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The Ambidextrous Artist

The Photograph and Text, An Inquiry

My fascination with words and images began when I was a teenager and encountered I Am A Lover, a book of photographs by Jerry Stoll with accompanying quotations selected from various sources by writer Evan S Connell, Jr.. For me, living a provincial life on the East Coast, I was enchanted by these black and white photographs of bohemian life in the San Francisco of the fifties — poets reading their work, jazz musicians in clubs, artists’ studios, street life, photographed not as documentation but as smoky evocation. And then to read, next to, above, under, on the opposite page, words that were sometimes humorous, sometimes lyrical, always apposite and oblique to the image —this was revelation. Together, the words and photographs side and side made a unity, a single poetic vision that spoke to the young person I was then. My spine unraveling copy, threads loosely hanging from what is left of the binding, remains in my ‘honored books’ shelf.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it is photography that has created a revolutionary relationship between images and texts. One photographer who pioneered the “photo-text” hybrid was Wright Morris (1910-1998) whose career spanned the twentieth century. I imagine Morris making choices for his 1948 photo-text book, The Home Place. What is written and where does it sit in juxtaposition to the images? How will the photos relate to the story? What is literal, what is illustrative, what is metaphor? How can I connect the two in order to make, in effect, a third thing? What is the resulting synthesis?

These questions belong to anyone working this vein, but Morris’ solutions were uniquely his. “. . . each page of text would face a photograph. The relationship would sometimes be explicit — the object photographed would be mentioned — but in the main the photographs would provide the visible ambience for the story. . . ” In this novel of a man returning after many years to a farm in Nebraska, the photographs were to function as objects the protagonist found. “[they] would be cropped. These mutilations removed them, as a group, from the context of artworks, as ‘images,’ and presented them as ‘things’ and artifacts.”

Morris’ experiments did not win acceptance. “Most of the readers . . . objected to the distraction of the photographs, and those who liked the photographs largely ignored the text.” People asked him, as they ask of artists today, which is more important, the text or the photographic image? Is it necessary for a single instrument to dominate in order to considered serious? For many years, he came up against the demands of the marketplace and couldn’t sustain the practice of “Both” together. In a letter written in 1949, his publisher advised him, “People are uncomfortable with the ambidextrous.”

Now the twenty-first century sanctions, even demands, the merging—the linking of genres. A year or so ago, I was sitting around a dining table with an informal group of Harvard students, all of them in the arts. They went around the table identifying themselves and their interests, several mentioning multiple fields, combined areas of concentration. When I asked, “Do you feel any pressure to define yourself as one or the other?” One student answered, “That’s an old question. We don’t think that way.”

New technologies and a new mentality might well render my question obsolete but, for all that its implication may belong to another time, the fact of it doesn’t. It belongs to now, because the territory of combination is still largely unexplored, because it implicitly asks so many questions of us as artists, and because it lies ahead of us. Ambidexterity, once seen as problematic, is giving way to multidexterity.

I believe that for a very long time we have been tragically split in two, words and images separated so that when they appear together in art, the correlation seems odd, self-conscious, an inorganic and arbitrary decision. However, I’ve seen otherwise. In the 1970s, for five years I went to New York primary schools as a visiting artist with a program of my own devising; I brought in poems and experimental films that related to one another and used these unfamiliar images to spark children’s writing. The third-graders were a delight. They wrote poems and made drawings on the same page, animated by the same creative impulse without questioning whether one or the other took precedence. But in the fourth grade, the children shut down. They would express themselves in words only, without accompanying pictures. If they met with anything out of the ordinary, they said, “That’s weird.” I asked a full-time teacher why this might be happening, and she wasn’t surprised. “The fourth grade,” she answered, ‘is when we socialize them.”

Does being ‘socialized’ destroy what may be a natural tendency to link? Could it be that connecting words and images is part of our biological apparatus? Do the language centers of the brain travel at more-than-lightning speed to meet up with the visual cortex, and perhaps together they continue their journey to the frontal lobes, before parting into right side/left side? There’s work to be done.

