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Photo-Embedded Fiction – The Seminal Books

“What’s the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?”

Alice in Wonderland
Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892.

At first glance, photographs and works of fiction seem as if they ought to mix like oil and water. Although we now know otherwise, fiction is supposed to about, well, fiction, stuff that is made up, not real. And, although we now know otherwise, photography is supposed to reflect reality. When one of photography’s first inventors, William Henry Fox Talbot, published the first book using photographs, he called it The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846), representing the widespread belief that nature itself drew the images we see on photographs.

It took a while for novelists and poets to come around to the idea of embedding photographs into their texts in ways that seemed more nuanced than simply illustrating the characters and places they were writing about. They were able to do so once photography was perceived to have values beyond the pure depiction of reality. From the 1870s, a sufficient number of photographers began to argue that photography possessed an aesthetics that could rival that of painting and the other arts. When the Belgian Symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach began to serialize his novel Bruges-la-Morte in the Paris newspaper Figaro before publishing it in book form in 1892, he saw the potential for a certain type of photography to convey distinctive attitudes about cities, loneliness, longing, and even death. Since then, many hundreds of books of fiction and poetry have been published with embedded photographs, written in dozens of languages by writers from scores of countries. This blog, Vertigo, is the only active online resource for photographic text/image fiction and poetry. My bibliography of hundreds of titles, found at the top of the blog under the dropdown heading Photo-Embedded Literature, covers the period from 1892 to the present and is updated continuously as I learn of new books.

Here are the handful of books that I consider the seminal works of photo-embedded fiction that have been published over the last one hundred twenty-plus years. In chronological order, these are the few books that I feel have been the most influential on other writers considering their own image-text works of fiction and for creating an audience of receptive readers to this mix of media. If you want to know the truly key books, start here.

1. Georges Rodenbach. Bruges-la-Morte. Paris: Flammarion, 1892. Someday we may learn that someone other than the Belgian Symbolist writer Rodenbach was the first person to think of combining photographs with a work of fiction or poetry, but his book Bruges-la-Morte is the one widely known and recognized for its daring and originality. This was the book that made the combination of a fictional text and photographs to seem like a natural marriage. The dreamy images of Bruges and its canals that he inserted into the pages of his book are a perfect match for his death-infused story of a man grieving for his dead wife. The images were supplied by two Paris photography studios: by J. Lévy & Co. and Neurdein Fréres. Flammarion has reissued the French edition recently, and as of 2022 their paperback edition is currently the only edition that still reproduces all thirty-five of the original photographs. The most useful modern edition in English is the one published by Atlas Press (1993), which includes some, but not all of the original photographs. For more about Bruges-la-Morte on my blog, look here.

2. Andre Breton. Nadja. Paris: Gallimard, 1928. Nearly a century after it was published, the diversity and inventiveness of the imagery in Andre Breton’s photo-embedded Surrealist novel Nadja (just as in his later one l’Amour Fou, 1937) still serves as a touchstone for writers thinking about using photographs in their fiction.  Nadja tracks the narrator’s brief infatuation with a woman he meets by accident one day. Her wildness and lack of inhibition unlocks new and unforeseen possibilities for the narrator, who is immediately captivated by her eyes. But he stops seeing her after he realizes that she is truly mad, and she is eventually committed to a sanitarium. In his imagination, though, the memory of their time together comes to feel even more powerful than the days they actually spent together. The book includes forty-four photographs, some of which are by the famous American Surrealist photographer Man Ray. I have written more about the book here.

3. Wright Morris. The Inhabitants. NY: Scribner’s, 1946. Wright Morris (1910-1998) was a true cross-over artist. He was an established novelist, who published nineteen novels and won the National Book Award for Fiction twice – in 1957 and again in 1981. He had his photography exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time in 1941 and had five books devoted to his own photographs published. The Inhabitants was the first of three novels that Morris wrote, specifically intended to be accompanied by his own photographs. In general, this book is laid out with his images printed fully on one page and his ongoing text on the opposite, creating an equality between text and images that is rare. Morris followed this up with The Home Place in 1948, but Scribner’s refused to let him pursue a third photo-embedded novel. Though he eventually published a number of non-fiction titles that included his photography, it wasn’t until 1980 that he was able to release his third and final novel with photographs, Plains Song: For Female Voices (Harper and Row). Morris’s 1999 book Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (Aperture) devotes several essays to the subject of combining images and text.

4. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Dictee. NY: Tanam Press, 1982.  Now recognized as one of the key works in twentieth century avant-garde literature, Dictee was ignored for years by mainstream readers and critics, although it instantly became something of a cult classic, especially among Asian American artists and writers. Cha’s book is a multilingual experiment in feminist autobiography that blends poetry and prose, history and memoir. As the title suggests, one of its central concerns is language and the construction of meaning. To make her points, Cha makes liberal use of film theory and radical typography. Dictee contains numerous news photographs, portraits and reproductions of documents, including some depicting the author’s own manuscript for Dictee, thus anticipating the way in which Sebald used embedded imagery by years. Poet, writer, and filmmaker Cha (1951-1982) was raped and murdered by a total stranger in New York City just days after the book was published. I have written more about the book here. On January 10, 2022, nearly thirty years after her death, The New York Times published an “Overlooked” obituary for her here.

5. Nick Bantock. Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. SF: Chronicle Books, 1991. The British artist and book cover designer Nick Bantock came up for the idea for a series of illustrated books shortly after moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. Griffin & Sabine is full of illustrations of every type and doesn’t pretend to be “literature.” Nevertheless, this trilogy and the other books that Bantock has done since have spawned many imitators – fanciful stories for children of all ages that use photographs, maps, postage stamps, and all types of images with great freedom and imagination, as well as the insertion of actual letters and envelopes and postcards – all in service of an epistolary novel of romance and mystery. And his influence has drifted into books of fiction written by writers who want their books to be taken seriously. Literary critics don’t pay books like this much attention, but publishers do. And I have to think that the success of this type of book has opened the door to other authors who have wanted to use photographs in their more traditional novels, as well.

6. W.G. Sebald. The Emigrants. 1996. There’s no doubt that the publication in English of The Emigrants opened the floodgates of new books of fiction and poetry which employed photographs. Combined, Sebald’s books – The Emigrants, Vertigo, The Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz – also did more than those of any other author to tilt the world of literature in the direction of autofiction. By refusing to call his books fiction and insisting on the term “prose fiction,” Sebald showed the way for writers to hue much closer to non-fiction and still have their books thought of as works of the imagination. And with the exception of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha‘s Dictee and a handful of other books, Sebald used photography is a far richer and more complex manner than almost any previous writer. My blog has many posts about The Emigrants, but the one to read is Gabriel Josipovici’s incisive review of the book when it was first published in England.

Let me know by way of a comment if you feel I’ve missed the boat in my choices. Feel free to make your case for a seminal work of embedded fiction that you think I’ve overlooked. I’ll be dealing with poetry on a different page.

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