Split Screen: Teju Cole’s “Blind Spot”
At such moments invisible and tangible become confused.
Yves Bonnefoy, The Arrière-pays.
An open book is naturally a split screen divided by the book’s gutter, although few books actually take full advantage of this. Teju Cole’s new book Blind Spot (Random House, 2017) manages to put each of some 160 or so double-page spreads into truly astonishing dialogues between text and image. Blind Spot balances Cole’s color photographs on the right hand side with texts that are generally very brief on the left. In the texts, which are titled according to the city where the photograph was taken, Cole recounts dreams, constructs compressed essays, and meditates on travel, photography, sight, religion, and art. Occasionally these texts serve as a commentary on the photograph across the page, but for the most part Cole makes the dialogue take place somewhere else, somewhere unexpected, somewhere, shall we say, off camera. Even in texts as brief as these, Cole shows once again his trademark mental restlessness, which matches the globe-hopping list of cities where he has photographed.
Many of Cole’s photographs, including some from Blind Spot, can be seen on his website and on his Instagram account. Cole is a superb photographer with a very assured eye and a coherent body of images. Although there are a number of fine landscape images in Blind Spot, Cole is really at his best as a street photographer, following in the great tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Leavitt, Saul Leiter, and Lee Friedlander. Nearly all of his photographs create visual mysteries that are the result of either the photographer’s precise point of view or the careful framing of the image. Not surprising for a writer, his images often suggest a narrative that lies just beyond our grasp. He’s fond of images that consist of partially blocked or obscured views and unexpected juxtapositions, images that essentially flatten the world and return us to a time before linear perspective was discovered. He sees what most of us overlook daily — the mundane, the worn, the discarded.
There is no surrender of beauty, only an effort to find beauty by going past the typical and arriving at the common. . . . What I love about Bali is what I love about São Paulo, Nairobi, Seoul, Reykjavik: the material evidence of human life, which goes on in spite of the world’s enmity. In this search, an intense attachment to the beautiful remains. The sun pours itself all over the world and the world’s things. Things are being built, or repaired, or broken. Things sit in the street, free of use. Things are on the verge of speech. Ladders rise, and angels invisibly ascend and descend.
The book’s title comes from a frightening medical emergency that Cole suffered in 2011, when he woke up blind in one eye, resulting in a surgery to repair perforations in the retina. “The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”
Written photo captions tend to constrict the ways in which we interpret a photograph, just as photographs buried in a text are generally there to demonstrate what something looks like. When Cole’s paired texts and images are at their best, they expand the options for understanding both text and image, forming, in his words, “chimeras made of lexical foreparts and material hind parts.” Each half of this split screen forces us to interrogate the other half for the signs that might turn these two parallel paths into a crossroad.
Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by fate, at the same time I opened Blind Spot I was already reading The Arrière-pays (Seagull Books, 2013), an indescribable, elusive text filled with photographs and reproductions of works of art by the French poet and writer Yves Bonnefoy. The “arrière-pays” (which loosely means the “back country,” although this is not how Bonnefoy uses the term). Bonnefoy’s book might be loosely described as a meditation on the relationships between language, perception, imagination, and being. At various times Bonnefoy says that the “arrière-pays” is what might be found on the road not taken or what transpires when one moves from the “inward country of . . . reveries” to the world surrounding us or what differentiates “here” from “elsewhere.” Bonnefoy’s beautiful, puzzling book opens with the sentence “I have often experienced a feeling of anxiety, at crossroads.” And as I read on I found more than one paragraph like this one, which seems to relate closely to what transpires in the conversations between text and image in Teju Cole’s book.
So that is what I dream of, at these crossroads, or a little way beyond them—and I am haunted by everything that gives credence to the existence of this place, which is and remains other, and yet which suggests itself, with some insistence even. When a road climbs upwards, revealing, in the distance, other paths among the stones, and other villages; when the train travels into a narrow valley, at twilight, passing front of houses where a window happens to light up; when the boat comes in fairly close to the shoreline, where the sun has caught a distant windowpane . . . this very specific emotion takes hold of me—I feel I’m getting close, and something tells me to be on alert.
Below: Teju Cole, Capri