Magazine article World Literature Today

Photography: The Language of Light

Magazine article World Literature Today

Photography: The Language of Light

Article excerpt

The beauty of photography's language is that it has no rules and follows no laws.

Photography changes the way we see everything, and changes everything in the way we see. Photographers are the Mont Blanc of the art enterprise, for they create with beauty what they see with truth. And photographs are the pendulums of experience that swing out toward life and in toward mankind.

Photography is a mirror with memory. It is an image-activated language that remains mute until released by command. Each photograph is a storage unit of reality and truth in the realm of remembrance. Photography can rise to the most sublime moments of humanity and transform the way we see ourselves and the world. The language of photography can be a weapon to expose or a means to comfort; it has provoked, inspired, and enlightened people.

The love affair between literature and photography has always been passionate and fruitful. After Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen published Daguerreotypes. After In Cold Blood, Truman Capote found solace in Observations with Richard Avedon. Women, by Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz, was a shared labor of love. Nadine Gordimer and David Goldblatt used their art as a weapon in Lifetimes: Under Apartheid. In Happy Rock, Brassaï writes about his intellectual relationship with Henry Miller. In "The Dance of War," Barbara Morgan and William Carlos Williams witness a bomb exploding over Martha Graham, whereas in Libraries, Candida Höfer and Umberto Eco find silence and peace. Of course, James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men remains the most famous twentieth-century example.

The beauty of photography's language is that it has no rules and follows no laws. There is no need for grammar or punctuation. There are no worries about stubborn commas, stepchild semicolons, or hunchback parentheses. Style is out the window, and personal taste is welcomed at the lens's door. No need to tie your tongue in pronunciation, but let your eyes sashay into images with the same accent. And as the writer's life sometimes hangs on a comma, the photographer's life hangs on a moment. Still, both photographers and writers create art dipped in metaphors where they focus on one thing to let us see something else.

To photograph is the ultimate pleasure for photographers, and they are willing to starve for their sin. They capture grand vistas and the smallest details; in the dog they can see the fleas, in the leaf they can see the forest. In general, writers grow up in a critical atmosphere, sharing their opinions and thoughts as much as they can. Yet some photographers never utter an opinion in their work. They might escape giving their thoughts silently, but they exhibit their message loudly.

In literature, we can only read one line at a time. In novels, we can only communicate with one character at a time. But in photography, we can see one or more perspectives at a glance. Voices leap out of the image from every corner, all at the same time. Sometimes the writer has to create a whole paragraph or more to compose an image in the reader's mind. But you can look at one image and all the words are there. In writing, the writer can revise, change sentences or paragraphs many times, but in photography there is no forgiveness, no revision-the image must be captured in a split second.

There is something beautiful about creating art while you are moving. In photography, I enjoy freedom of movement-seeing, thinking, and composing between lights and shadows. In writing, I am shackled to my desk, tied down, confronted by my papers, with nowhere to go. I feel I am in a whirlpool of ink, spinning with my imagination. Some days, I write a whole chapter in one sitting, with no end to my thoughts. And sometimes, I am more exhausted in one hour of writing than a whole day of photography. I adore both photography and writing, and in my devotion to each I cheat on the other. So far, neither one has found out about the other mistress. …

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