What has the ambidextrous artist been seeking? What is the animating spark for this work? One, surely, is to explore the play of one’s mind; simply, to put things together and observe the outcome. Another is to overflow, to be so moved that there’s virtually no choice but to make conjunctions. Another is to summon contemplation, to empty out the mind, looking to see what fills it of its own bidding, at which point words and images enter as the gift of a meditative relationship. Another is the specific refusal of polarities, instead to open a space for greater porosity.

Wright Morris was clear about what he wanted from his photo-texts: “This recombining of the visual and the verbal, full of my own kind of unpeopled portraits, sought to salvage what I considered threatened, and to hold fast to what was vanishing.” To salvage is a radical act of resisting time’s depredations by rescuing something about to be discarded and instead holding it to the light—why wouldn’t one want to draw on all the means at hand? Photographs alone are not enough to tell Morris’ story; in The Home Place the narrator is necessary because it is he who is returning to the farm in Nebraska, it is his consciousness that endows the artifacts with meaning. Nor could words alone convey the visual formality that gives religious connotation to the boarded isolation of a barn, and historical resonance to a congregation of utensils on a crumpled newspaper.

In Robert Frank’s book Thank You, there’s a related impulse at work but cast through a different sensibility. How remarkable to learn that a personal and intimate Robert Frank saved postcards that were sent to him by friends and admirers over a forty year period. At the beginning of the book is an image of a postcard from 1960: “Dear Robert, That photo you sent me of a guy looking over his cow on the Platte River is to me a photo of a man recognizing his own mind’s essence, no matter what.” (n.b., The writer of that 1960 card signs himself Jean, ton copain or in english, Jean, your buddy. That buddy, we learn from the index in the back, is Jack Kerouac whose given first name was Jean-Louis.) Instantly the reader/viewer understands that the subject, here and throughout, is consciousness, presented in a light way, the photographic and textual equivalent of Fred Astaire. About Thank You, Martin Parr has written: “How can we prevent our journey from becoming so broad and ponderous? . . . I’m just hoping we can keep the spirit of the humble postcard in mind while looking at people, places and things.”

While the book seems to be a small miracle of unselfconsciousness, the way that images and words are displayed on and across pages is paradoxically suggestive of informality and also deep and scrupulous intention. At the end of the book, Frank tell us: “I have saved these cards over many years / I was touched how many people wanted to tell me / their appreciation of what I was doing / without asking anything in return.  This small book is my way of saying Thank You” Sometimes salvage means to keep the grace notes, to acknowledge the connection between one’s friends and oneself by making a new composite, a dance of reciprocity.

Lately I have been making a physical and mental shelf of artists creating new forms of image and text. On it is Peter Kennard, whose Domesday Book is a photopoem (others have called it a visual fiction, or photo-essay)  that combines poetry, photomontage, photography and drawing to convey political power and human destruction. Kennard amplifies on his use of word and image, inventing as Morris does a necessary narrator: “a wandering figure who arrives at the Millenium Dome as it is still under construction. Caught in the flash of security lights, the narrator, in a fragmentary and hallucinatory fashion, flicks through images of the twentieth century. . . “ Next to a solarized photograph of the back of a man’s head as he is looking down curving tracks to those menacing and impersonal lights, Kennard places a poem:

Speaking out from the O,
Traces stain traces –
Traces endure.

Somewhere in the tension between haunting and vanishing lies a key to photography in general and specifically when it conflates with other arts, most especially with words. Even though Kennard’s work is very different from Wright Morris‘ and Robert Frank’s, a tension imbues them all. Salvage becomes more than just holding on: it is a push-and-pull between what an artist is able to glean from a complicated past, what he/she chooses to keep or to erase, and what new forms are required to express the shifts of presence and absence.

My shelf also includes books with very different kinds of impulses: work that uses photographs and words to give context, to provoke thinking, to expand the frame of understanding as Alan Sekula has done in his pioneering works, Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes, and Fish Story, ‘sitting’ side by side with Sophie Calle’s fictions; John Berger’s Another Way of Telling; the Gerlovins’ photoglyphs; Steven Roden’s book i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces in which he sequences vintage photographs along with cds of found recordings and spoken passages about sound; Joakim Eneroth’s Short Stories of the Transparent Mind, in which he is searching for the point when “the story line fades away. . .”

