W.G.Sebald – Not so Great with Pictures

On 14 November 1997, W.G.Sebald, in a beautiful but curiously frustrating interview with Christian Scholz, answered a question put to him as follows:

WGS:  Strange things happen when you aimlessly wander through the world, when you go somewhere and then just want to see what happens next.  Then things happen that no-one is going to believe later. And what comes next is very important: it is necessary to somehow capture and document these things.  Of course, you can do this through writing, but the written word is not a true document, after all.  The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.

He went on to describe a particular night at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam:

WGS: I have actually found myself in this situation on several occasions. Again and again there are situations where you think that this is impossible, that it cannot be, [situations] where you would really have to take this snapshot. For example, it happened to me recently at the Amsterdam airport; when I had to sleep there overnight because the entire airport was fogged in and none of the planes could take off, after midnight everyone was stretched out horizontally on these sofas on the upper floor of the departure lounge. They were covered with the kind of thin blue blankets provided to the campers by KLM. An extremely ghostly scenario – human beings that, laid out like the dead, were lying curled up on their side or very rigidly on their back. And outside, through the windowpane, was the mirror-image of the interior.

From such constellations arise possibilities about which you can then reflect. And they can be verified only through an image that was taken. Otherwise, you think , oh well, that’s yet another extravagance of this writer, who came up with it,  who extends the line of what  happens in reality in order to get something out of a work with a certain meaningfulness or symbolic value. But these images are actually there.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Christian Scholz asked him:

CS: Does that mean that you see the image only as a fragment of narrative?

WGS:  Yes. It can be a landscape, a person, an interior. But that’s something that drives me to look more carefully into these things. For me it has an effect that is familiar from my childhood: there were these ‘Viewmasters’ into which you could look. You had the feeling that with the body you are still in your normal bourgeois reality. With the eyes, however, you are already in an entirely different place: in Rio de Janeiro or at the passion plays in Oberammergau or whatever else could be seen at that moment. I always have the feeling with photographs that they exert a pull on the viewer and in this entirely amazing (ungeheure) manner draw him out, so to speak, from the real world into an unreal world, that is the world of which one doesn’t exactly know how it is constituted but of which one senses that it is there.

CS: Or at least that it was there.

 WGS: Correct.  But the fact remains: each image interrogates us, speaks to us, calls to us.

 So he went on, meandering around and saying these oddly banal things. Yes, sometimes you see things that one wouldn’t quite believe without a photograph to confirm them.  It’s a cliché that witnesses to exceptional happenings frequently fall back on “It was like a picture” or it was “like a film” to underline the exceptionality of what they saw. Yes, a picture can set off a train of thought.  Yes, of course, a picture can transport one in imagination….Sebald said some mildly interesting things about Kafka and pictures, and he said one really very odd thing about how the grey areas in pictures, neither black nor white, represented purgatory, this vast no-man’s-land where people “were permanently wandering around and where one did not know how long one had to stay there,  whether this was a purgatory in the Christian sense or just a kind of desert that one had to traverse before one reached the other side.”

Apart from that outburst, it was banal.  And yet.  In that interview (which I have only just read) Sebald confirmed something that I had long noticed in his books, but never quite put my finger on.  Sebald’s use of photographs in his texts seems so exciting, when you discover that the poorly reproduced, apparently captionless picture you’ve been wondering about has in fact been captioned by several pages of text. But Sebald had consistently removed authorship from photographs.  Pictures were either his own (as several are acknowledged to be in his books) or they were just grist.  No matter what the provenance, no matter that the author (or a probable author, a near-identified author) was actually known, Sebald preferred his pictures anonymous and would strip an author away from them if they weren’t.

Look again at the various passages I’ve quoted above (I’m sorry they’re so long).  They’re amazingly, stultifyingly, conventional.  It’s a revelation.  Sebald, who in his writing with radical grace blurred the distinctions between novel and memoir, history, travel writing and journalism, that Sebald, the insouciant funambulist between fact and fiction, could be, when it came to photographs, a plodding bore.

The interview is in a dense and intermittently interesting book[i] whose subtitle is Photography after W.G.Sebald.  It’s a given. Sebald was a wizard with words so it stands to reason:  he must have changed the way we deal with photographs, too.  Only it’s false.  He did nothing of the sort.  He’d read his Barthes and that’s about it.  He used pictures as unattributable gobbets of fact upon which to hang the whirling tangos of his written allusions.  The very idea that a photographer might himself have been able to make metaphors escaped him completely.  Because in the end, even for a writer as free as W. G. Sebald, the superiority of the writer over other artists is inalienable and needs no proof.

I have a paperback of John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket.  It’s a collection of essays, not quite Berger’s finest, but containing – as you’d expect – a lot of very good stuff.  The cover (it was published by Bloomsbury in 2002) shows a picture by Peter Marlow.  I did a little double-take when I saw it: it’s cropped, and clumsily.  You expect that from publishers.  They treat pictures, as Sebald does, as grist.  But to crop this one, here, that takes some doing.

