new harmonics into the poems–which like all of Wilkinson’s work are strongly imagistic but also strongly surreal–and the Polaroids–many of which have been distressed.

Do the Polaroids–which signify at once a kind of singularity and a kind of seriality, because we all know the feel and the physical self-sufficiency of a Polaroid picture and also have probably all seen a parent’s or grandparent’s boxes of these prints–make Wilkinson’s use of the page as a framing or sectioning device more readable? Do Wilkinson’s imagistic combinations make Rutili’s modifications of the Polaroid prints seem more significant than they might be if we saw any one of them (like the cover image, whose scene is overlaid with the impressions of the photographer’s fingerprints) alone–more art, less play?



In asking this, I’m remembering–and misremembering of one of my favorite little-known books, Jonathan Williams’s Portrait Photographs. This handsome book, originally published in 1979 by Gnomon Press of Frankfort, Kentucky came as a case-bound paperback (with an onionskin wrapper and a paper slipcase) whose spreads presented a square photograph on the recto, printed on a semi-gloss paper and pasted (with paper cement or something like that) to the paper, while the facing verso presented a legend/caption typeset in such a way as to suggest the dimension of the photographic print, written by Williams, a very witty poet with a deep Appalachian root. I love this book in part because of the beauty–and honesty–of its production (the first portrait, of William Carlos Williams, has come away from the page, so I can see the brush-stroke of adhesive on the back), but also because the symmetry of the design suggests another kind of conversation between image and text. Here, each text captions a photograph, but despite taking on the burden of presenting some contextual/factual information, the paragraphs manage a wit suggesting poetry, each tuned to its subject.



So, in the last hour of incident light, I am dreaming of a lens, of a shutter, of a film that will capture an instant I might pull apart in language, a language I might compress into a moment–and of a book in which the photo and the text are complicating and amplifying one another into something bright and beautiful and irreducibly two, irreducible one.


What, dear reader, are your favorite photo/text combinations?