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Writing with Images

Writing with images screen

Art historian James Elkins is engaged in an extensive study on the practice of writing with images, and he is doing this in a very public way by posting drafts of chapters on two blogs and using his Facebook account to solicit ideas and get feedback. It’s a form of live writing with a touch of crowdsourcing thrown in. At his first blog, Writing with Images, Elkins describes his overall project like this:

I have been exploring the history, theory, and possibilities of writing with images. By “writing” I mean fiction (modernist, experimental, conceptual, unclassifiable) and nonfiction (including some art history, art criticism, cultural criticism, visual studies, and art theory). By “images” I mean principally photographs (but also charts, diagrams, maps, photocopies, and other graphics) and sometimes drawings and paintings.

That blog serves as an outline and a guide to the first part of Elkins’ research, where he defines terms, sets out some ground rules for his approach, then addresses a number of areas, including: Writing on Art, Writing and Visual Studies, The Space Between Interesting Writing and Art Theory, Texts as Images, What Is an Essay?, Where is Nonfiction Taught?: The Difference Between MFAs in Nonfiction and MAs in Critical Theory, and more.

The second part of Elkins’ project deals more directly with the kinds of image/text issues that have long been the concern here at Vertigo. On this blog, also called Writing with Images, Elkins begins to deal directly with novels, poetry, and experimental writing that use images or that have images as a significant focal point of the text (e.g. John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex MirrorJavier Marías’ A Heart so White, or Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters). To fully read all that Elkins has written so far requires clicking on numerous links throughout his two blogs, but it’s well worth it. For example, he has written extensively about one of my favorite books, Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Mort, perhaps the earliest work of fiction in which the author employed photographs.

Rodenbach Portrait

For me, one of the outcomes of reading Elkins’ blogs and occasionally emailing with him is that I have become increasingly dissatisfied with my use of the term “embedded” as a way of indicating the relationship between photographs and works of literature. When I began Vertigo in January 2007, I struggled to find the right term to describe how Sebald and other writers used photographs on their works of fiction. It wasn’t until the sixth month of writing Vertigo that ultimately I settled on “embedded” as my way of referring to the images used by authors in their works of fiction or poetry. At that time (and given the limited number of examples I knew about then) “embedded” was probably an acceptable term. In almost every example I knew, the photographs were literally surrounded by text. Now, seven years later, the term embedded feels so inappropriately hierarchical, implying a subservient role to images. “Embedded” clearly doesn’t apply to something like Wright Morris’ The Home Place, in which full page photographs alternate with full pages of text, or with numerous books in which texts and images literally bleed into each. In the current draft of Chapter 1 of Writing with Images, Elkins, too, struggles with terminology and finally says his preferred term is “‘writing with images,’ because it sounds friendly, as if the writing and the images are friends.” But even though I am unhappy with “embedded,” I don’t really  like the alternatives any better, such as W.J.T. Mitchell’s “imagetext” or Elkins’ “writing with images.” So, for the moment, I think I’ll continue to hobble along using the inadequate term “embedded” until I find something I like better.

Wright Morris Home Place

Page spread from Wright Morris, The Home Place.

scrapbookPage spread from Caroline Preston’s The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: A Novel in Pictures.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting post, Terry. I understand your thoughts about the term “embedded” but I must disagree, respectfully. To me, embedded means “within”, not subservient. Writing with images seems a clumsy way to identify this type of writing.

    I have just finished my thesis on Sebald’s Austerlitz after 9 months of writing. I argued that the novel was a portable memorial to the Holocaust. I realize that Sebald said in a Slake interview in 2001 that he intended Austerlitz to be an “…alternative Holocaust museum…” so I decided to take his intention several steps further.

    I, too, use the term “embedded” in my thesis.

    Anyway, I do enjoy your blogs and thank you for your enthusiasm, expertise, and effort.


    January 31, 2014
    • Cheri, Thanks for the comments. Yes, I think “embedded” adequately describes certain uses of photography in texts, but my concern is that it doesn’t seem to work well for all cases or photo/text fiction & poetry. Congratulations on finishing your thesis! Mine took me something like six years and I was sick of it by the time I finally completed it.

      February 5, 2014
  2. pulpfictionme #

    This is a great article! I have recently found a love for photography. I feel as though, pictures, paintings, and the like, fill in the gap where words fail. I think it draws the reader more deeply, and intimately with the text. I will have to check out his blog. :)

    January 31, 2014
  3. Terry, thanks for that. You might be interested to know my colleague Jim Hugunin (a very interesting experimental writer with images — see, click on “writings” and then see “creative writings”) is contemplating a project on this same subject; he may call it “Also.” A very simple solution.

    January 31, 2014

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