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Photographers and Text

January 1st - February 28th


Robert Frank: Moving Out, Mabou, 1977, exhibition catalog, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

I am a devoted, passionate lover of words and am fascinated by artists who have integrated them into their imagery. It seems like such a perfect pairing,  from the Book of Kells to Mad Magazine, when done right, the two elements form a symbiotic relationship. So it seemed like a perfect theme to start a new year.

Why do photographers work with text? After two decades teaching photography, I can tell you that nothing inspired pure panic in the faces of my students as the thought that they were going to have to write about their work. This might be true of artists as a group, who often move directly into Eeyore territory when asked to pick up a pen. I don't know about other disciplines, but ask a group of photographers to come up with an artist statement, and you'll end up with responses that range from pure horror, to anger and the insistence that they went into photography for a reason - “I'm visual!"

Which leads me back to the question - why would a group so often word-phobic choose to make this partnership? Photographers who take on the inclusion/use of text are faced with an abundance of decisions, some are style oriented, while others relate to usage. All these choices are as important as the visual choices made in the image and it starts with motivation– the why of it. Once that is found, the rest falls in line. I think we are drawn to using text when we have the desire to speak a truth in a more complete or specific manner - when images are not enough…or even when they’re too much and we want to redirect. This truth can take many approaches.


Carrie Mae Weems, Kitchen Table series, exhibition catalog, The National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC

Evocation comes to mind in Robert Frank’s anguished use. While I have always admired his masterful road trip, The Americans, it was his later work that I connected to on a much deeper level through his disruption of conventional ideas about what a photographic print should look like.  In his case it's not just about the literal meaning of the words–but he expands that meaning through his painterly and gestural strokes, as the words are transformed back into imagery, echoing the anguish of loss and time.

Narration is another approach, which can include anything from specific story-telling to poetic parings. Carrie Mae Weems uses the narrative strengths of words in the Kitchen Table series, where she pairs episodic imagery with blocks of text, a story-telling device that takes us on the journey of developing one's voice. Duane Michals also uses words as a story-telling device as he combines the narrative of his subjects' words with the expressive visual style of the handwritten text.

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Another approach is to use the formatting of words to reference societal signifiers. In this video Hank Willis Thomas talks about coming to the realization at his cousin's funeral that "photography couldn't do all that I needed it to do for me - and I felt helpless." Later, in his piece Priceless #1 he hijacks the format of a MasterCard advertising campaign to explore the impact of gun violence. By upending the meaning of this advertisement, while keeping its format, he asks the audience to question our consumer culture as a whole.  Barbara Kruger's work would fall into this category as well with her bold, graphic headlines, which slyly poke holes into social stereotypes.

In some cases words sneak into images through documentation - let's face it, photographers love a good sign. Walker Evans’ obsession with signs, and their placement, have left a record of America during the early 20th century.  Another interesting pairing, and a bit of an outlier in this group, is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans  Memorial, where the mirror-like black granite surface places the viewer into a direct relationship with the names they have come to view - connecting them into the conflict themselves.

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Evans, Walker, photographer. Houses. Atlanta, Georgia. Mar. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

A few decades from now, this will be a moot discussion, since we have a new generation of image-makers raised with Instagram and TikTok. This generation is growing up without a sense of distinction or separation between words and imagery - a visual training that will impact their future approach to art-making.  You cannot ignore the tremendous influence these practices will have on this generation and our visual culture as a whole.

As usual I searched for a wide range of approaches in putting this showcase together - much of the work is about exploration. We have a collaboration in the study of a relationship, as well as imagery that looks back at, or plays with the idea of, memories. One artist explores the marks of others. Another brings lives lived to the foreground, giving a voice to the silenced. Additionally, photobooks are such a perfect pairing of imagery and words and I'm so happy to have a guest contribution by  PhotoBook Journal with reviews of six books where text has played a strong role.

© Ellen Cantor, all rights reserved

Prior Pleasures

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.”  Aldous Huxley

My images are conceived in memory. By photographing and re-contextualizing precious mementos, I have sought to understand how life proceeds and then, ultimately, disappears. I document the artifacts of the past in order to enrich my present.

Rediscovering the books of my childhood has led me to realize the power and value of the hands-on experience of reading and reminds us that books can excite and enrich our lives.


 In Prior Pleasures, each photograph of a vintage book is taken using a multiple exposure technique. Incorporating the end pages, illustrations, and text allows old favorites to come alive for a new generation of readers.

The books photographed for this series are the ones I have carried with me since childhood. My Mother read them to me and, in turn, I read them to my children, carrying on a tradition of the written and spoken word.

Prior Pleasures explores the myth of the photographic truth and inspired me to create a new way of looking at childhood icons.

In an age when technology is slowly replacing the tactile experience of reading a book, my work recalls and celebrates the joy of losing oneself within the pages of a favorite childhood tale.

I hope that my photographs offer answers to a basic question—“What does our past mean to us--as individuals, as families, and as a community?”