I’m not a blind fan of Magnum, an institution whose glorious left-wing shirt is getting threadbare.  Magnum now is not so exceptional, a commercial picture agency with a rich archive, but all the same… Whatever the corporate failings, it still does have more than a few photographers who know their arse from their elbow, and Marlow is one of them.  Marlow has been President of Magnum more than once.  He’s a craftsman and an artist and a man who has found ways of saying important things in photographs. For a commercial designer at Bloomsbury simply to crop one of his pictures badly is one thing:  it must have happened to Marlow before, and it will happen to him again.  But on the cover of a book by Berger?  That same John Berger who in dozens of essays has honoured photographs as so much more worthy of reflection than his generation had realised?

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, Primrose Hill, London 1999.

The picture is called The Eclipse, and it was made on Primrose Hill, in London, in 1999 when there was a full eclipse of the sun. The same Primrose Hill that nearly saw an eclipse in 1963 when Bill Brandt had Francis Bacon walking down it, when the three little park lights could only just hold their own against one of Brandt’s darkest skies

The Berger book contains eight details culled from Marlow’s photograph, scattered as ‘frontispieces’ to various essays in the text.  Again, the cuts are made with a kind of numbness that slightly beggars belief.  I hope – I really hope – that neither Marlow nor Berger made them.  But I can’t believe that either could have done.  Not all essays get one. There seems very little direct reference when they do. None carries a caption;  you have to search in the boring ‘legal details’ at the front of the book for a tiny credit that covers them all.  None necessarily refers to – let alone illustrates – the text it accompanies.  This is “photography after Sebald” with a vengeance.  The pictures, made not by a photographer but by a designer using him only as a supply of raw material, are allusive, but only ponderously so.  A very largely white crowd, obviously waiting, with odd episodes of blurred movement or interesting collisions if you look closely. Opposite a page entitled Michelangelo is a blurred figure more obviously connected to Francis Bacon than anything Michelangelo ever did.  A dullard in a black tee-shirt videos him. The faces, and sometimes the bodies, are turned in various directions.  This is the kind of incidental interest you get if you look with attention at any busy photograph, perhaps a little more closely than usual, or perhaps with a lens.

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 1

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 2

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 3

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 4

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 5

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 6

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 7

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 8

They are nice enough, these slices taken from the larger picture. It’s a good crowd scene, no doubt about it, well made and well seen at a time of cross-tensions and cross-purposes. It’s never a bad thing to look more carefully at a good photograph. This one reminds me a bit of that other crowd-scene, also on a hill, that Robert Doisneau made in 1947, Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly. The skyline is made of the same human palisade.

Robert Doisneau. Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly, 1947.

But you know what?  They wouldn’t have used Marlow’s (again and again in the same book) if it had been called ‘Crowd waiting for the off at the Derby’ or ‘Crowd waiting for the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war demonstration’.  They wouldn’t have used the Doisneau, come to that. It is pathetic, but there is something about the cheap ‘cosmic’ meaning of an eclipse which is supposed to add a little pepper to the Berger book. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell by looking at it that it was made before an eclipse. Marlow’s title, The Eclipse, is never given in Berger’s paperback.  But the smell of the eclipse is purported to linger on it. The whole crew of designer, editor, publisher, and perhaps author, who all knew the title, felt its magic still. That’s the legacy of Sebald, if you like. It is so reactionary it’s appalling:  it’s a photograph being chopped up and used not for its (very interesting and skilfully achieved) visual content but for the cheap scent of its title lingering on. Blimey, Mr. Berger.  How ever did that little demonstration of contempt for photography go out over your name?

This is visual Muzak.  It’s using the barest bones of Marlow’s work – an expectant crowd – to offer a gentle pause between the supposedly arduous heights of Berger’s sensitivity.  At the very most, it makes some oblique claim that all of us, every member of every crowd, are implied or addressed in Berger’s critique of the visual. Dozens of people have reworked photographs with more zest and sparkle than this.  At the high end, look only to Gerhard Richter or Thomas Demand or John Stezaker or Maurizio Anzeri or Julie Cockburn.  Or look on any teenager’s bedroom door.  Pictures do get another life when found, graffitied, snipped, decorated, jammed up against unlikely neighbours.  Even W. G. Sebald admitted as much.  But they don’t get that life simply because the title alludes to something which might have rich metaphorical content.  Pictures are pictures, not shorthand for words.

 

 

[i] ‘But the Written Word is not a True Document’. A conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photography, by Christian Scholtz, translated by Markus Zisselsberger.

Published in Searching for Sebald : photography after W.G. Sebald. Edited by Lise Patt, with Christel Dillbohner, Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles , 2007.