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Poynor on Sebald

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It would be easy to miss Rick Poynor’s piece on W.G. Sebald called Writing in Pictures, which feels somewhat misplaced in his book Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Who would think of finding something about Sebald in a book that promotes itself as an exploration of “the past decade of advertising and design and the invasion of sexual imagery into everyday life”? Designing Pornotopia is largely about graphic design, architecture, men’s magazines, and fashion. Nevertheless, Writing in Pictures, Poynor’s multi-layered reflection on Austerlitz, and his brief history of the cover designs for J.G. Ballard’s cult book Crash (1973) should not be overlooked.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, typographers and book designers are intrigued by the challenge of the embedded photographs in Sebald’s books, so it really is not a surprise that Poynor would write about Sebald, as he has done in several places that are easily found online. Poynor calls Sebald “one of the greatest European writers of recent years” and he feels that Austerlitz is a “masterpiece” and represents “Sebald’s most sophisticated marriage of writing and imagery.” In Writing in Pictures, he intelligently addresses Sebald as a “brilliantly visual” writer, both in his prose and his use of photographs. Poynor zeros in on one of the central issues in Sebald’s work: memory. “His eye records with photographic accuracy and then these perceptions are recovered from memory and reconstituted as fictional experience with the same exhilaratingly scrupulous fidelity.” Although he doesn’t elaborate, Poynor is suggesting that a necessary transformation has occurred when experiences re-emerge from memory.

Poynor, who is extremely interested in Sebald’s use of photography, extracts a revealing comment Sebald made in an interview: “I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.” The question this raises for me is: are these two types of memories the same? Do the memories drawn from experience function the same as memories drawn from photographs – especially these “stray” photographs (by which I assume he means the anonymous photographs he collected in flea markets and antique stores)? To some extent, this depends on what kind of memories Sebald referred to when he talked about his “stray photographs.” Was he selecting photographs that invoked his own memories, that reminded him of something in his own experience? Or was he suggesting that some element of the original owner’s memory is contained in and transferable from photographs? I think it is fair to say that memory is the central process in Sebald’s work, but I don’t think memory is limited to one function.

sebald-antik-bazar.jpg [Pages 194-5 of Austerlitz]

In an appropriately Sebaldian move, Poynor visited Terezin (or Theresienstadt), the Czech Jewish ghetto and concentration camp that is a key location in Austerlitz, while attending a conference in Prague in 2004. He was curious “to find out how closely Sebald’s description of the town compared with reality.” He was especially interested in especially the two sequences of photographs undoubtedly taken by Sebald which appear between pages 190 and 197 of the American edition. The first is a series of four photographs of doorways, ending with “the brutal last door, with its heavy iron bands, [which] cannot fail to suggest a death-camp gas chamber, although no such thing is stated in the text.”  The second series depicts the window displays of a store called the Antikos Bazar on the town square.  Poynor re-photographed in color some of the locations shown in Austerlitz and he includes three of his own versions in Writing with Pictures.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Was he selecting photographs that invoked his own memories, that reminded him of something in his own experience? Or was he suggesting that some element of the original owner’s memory is contained in and transferable from photographs?

    I imagine you are leaving the obvious unsaid in this instance (a very Sebald thing to do!), but it seems to me that he must have been doing both. That is, collecting photographs that struck a special resonance with him and collecting them because they seem to carry, in an always mysterious process, the actual memory’s of the original owners or subjects of the photos.

    I just re-read today a passage printed in Campo Santo, from the brief musing, “Moments Musicaux.” Of a postcard depicting musicians from his home district, found in an English junk shop, Sebald writes, “… I really felt as if the ten costumed men and women of Oberstdorf had been lying in wait for me here in their dusty English exile, just to remind me that I would never be able to escape the early history of my native land…”

    Thank you so much for maintaining this blog. It’s very well-executed, and the subject matter means a great deal to me.

    September 19, 2007
  2. Daniel, Thanks for the comments. I’m sure you are right that Sebald reacted to found photographs in both of those ways. That is a great quote from “Moments Musicaux”. I’m sure I’ll be returning to the subject of photography over and over. There’s a new book coming out called Searching for Sebald: Photography After W.G. Sebald. It’s being distributed by D.A.P. Their website says November 1.

    September 20, 2007
  3. stkn #

    There were no gas chambers in Terezin. Whose mistake is it?

    March 29, 2012
  4. stkn, Thanks for the careful reading. My mistake. What Poyner really says is “the brutal last door, with its heavy iron bands, cannot fail to suggest a death-camp gas chamber, although no such thing is stated in the text.” I’ve changed the text in my post to reflect this more accurately.

    April 1, 2012

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