© Mark Indig, all rights reserved

Closed On Sundays

The dictionary defines shopping as “the purchasing of goods from stores.” That definition may require some adjustment in the digital age.

How do you shop? Big box stores, chains, malls, boutiques, mail order, the internet? How do you decide what and where to buy? Advertising campaigns? Celebrity endorsements? Product placement? Social media?

What has often been left behind is the local storefront, especially in economically challenged neighborhoods. No interior designers. No ad agencies. No commercials. No toll-free numbers. No dedicated parking. No websites. And many, being family-owned, are still closed on Sundays – a nostalgic notion in a society that is open 24/7. So we just drive by or let our smart phones do the walking. But when you see the light filtering through the old-fashioned iron burglar bars, the result can be a rainbow of delights just beyond reach -- at least on Sundays.

These small businesses tell a story about diversity, ingenuity, creativity, eccentricity, culture, design, social class, economics, commerce and competition in the Greater Los Angeles area but track more universal themes. It is about the struggle of the little guys to survive when all they have is a storefront, an idea, a can of paint, a window display and a lot of sweat equity to compete in an environment where they are outgunned and outspent for your business. The vibrance of these displays belies the razor’s edge in which these businesses often exist. Some succeed, many fail and most just hang on. But how dull would our communities be without these unique forms of expression?

The compositions exist in a space without people but with the feeling of human presence. These are lived-in environments, altered by their inhabitants, and unique. The stillness belies their sometimes handmade, improvised nature: the hand-painted murals, graffiti, signs, advertisements and even the choice of dresses in the windows. The requisite gates over doors and windows are the masks and protectors of this world increasingly vanishing in a world of big box stores. Each storefront is a work of folk art; each window a unique DIY amalgamation of colors, wares, displays, signage and architectural flourishes. Do we want every Main Street to look the same? Should people have to work 7 days a week to compete and survive? The stakes are high – the success and future of a family, a street, neighborhood or even a city.

These images were taken over 6 months of Sundays (Oct 2009 - Mar 2010) as a diversion while my late wife Mamie was suffering from the end stages of terminal illness and is dedicated to her memory. As her caregiver, I was only able to take a few hours off each Sunday morning. I have little doubt that I gravitated toward this subject as I watched her essence recede and become inaccessible, as if she were behind iron bars.

Hari Katragadda & Shweta Upadhyay

© Hari Katragadda & Shweta Upadhyay, all rights reserved

I'll Be Looking at the Moon But I'll Be Seeing You

In Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris, Brigitte Bardot as Camille runs a roster of each of her body parts for Michel Piccoli, playing her husband, Paul Javal.

Do you see my feet in the mirror? Think they're pretty?

You like my ankles? And my knees, too?
I really like your knees.

And my thighs?
Your thighs, too.

When every part of her body is listed, she concludes, “Then you love me totally.” To which Piccoli replies, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”

Hari Katragadda

In 2012, after our marriage, I and my wife Shweta, were watching a lot of films together in an attempt to create new habits together, while getting adjusted to each other's old rhythms and rituals. One of the movies that we were both moved by was Le Mepris. The scene that I have mentioned earlier is the opening scene of the movie, but was added as an afterthought. The producers wanted at least one nude shot of Brigitte Bardot in the film, having paid a lot of money to her. The exchange between the couple is ironical -- in the scene Bardot equates love with love of the body parts. If Piccoli loves all her body parts then he loves her completely! This opening made me wonder about the nature of love and desire -- what do we love when we say that we are in love?

During that time, I was also photographing my Shweta in different domestic situations and moods. We had  moved to Bombay from Delhi because Delhi, to us, seemed to have been exhausted of all potentialities and future events. We believed nothing new could happen to us in Delhi anymore. In Bombay we were besieged by rain. For months the rain lashing at our house seemed to make us feel like an anchorless ship.

This also gave me enough time to think about what I wanted to do with the photographs I shot of Shweta. I did not want it to be a mere personal account but a more universal project on the expressions and registers of love. I wanted to address the issues of liminality, alienation in a new city and relationship and intimacy??, and the ghosts of past lovers.

Taking a cue, from Le Mepris, I began with the love of her body parts. And then extended it. For me, desire is not just for body parts but the entire world, reflected and refracted through those body parts. It is about ways of seeing one’s lover, the desire and heartache of looking for the elusive other in the world around. I decided to make a photo book in which the portraits of Shweta appear in dialogue with other images across the spreads that reveal the body of a lover and relate it to the organic world, wherein identity, memory and desire draw on a universe of meaning making.

The aim is to suggest that desire cannot remain hidden inside the body. That desire creates an abyss and simultaneously leaps unencumbered like an apparition springing a fountain of images. The shadow of an absent lover can be hairy and fanged like a dog, while the screech of malignant birds at dusk and whorls of dark clouds portend doom. The cat, an animal that stands behind people on raised parapets, is like the lover who always follows us with eyes glowing with its tapetum lucidum.

