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.
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.
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.