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.
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.