Desire supports the exercise of image-making because the other is always elusive. We know them only as fragments and we understand them only through metaphors. To sum this idea, I decided to name it after the Billie Holiday song, “I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you.” Interestingly, the song appears in Michael Ondaatje's book The English Patient, another inspiration for our book, about an impossible love and stresses that human beings are palimpsests, composed of several lovers and landscapes. 

Shweta Upadhyay

I was involved with the book right from the editing stage, I wanted to make sure that this was not a simplistic representation of a lover's body and psyche. I was also particular that the photographs should not just focus on the beauty of the female form but should depict what is inside the body. it should bring out the messiness of coupling, the love and the squalor, and the spectres that populate and animate a relationship.


We tried doing that through the edit, through the intermixing of real and subconscious images. There are several images in which my body seems uncomfortable and contorted, these images bring out the feeling of alienation and invisibility that I felt after moving to Bombay. The sleeping figure also suggest that the narrative is being dreamt in the person's head. This was influenced by the Urdu writer Naiyer Masud's patchy, non-linear stories in which characters go off to sleep often and wake up to a different time period. The reader has to guess between the real and the dreamworld.


Yet, I felt that the book is too clean and does not reveal my internal state and anxieties during the phase in which these photos were taken. That is when I decided to make direct interventions on the surface of the images. The images become the background, almost the surface of a diary, on which feelings and thoughts are foregrounded and articulated. I also use paint, text as a means of erasure, while stitching is used to repair torn photographs. The materiality of the photographs had to be disrupted, and layered to reveal a complex body. One of the books that have inspired me is Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient in which a character wants his body is represented as a complex cartography, marked by old lovers, nature, landscapes, inner demons and joys. He says, "We are communal histories, communal books." The moon has several faces, lights, and so is the feeling of love. The moon is also a metaphor for a lover and belongs to everyone. We wanted this book to be like the "communal book of moonlight". 

Aline Smithson

© Aline Smithson, all rights reserved

Shadows and Stains, notes from a dark room

After the closure of my community darkroom, I struggled with the state of photography today--its pursuit, the business of it, the idea of selling an image, the artist's viewpoint, the MFA school of imagery, the death of the wet darkroom, iconic photography, toy cameras and digital cameras, edition and print sizes, old rules, new challenges—all the currents photographers have to navigate in today’s photographic waters.

I was not only saddened to lose my workplace, but also a decade-long community of friends and colleagues. As a darkroom printer, I have found the meditative and creative state that I experience so important to my work—it’s where I make my mark, it’s where much of the thinking about the image takes place.  Losing that experience, as part of the process, was not an option I wanted to face.

The series, Shadows and Stains, started as a reaction to a similitude of imagery I was seeing in digital photographs.  I wanted to create a body of work that deconstructed the idea of a photograph, what it captured and expressed, and the interpretation it created. Shot with a toy camera (the Diana), images were taken apart, negatives overlapped or cut, text and texture added through traditional methods in the darkroom, and washes of oil paint added to give dimension the surface. I sought to discard the idea of making the perfect print and merge my darkroom thoughts into the image. I wanted the shadows and stains of my photographic fingerprints as evidence that I was there, in a dark room.

Producing this series helped me reinvigorate my creative practice. This is an ongoing project and each is a unique print.

Wendel White

© Wendel White, all rights reserved

Small Towns, Black Lives

The Small Towns, Black Lives project consists of photographs with the use of narrative fragments and various archival materials. The images depict public and private lives – combined with text, they weave a visual representation of the present accompanied by the collective memories of the communities. Small Towns, Black Lives is also a multimedia web based presentation that includes photography, text, archival documents, video, audio, and QuickTime VR.

The photography began as a modest attempt to depict daily events and activities. Shortly after beginning the project, I became aware of a cemetery not far from the college where I teach. Four of the five remaining headstones were marked as veterans of the Civil War and the United States Colored Troops. Information about the origins of the cemetery was difficult to find since there was no longer a black community at the site. My encounter with this neglected cemetery led to more formal research and genealogy as I attempted to reconstruct the story of the African American settlement that was once located at the far edge of Port Republic.

The information I accumulated on Port Republic’s black community prompted experiments with various formats for my work; the current prints often incorporate narrative passages with the photograph to describe aspects of the communities that could not otherwise be represented. Defining the format that would express both forms of visual experience (seeing people and places with a camera and seeing people and places through documents and oral histories) has been an evolving process. My first exhibitions were presentations of the camera image and text side by side as in a diptych, printed onto separate pieces of photographic paper. As I began to use digital media, I found ways to bring the photograph and narrative panels into a single image. The current works include image and text, joined in a manner that is quite different than the traditional diptych, the print hinges together the seen and unseen worlds of black experience within these few communities.

PhotoBook Journal

And now for something a little different... I thought it would be interesting to include photobooks where text has played a strong role in the project.  Douglas Stockdale, photographer and founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal has kindly helped out and put together the following list.

The reviews are on a separate page, use this link.


Structure Showcase                 Color Showcase

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