Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad Writing Photography: Authenticity and Identity in the Inheritors and "The Black Mate"

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Conrad Writing Photography: Authenticity and Identity in the Inheritors and "The Black Mate"

Article excerpt

A PHOTOGRAPH OF the future Joseph Conrad was taken in 1863, when he was six years old.1 On the back he wrote, in Polish, a note to his grandmother. The translation reads: "To my dear [Grandmama], who helped me send pastries to my poor Daddy in prison - grandson, Pole-Catholic, szlachcic2 KONRAD [6 July 1863]."3 While an earlier instance of Conrad's writing exists, in an 1861 letter to his father, the inscription on the photograph of interest here appears to be the earliest surviving example of his unaided writing.4 It is unclear what happened to the photograph between Conrad's grandmother death in 1875 (Knowles 2014: 186) and its appearance as a re-inscribed gift to another important woman in his life, Jessie George, whom he would marry in 1896. What is certain, however, is that this is the earliest documented example of Conrad's image and writing combined,5 and demonstrates a nascent moment in his interest in photography and writing.

Yet while both inscriptions seem to offer a new meaning, written in different languages, they doubly encrypt the photographic image: Jessie Conrad could speak neither French nor Polish. Even without fluency in French the note is decipherable, but Jeffrey Meyers precariously points to examples of Conrad's more deliberate linguistic alienation of Jessie. He claims that the couple's six-month honeymoon in Brittany, where only Conrad could speak the language, was a deliberate attempt by the writer to establish mastery over his wife (Meyers 2001: 139). On the other hand, the French inscription might signal a shared reminiscence of their time in France. While Jessie Conrad did not speak French she did in fact share the experience of living in France with Conrad, an exclusivity to which this inscription might attest. It is not the content of the words themselves - the French language - but the very fact that they are French. Nevertheless, in the act of sharing this childhood photograph of himself with his wife, Joseph Conrad simultaneously offers an emotional talisman and drastically conceals any attempt for it to be read as such. Any emotional meaning that comes from the image is only sustained by the inscriptions themselves, which in turn only have emotional significance in their address rather than their content. Throughout his career Conrad would remark on photography's inability to match the style and artistry of the fiction-writing author, and here he demonstrates an author's ability to drastically alter the meaning of an image just through its inscription. In short, his writing challenges the quality and effect of the stand-alone photographic image, but at the same time is vitally attached to it.

Conrad's conceptual understanding of photography continues into his literary career. While never writing a direct address to photography itself, Conrad did stress the inexorable relationship between authorship and cinematography. In his talk "The Author and the Cinematograph,"6 Conrad claimed that he would argue that "the imaginative literary art" was "based fundamentally on scenic motion, like a camera." In the letter to Pinker giving an account of this informal talk he wrote: "Don't imagine that I am going to be impertinent to the cinemas; on the contrary, I shall butter them up" (CL8: 75). His marker of high esteem - that the role of the author and the camera were roughly synonymous - is undone by the suggestion that such claims about cinematography were only to "butter up" his audience of American editors and publishers, rather than accurately represent his true feelings. His relationship with photography, mostly undocumented in Conrad research, demonstrates similar ambivalence.

Stephen Donovan reports Conrad's engagement with popular and visual cultures, characterizing the writer's fascination with, but denunciation of, visual culture as a "paradox of popularity" (2005: 7), while Suzanne Speidel has likewise made the connection between early cinema and Conrad's visual post-Impressionist style. …

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