Writers on the Wall | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Art Review

Writers on the Wall

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

Jeanne Hilary

at Lallak + Tom and Agnes B., through December 19

Abelardo Morell

at Catherine Edelman, through December 30

By Stephen Longmire

Traditionally both photographers and writers have been makers of books; indeed, photographers might be called the modern illuminators of manuscripts. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that many photographers have depicted writers, as if attempting to join two related arts. With her new book, La Plume et le Zinc: Writers in the Cafes of Paris, Chicago-born photographer Jeanne Hilary joins such illustrious predecessors as Berenice Abbott and Gisele Freund, both of whom also photographed the literary luminaries of Paris. And this year the photojournalist cooperative Magnum issued photos by its members of writers, though not all set in Paris. The numerous coffee-table books showing writers' homes and landscapes are the stepchildren of this genre; of these, Bill Brandt's Literary Britain is the best I know, since he took considerable interpretive license and is clearly well-read.

To photograph writers is not, of course, to photograph writing. And why bother to show writers at all? Do we want to see the writers we read, to peel back the masks of their anonymity? Doing so might restore to them the lost roles of performers and bards, with the cafe table as the modern torchlit stage. That photographers are usually as invisible as writers only makes the exchange more suggestive: in such images, two shadows meet.

It makes sense for a picture book about storytellers to have a story. In Hilary's introduction to La Plume et le Zinc--literally "the pen and the bar"--she describes her disorientation on arriving in Paris in 1983 for a student year abroad, a stranger even to the language. She stayed, on and off, for 15 years, and began making the photographs in her book in 1990. The writers she was gradually able to read, Hilary implies as she tells of her struggle to learn the city, became her guides and the narrators of her otherworldly experience. Her photographs--on exhibit at Lallak + Tom Gallery and Agnes B., a French boutique--are as densely layered as her memories of navigating the city speechless, a gulf re-created in the silence of images. Many of the faces, which emerge in sharp focus from her otherwise hazy and heavily shadowed photographs, will be new to American readers, underscoring the distance between cultures. But expatriate American novelists Paul Auster and Edmund White should be familiar, along with those French intellectuals who have been imported, like feminist theoretician Helene Cixous.

In Hilary's book the writers appear opposite excerpts of their prose. Often these snippets are set in cafes, like Jacques Roubaud's recurring dream of breakfast in an establishment as familiar as his own kitchen and the brawl Nancy Huston describes when a stranger wanders into a bar full of locals. Since Hilary photographs each writer in a different cafe, the writers seem to become characters in their own dramas, dreaming or enacting their fictions. We're not told who chose the cafes or the texts--but presumably the writers had a say. The book is bilingual, with English translations at the back, but for non-French speakers the experience of reading will resemble Hilary's initial disorientation in Paris.

Unfortunately, no texts have been included in either Chicago display, so the photographs go out into the world without narrative context. Seen alone they're elegant images but not stories. Evocations of the places where stories are told and of the people who tell them, they remain strangely mute. Beyond the supposed glamour of the literary life, they remind one of what it is to be lost in the architecture of language, and of the space between words and images in which these photographs are precariously poised. Hilary's pictures are all polished, but few manage the difficult task of visualizing her subjects' prose as well as their personalities. Taken out of context, others seem advertisements for cafe society.

Cixous' portrait is among the simplest and best. The revered poststructuralist sits on a bench at a large empty table in a bright, cavernous room. Is it a cafe or a monastic refectory? Her fingertip touches the table, making a point. For a moment the room becomes the evacuated space of theory that Cixous helped invent.

