Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Photo-Novella’ Category

“Or is there a point that I am missing?”

Imagine if The Paris Review gave you 156 pages in its Spring issue. What would you do?

What Jean-René Étienne and Lola Raban-Oliva did with 156 pages (that’s more than half the issue, by the way) was to create a photo-novella called “Formentera Storyline.” The storyline is simple. “An ad hoc group of ten longtime and tentative friends rents a house on the Spanish island of Formentera,” which is just south of Ibiza. They take Pilates classes, eat a strict diet, and basically try to “remedy the deteriorated lifestyle inherent to their high-pressure, low-stakes, medium-impact jobs in the fashion industry.” They also hope that Paul, who is staying on his yacht in the harbor, will deign to pay them a visit. When it becomes clear that Paul is not going to visit, their utopia quickly descends into dystopia. Alcohol and drugs begin to appear. On the twentieth day they run out of water. The tank on the roof is empty and no one knows what to do. Then things really go to hell. “The top symbolic resource is the lone operational MacBook charger.”

“Formentera Storyline” consists of photographs that are printed nearly full-page, beneath which is the sparse text – usually just a sentence or two per page. No people appear in the photographs, just architectural details, interiors, and images of the surrounding woods. The photographs are much more accomplished and more polished than the text. Perhaps not surprisingly, Étienne and Raban-Oliva are a Paris-based duo that work under the name Partel Oliva, creating fashion videos and music videos.  (Just Google “Partel Oliva” to see examples.)

The images and the text of “Formentera Storyline” tell different stories. Étienne and Raban-Oliva’s photographs extract lush and textured details that lure the viewer into emotional states – calmness, anxiousness, curiosity. A kind of sun-drenched Mediterranean noir, perhaps. On the other hand, the text reads like a dry film treatment. It is written in such a way that we are supposed to recognize a mildly mocking tone, but on the page this tone stays resolutely one-dimensional and insincere. I suspect that Étienne and Raban-Oliva, who seem to work primarily in video, didn’t realize how flat their text would be when not spoken aloud by actors.

After the total dissolution of civility amongst the once-happy commune, the final pages of text become the bewildered, lost voices of members of the “ad hoc group.” Here is the complete text of the last fifty-six pages of the story, which consists of twenty-eight double-page spreads of nearly black images of storm clouds at nighttime (the photographs are more interesting than this sounds):

What are we looking at?
We’re looking at Ibiza.
Ibiza isn’t that way, though, I think.
Can you hear anything?
Is it okay that we don’t hear anything?
That’s because we’re not over there, in Ibiza.
I feel hopeless in a good way.
We’re not looking at Ibiza.
We’re actually looking at Es Calo. Or maybe at Cap de Barbaria.
Cap de Barbaria is behind us.
It’s there, over there.
Remember the crazy shooting star we saw on the second day?
This is way more impressive than any shooting star.
It’s dying down a bit, though.
More like moving away, maybe?
People are dying over there in Ibiza.
Lightning without thunder feels beautiful but empty.
Or is there a point that I am missing?
What aren’t we more scared? Should we be scared?
Are we “transfixed”? Is this it?
I feel like we’ve been waiting too long.
Is something happening?
Is something happening to us right now?

I don’t fault Étienne and Raban-Oliva for doing what they do. They’re pros and they do really slick work and I don’t blame them for wanting to try something a little riskier than the work they do for clients like Kenzo. But I have to wonder what the editorial staff at The Paris Review was thinking. To be honest, they should have given a few pages to James Gallagher, the artist whose collage ran on the cover of the issue.

You can take a look at the first few pages of “Formentera Storyline” here.

3 (Photo)Graphic Novels


Double-page spread from Aztlángst by Harry Gamboa Jr.

I am always a little surprised that there seem to be so few graphic novels that use photography and that the tradition of the Spanish and Italian fotonovella (essentially a soap opera in graphic novel format, using photographs) rarely crosses over into more creative fictional use. Nevertheless, here are three different examples.

Confessions of a ex-doofus

Melvin van Peebles’ Confessions of a Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha (NY: Akashic, 2009) is part graphic novel and part photo novel, based on his 2008 film of the same name, There is a long history of publishing photo novels that essentially retell the story of a feature film or television program using production stills, both as a way of extending the product line and enlarging the fan base. What is so interesting about the book version of Confessions is that it blends traditional hand-drawn imagery of the graphic novel with film stills.

Doofus 1

Doofus 2

The drawings are credited to an entity referred to as “Caktus Tree..?”(with the ellipsis and the question mark as part of the name). Confessions is a picaresque story of a young man who travels the world, looking for love in all the wrong places, and finally ending up back where he started in Harlem, a little bit wiser. His final act is to try to reconnect with his onetime-girlfriend, who happens to be cleaning her apartment when he appears on her doorstep. Shocked and excited to see him, she drops the roll of toilet paper in her hand.

It rolls toward me.
A blue collar red carpet
A poor man’s welcoming mat…
One thousand two-ply extra-soft squares of pure happiness!

Miss Peregrine

At the moment, the only other example of a graphic novel that I can find that uses both photographs and drawings is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: The Graphic Novel (NY: Yen Press, 2013), which extends the story in the novel of the same name by Ransom Riggs published in 2011. That novel, and it’s just-published sequel Hollow City (Philadelphia: Quirk, 2014), are based on the author’s fascination with and collection of vintage found photographs, picked up at flea markets and through specialized dealers. In the graphic novel, there are photographs from the earlier book, but most of the plot is achieved through the artwork of Cassandra Jean. There is a recent interview with Riggs over at Fine Books & Collections that includes images from his collection. In this case, the graphic novel is not just a graphic equivalent of the original novel, but goes off in new directions with the characters.



Finally, here is a contemporary take on the fotonovela by Los Angeles-based Latino artist Harry Gamboa Jr. called Aztlángst (Los Angeles: CreateSpace, 2011) ,a portmanteau for Aztlán angst. The performance group Virtual Vérité acts out the scenarios that Gamboa photographs. The “plot,” such as it is, involves a kind of sci-fi, anti-war romance in which different kinds of chemistry get mixed up, all done tongue-in-cheek. Sort of.



There is a series of photographic comics produced in Seattle called Night Zero, which can be viewed online or purchased in comic stores.