Please write and tell me what else you think belongs on that shelf. Meanwhile I’ll be thinking about a title that slips out from under the wire of separation, and summoning my own resources of mind, heart, and contemplation.

Janet Sternburg is the author of Optic Nerve, Photopoems, Red Hen Press, 2005 and Phantom Limb, University of Nebraska Press, 2002. She lives and works in Los Angeles, CA, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.


  1. hi janet, how nice to be part of such a wonderful shelf! i’d add walker evans/jame agee “now let us praise…” to the shelf, as well as wg sebald. you would enjoy my friend terry pitts’ sebald blog, he covers a lot of fiction books where photographs play a role: http://sebald.wordpress.com/

  2. Dear Janet,

    Congratulations on this wonderful, provocative, groundbreaking piece.

    I’ll give some thought to other authors who might belong in the category you’re shaping.


  3. fierce panda says:

    have you seen peter kennard’s latest book @earth…?


  4. stuart frolick says:

    Janet, this is a wonderful piece of writing on a subject close to my heart. I was unaware of the Morris and Frank books, which I’d love see up close; “Let us Now Praise Famous Men” certainly belongs on the shelf (I think I have four different editions on mine); so does Howard Chapnick’s “Leaves of Grass”. But the first one that came to mind is a book that would be judged sexist and politically incorrect by today’s standards–yet was, to a 14-year-old boy in 1964, nothing short of revelation–Wingate Paine’s “Mirror of Venus”. The snippets of dialog between Fellini and Sagan that accompany the photographs complement them without direct reference, so that “Paine’s Pleasure” in the visual is both balanced and elevated by the unusual pairing of cinematic/male and literary/female voices. I assumed that their intimate conversation was recorded while they were looking at Paine’s pictures, and their commentary provided the 14-year-old with insight and perspective–not only on the subject of women–but also on how to look at, think about and talk about photographs. Thanks again; please add me to your e- mail list. Regards, s.

  5. Janet,
    You are an amazing person and a great writer. I truely enjoyed your article. Keep it up and keep me posted.

  6. Janet I like how your words and images calm my mind down taking me to a quieter place. Such a gift you have for seeing and hearing.

  7. susan suntree says:

    This is a delightful, stimulating contemplation, Janet. Thank you! I’m taking another look at my own bookshelves with your eye in mind. The issue of multidexterity brings to mind Bateson’s Mind and Nature.

  8. Brilliant article…as usual!
    The use of words and images takes me back to as early an experience as reading “The little prince” for the first time, with Saint Exupéry’s own drawings… Of course not photography, but still, I have the fondest memories of reading the story and then contemplating the images for the longest time…truly enchanting!
    Being yourself and ambidextrous artist, I wonder, did you ever feel the need, or should I say the pressure to choose one medium over the other?

  9. Lovely piece, Janet.

    I would concur with “steve” that W.G. Sebald would belong on your shelf, opening up as he has vast fields of suggestibility, being alternately literal and oblique in the photos that accompany his genre-blurring novels/travel novels/memoirs and opening up vast realms of suggestibility between/among the two.

  10. To your growing bookshelf, I would add
    Dan Eldon, a young artist, writer and adventurer who was killed
    in Somalia while on assignment for Reuters

  11. here is a better link to Dan Eldons work:

  12. Lovely and thoughtful piece Janet. I love the notion of Photopoems. You have expanded my mind’s eye as we are on this road trip in the PAC NW and BC. cori and dick, the travelers!

  13. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Dear Janet: Once again your writing has provoked me and I am immersed in thought about the need to strike the balance in our creative lives and how creativity changes and morphs and blends and when it is fluid of course there should be crossovers. I love the idea of a new generation of creative thinkers who take that process more for granted and perhaps won’t be socialized come the fourth grade. I am completely impressed by your thinking, writing, photography and how you are processing the idea of melding them together. I know the sum of the parts will add up to more. Congratulations, Love, Lewin

  14. I believe in photo poems. The dance of literacies. And you are a great dancer.

  15. stirring sounds, important images and a great team putting this together. energizing to the field of art for social change (change of heart)…

  16. Joel Sackett says:

    “Nadja” by Andre Breton
    “The End of the Game” by Peter Beard

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