Abelardo Morell doesn't photograph writers--he makes books come alive. He's renowned for his camera obscura method, which turns modern rooms into Renaissance-style cameras by projecting the views outside the windows through an enlarged pinhole onto the interior furniture and walls. The result is an alternate reality based in the real world. For the past several years he's also been photographing the worlds contained in books. At first they were art books illustrated with Renaissance paintings and prints, which took on new meanings in his playful compositions. Faces stared back from the curling pages or strained to see the portrait opposite, with whom they'd been shut up tight for who knows how many dark decades. These two ongoing bodies of work, for which Morell is well-known, are briefly sampled in his show at Catherine Edelman, as is an earlier series that spawned them both in which he depicted household objects as he imagined his young son might see them. But the bulk of the work comes from two new projects, each of which is available in book form.

Face to Face, the first of his new books, features photographs Morell made this year during a residency at the Gardner Museum in Boston, where he teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art. This was clearly a productive setting for him, almost as rewarding as the collection of the Boston Athenaeum, where he was given free rein a few years ago to photograph old books. The Athenaeum and the Gardner are among the country's most eccentric and lovable cultural institutions: the museum displays Isabella Stewart Gardner's collection, mostly old master paintings, in the Renaissance-style palazzo she had built. There, in his own eccentric way, Morell could train his camera on the faces of Europe's painters and princes. King Philip IV gazes down from an imperious height in the Velasquez portrait Morell has copied, as apprentice artists did centuries ago. Whether the subject is a book or a painting, Morell makes no effort to observe the rules of copy photography as it is usually practiced in museums, duplicating art objects for reproduction without any apparent intervention. Morell's abruptly cropped picture, looking up at the king at a dizzying angle, announces that this is the result of one man's looking, aided by the camera's cyclops eye. Only a corner of the luxurious gilt frame is visible, a reminder of the difference between the practice of art then and now.

A few images in the Gardner series position the faces of gallery staff alongside the old portraits, as if in conversation with the paintings' subjects. This is a departure for Morell, who seldom acknowledges that his imaginary worlds are linked to the everyday one. The techniques of multiple exposure are also new to him, though it's nothing new for him to be as playful with his technique as with his subject matter. Morell's juxtapositions typically begin with some quirk in the workings of the camera. This shift bears watching, but images like Tim and Rembrandt, which shows a museum staffer alongside the Dutch master's self-portrait, hover awkwardly between Morell's usual magical realism and a flatter documentary mode. Other images in this series use multiple exposure in more surprising ways, placing one painting atop another or carefully splitting the frame to position part of one painting or sculpture beside part of another, thereby synthesizing new artworks.

But the main attraction in this show is the set of illustrations Morell recently made on commission for Dutton's new edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Replacing John Tenniel's classic illustrations takes temerity, but Morell pays his predecessor ample homage. In a much wittier use of the technique that allowed him to juxtapose people with the Gardner's paintings, Morell has cut out Tenniel's illustrations of the players in Carroll's drama--Alice, the White Rabbit, the Red Queen, and the rest--and posed the cutouts as actors against the "stage" of the open book. The story itself now happens to the book: the rabbit hole is drilled through its pages, and when there's a flood, the book itself gets wet.

The image on the cover of Morell's Alice shows the title character pulling aside a velvet curtain to reveal the drama's set in the open pages of a book. She casts a shadow larger than herself across the page--which is the reality? Morell's sleight of hand adds a twist to the plot: Alice passes through a camera lens that allows her to move about between drawings. There seems no question that she's alive and busy with other adventures offstage. What makes this an even more compelling ploy is the fact that Carroll also photographed his young friend Alice Liddell, to whom the book was a gift, as he did many of the children with whom he was infatuated. Morell's miniature masque also recalls the drawing-room entertainments so popular in the Victorian era.

This new series is distinctly different from Morell's earlier ones in that the commission gave him a concrete problem to solve. He solves it well, making a book that, like Carroll's, will appeal to children and adults as well as carry forward his own gamelike themes. And though Morell's disparate series are united by his efforts to visualize a child's point of view, his games are hardly childish; taken together, they amount to a string of jokes on the tradition of Renaissance perspective that spawned the camera. After years as an unmaker of books, he's now become a maker of them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Helene Cixous" by Jeanne Hilary; photograph by Abelardo Morell from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

Add a comment