“A single photograph, it’s provocative, it’s an idea, but if you can do two or three you make of that a phrase and if you can do ten maybe it’s a sentence. It’s a hard obscure language but it’s worth studying.” — Dorothea Lange
I recently read Linda Gordon’s excellent biography of photographer Dorothea Lange. I enjoyed learning about Lange’s process— from the way she put her subjects at ease to her thoughts on arranging groups of photos. In 1939 Lange, along with her husband, the academic Paul Schuster Taylor, put together American Exodus, A Record of Human Erosion, a “photo-textual book,” According to Hill, Lange was looking for a full synthesis of text and image with the goal that the two parts “so mesh that their impact transcend either medium alone.”
To combine photographs and text and have them read as a fluid language is a very difficult task. A single photo stops you in your tracks. A still image is pulled from the stream of time (evocative in and of itself) and invites the viewer to linger and seek connections in the image’s details. An ominous sky, an ill-fitting suit, and calloused hands reveals character or become representational of some larger truth.
Reading comics comprised of photos instead of drawings (often referred to as “fumetti”) can quickly induce headaches. Because each panel contains so much information it is hard to slip from image to image. It’s a halting experience, like trying listen to someone struggle to speak in a language that isn’t their native tongue.
Photo-textual books grew out of the body of work created by Lange and her fellow FSA-OWI photographers that depicted beauty and dignity in the trying circumstances of the depression. Lange and Taylor hoped American Exodus would be a call to action and help sway public policy. The Movement, Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964) also seems to be cast in a similar mold.
In each of these works captions and short descriptions are sprinkled throughout, but the books’ engine are the photos. If a strong breeze blew the words off the page they wouldn’t be missed. These books are content to visually document their selected subject. As a cartoonist I’m often trying to ground my work in a specific time in place and books like The Factory, Portrait of a Leathergoods Factory in Downtown New York City (1977) provides the type of telling details that can help make a comic feel authentic (and who knows when I’ll want to create a comic set in a leathergoods factory!).
The photo-textual books that I’ve come across that rely more heavily on text like Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) have a hard time in crafting a singular aesthetic experience. Walker Evans’ photos are austere and arresting but are all bunched together, separated by James Agee’s rambling text that makes up the majority of the book.
In Invisible Strangers (1999), Arturo Patten’s portraits of residents of a small Maine town are accompanied with text by Russell Banks. Five-to-seven pages of text alternate with a similar number of pages of photos throughout the book. The New Englander’s steady, weary, and guarded gaze confronts the reader but Russell Banks’ text strains to find some larger philosophical meaning while also celebrating Patten’s work. The portraits, however, speak quite capably for themselves—and for Patten’s skill as a photographer.
The most successful photo-textual book that I have seen that combines text and words to create something greater than the sum of its parts is The Oxford Project. Photographer Peter Feldstein juxtaposes photos of residents of Oxford, Iowa, taken 25 years apart. The writer, Stephen G. Bloom, asked the residents about their lives and then expertly distilled their responses and placed them alongside the photos to create an indelible portrait of a small town. Some Oxford residents are incredibly candid, others reveal more in what they don’t say. Comparing the two portraits taken two and half decades apart along with the text was often heartbreaking and awe-inspiring.
By adding comics, Guibert, Lefévre, and Lemercier’s The Photographer (2009) successfully weds photos and text into a seamless whole. Perhaps one reason it works so well is because the photographs telling the story are photos taken by the book’s protagonist as he documents his own narrative. Photographs function not just as a storytelling technique but as the actual story.
But that conceit aside, Guibert’s drawings are spare and bold and hold their own graphically against the more detailed photos. I’d be curious to know more about the process between Guibert and Lemercier, the book’s graphic designer and colorist, and how they went about designing the actual pages. The Photographer, as much as The Oxford Project, represents the full synthesis of text and image that Dorothea Lange aspired to create and never did.
Have there been a lot of other good photo-textual books put together? I’m pretty ignorant of this field so if anyone knows of others (with or without comics) let me know.
— James Sturm