Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Photographic Documents and Postmodern Fictions: Photobooks by Susan Meiselas and Gregory Crewdson

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Photographic Documents and Postmodern Fictions: Photobooks by Susan Meiselas and Gregory Crewdson

Article excerpt

Susan Meiselas's historical photographs in Nicaragua contrast sharply with Gregory Crewdson's postmodern, overtly fictional photographs in Twilight. Examining differences in the photographers' depiction of time, action, public space, and gender, this essay argues that the two photobooks resist neat distinctions between the photograph as document and the photograph as picture.

Near contemporaries, photographers Susan Meiselas and Gregory Crewdson could be understood to illustrate two extremes of turn-of-the-century American photography. On one end of the representational spectrum, Susan Meiselas's Nicaragua presents a collection of politically-charged documentary photographs taken over the course of a single year. Her photographs focus on a specific, nameable topic: the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua and the overthrow and ouster of the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan president Anastasio Somoza. Mieselas's photobook records events during the climactic final years of the revolution from 1978 to 1979. (1) A sequence of seventy-one chronologically arranged, untitled photographs is followed by a meticulous appendix of "captions / texts / chronology" (Nicaragua) designed to put the photographs into historical and political context.

At the other end of the spectrum, Gregory Crewdson's Twilight appears to differ in every conceivable way from Susan Mieselas's collection of historical documents. His series of forty plates presents surreal scenes set both in--and out-of-doors in an overtly fictional New England suburb. The photographs are arranged in no readily discernible order, and while their temporal setting is, roughly speaking, the late twentieth century, the photographs have no firm mooring in historical time or space. Instead, Crewdson's photographs appear to be postmodern fictions--apocalyptic moments that are also strangely flat; visionary crises that freeze onlookers in their tracks. At the end of the collection of plates, a ten-page section of "Production Notes and Credits" hints at the process of making the photobook, confirming its fundamental fiction. Snapshots line the top half of each page, showing smiling actors dressed in summer clothes, stage sets under construction, giant cameras, lights, cranes, and props.

This essay was born of curiosity about what would happen if we were to hold Nicaragua and Twilight up against one another, examining pairs of individual photographs in detail while also considering the two books as photographic essays. I argue that while these books represent very different enterprises--one aligned with history and journalism, the other with cinema, literary fiction, and lyric poetry--an implied argument propels and unites each collection. While Susan Meiselas's polemical intent is clear, Gregory Crewdson's is at first less so. Yet, like Meiselas, Crewdson frames his photographs with verbal apparatus: an introductory essay by fiction writer Rick Moody helps explain Crewdson's intentions, while materials appended at the end show us something about how he produced the plates for his book.

In his chapter "Photography and Language" from Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that the relationship between words and images in a photographic essay can best be understood as "a site of resistance" (285). In books such as James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida, two of Mitchell's "case studies," photographs and words pull in different directions, creating fissures within the word-image collaboration. As readers, we are "drawn into a vortex of collaboration and resistance" (300) as we struggle to read the photographs in connection with the words that surround them on the page or that follow in a separate section of the book. Although he does not make this point explicitly, Mitchell suggests that the moments of "blockage between photo and text" (292) are in fact the moments that make the photo-text most intriguing--invitations, as it were, to the most interesting sort of interpretive work. …

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