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The Knife’s Edge

In his new book Golden Apples of the Sun (Mack, 2021), Teju Cole’s photographs, which in the past have reflected the tensely energized vision of a global citizen, have become contained, muted, domestic. Their primary subject is now the kitchen. Instead of looking out across Berlin or Beirut or Brazzaville, we’re looking down at his dark counter tops and the burners of his gas stove, which is black, so that the backgrounds of the photographs are dark, somber, practically reflectionless. There are utensils, pots and pans, dishes, towels, a jigger, a creamer, glass and plastic storage containers, not much in the way of food, an apple, an egg, a lime, a boule, some lemons, half an onion, a sprig of thyme. The framing is tight, turning some objects into geometric shapes, cutting others off abruptly. This is not about cooking, it’s about post-cooking detritus.

The images themselves seem a bit buried somewhere within the matte printing on the matte paper selected by the designer Morgan Crowcroft-Brown. I find myself peering close to the page, looking for the edges of objects, looking for details that have fallen into the creamy blacks and lush blackish blues of Cole’s photographs. It is clear that Cole wanted these to be modest images. What he had in mind were Dutch seventeenth century still life paintings of fruits and vegetables and the tabletop paintings of Giorgio Morandi, many of whose works depict endless rearrangements of nearly monochrome jars and bottles.

But should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images? Domesticity implies something that relates to a home or a family or a person who performs menial tasks. These kitchen images seem inert. They depict a stasis, a frozen now. Rarely do we have any sense of what has happened the moment before the photograph was taken or what was likely to happen next. Interspersed between the kitchen photographs are full-page photographs that show hand-written recipes for dishes like puddings and marmalade, plus helpful instructions for cooking-related tasks, such as how “To Collar a Calves Head.” The recipes are printed on brown paper reminiscent of that which a butcher might use to wrap meat. Both the immaculate penmanship and the language of the recipes are obviously antiquated, and Cole tells us in his essay in the book that these pages are from an anonymous eighteenth-century cookbook from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Cole lives. Cole photographed them so that the recipes are legible, but are sometimes cropped, making them serve as a kind of wallpaper for the kitchen images. Some of the eighteenth-century Cambridge households from which this cookbook might have come would have had domestics, black kitchen help, maybe even slaves. Very suddenly the innocent question “Should we think of Cole’s photographs as domestic images?” becomes fraught. Now we are in the realm of history. Here’s Cole, from his essay:

I cannot now find the interview in which W.G. Sebald said that not only had he never been to Auschwitz, but that he would never wish to do so. You see everything there is to be seen—I seem to recall him saying—and then, what, they have a restaurant there, and you go and sit down to eat? But, in counterpoint: I think of those who experience an entire terrain as the site of atrocity. In the United States of America, for instance—especially for indigenous people and for Black people—there is no part of the terrain that does not reverberate with horror, torture, and the most perverse brutalities. The site of the massacre is not delimited. The map is equal to the territory and yet we must live. We still have to go in and sit down to eat.

In the upper corner of every page where there is a kitchen photograph there is a faint date stamp, like the kind you find on digital images. The dates begin SEPT 29 13:13 and progress chronologically through NOV 3 16:02. The year, Cole tells us in his essay, is 2020. Pandemic Year. George Floyd Year. Election Year. Thus the final photograph was taken on Election Day. Cole says he did not rearrange anything for his photographs but he surely he knew what he was doing when he photographed the edge of a knife on Election Day, 2020 for the final image in his book.

Some photography is about showing, the photographs in this book are about seeing, observing. Seeing is a democratic process. No two of us will concentrate on the same details, follow the same flight path around these rectangles, draw the same conclusions. For Cole, these photographs were part of a process, one with its own set of rules. Take photographs every day. Don’t arrange anything. Observe. Repeat.

The untitled essay that comes at the end of Golden Apples serves as a kind of running commentary on some of the things that Cole observed and remembered and pondered during the same time in which he took the kitchen and cookbook images. Photographing in his kitchen and reading the centuries-old recipes reminded him of the hunger he experienced as a child, the still life paintings of the French painter Chardin, the music of the Smashing Pumpkins, the poetry of Louise Glück, slavery, Zen, John Cage, Cargill and the salt trade, hunger strikes, Covid-19, the photographer Chris Killip (who had just died), Giorgio Morandi, J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello, voting, and much more. It’s a solid thirty-page block of writing that morphs from one subject to another the way that dreams often do.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

By William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

I have previously written about three of Teju Cole’s other books: Blind Spot (2017), Open City (2011), and Every Day Is for the Thief (2007).

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