Photography — In Novels

Falques' Face of Defeat

Unlike film photographers I profiled earlier, print photographers are a curious mixture of lovers, killers, cynics and sleuths. In Ronit Matalon’s Bliss, an Israeli photographer pursues a doomed affair with a Palestinian man. The protagonist of Douglas Kennedy’s The Big Picture kills his wife’s lover and assumes the latter’s identity as a lensman. Julie Hecht’s unnamed narrator, she of many short stories and the novel The Unprofessionals, explores the mundane and tawdry periphery of modern existence with her idiosyncratic photo-essays (flowers in decline, reproductive surgeons and their dogs). There is a sleuth in Kay Farrow (The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt), an achromat — someone who is completely color blind rather than the much more usual red-green variety — who is kept from the blinding daylight by her condition, and who explores the underbelly of San Francisco night life in gritty black-and-white photos.

Schemes, entanglements and women who kept getting into his bed thwart Nicholas Almaza’s bildung in The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. Another Germanic affliction, this time that of weltschmerz, plagues glamor photographer and inveterate womanizer Carter Cox in Keith Kachtick’s Hungry Ghost. In Afterimage by Helen Humpherys, a Victorian girl (modeled on photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron) dreams about a creative career as a photographer.

Often a generational gap is bridged via photographic memories in novels. In Peter Henisch’s Negatives of My Father, the rocky relationship between the narrator and his well-known photographer father were explored via the photos his father took as a leading photojournalist for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. Conor Lyons searches for his rootless photographer father across four countries and two continents via negative fragments in Collum McCann’s Songdongs. In Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hands, two self-destructive photographers, Cass Neary, who documents punk’s most squalid moments and Aphrodite Kamestos, the photographer of the ’60s counterculture fringe, find a common bond in their morbid nihilistic visions of the infamous, the damned, and the dead.

It’s the photography that got small for larger-than-life Maude Coffin Pratt, the heroine of Paul Theroux’s Picture Palace, who witnessed the history of photography unfolds itself before her lens. Pratt began her career taking photos of her brother (with whom she was incestuously obsessed) and ended up capturing the century’s greatest literary minds from e e cummings to Hemingway. In between, she also photographed black servants, blind people and a pathetic “Pig Dinner” at which circus acrobats perform in the nude (which made her famous).

While it is a study of trials, traumas and tribulations of a war photographer’s life, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte was mainly about the fallout from an iconic photo. On one side, there is Andrés Faulques, the retired combat photographer haunted by the battles he photographed and by the girlfriend he lost. On the other side is Ivan Markovic, a young Croatian soldier whose face came to symbolize defeat after Faulques immortalized the Croatian Army’s retreat from the Serbian onslaught at Vukovar.

Another Manichean clash was at the center of Del Corso’s Gallery: the friction between the titular photographer who insouciantly photographed mangled corpses and his former mentor P. X. Dunlop who won Pulitzer for his artful portraits of dignity and sacrifice on the battlefields of Beirut and Vietnam.  In the background enfolded a larger picture of photographers’ divorce from reality and atrocities by a thin layer of glass — a theme often explored in novels about war photography, such as The Lotus Eaters, of which this blog had waxed lyrical before.

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0 thoughts on “Photography — In Novels

  1. One of the main characters in a Helsinki classic Där vi en gång gått (Where We Once Walked) by Kjell Westö is a photographer. It is mainly a historical novel about the first half of 20th century Helsinki but Eccu Widing’s photo business and the photos he took are often present.

    Color photography pioneer Wladimir Schohin is also a character in the book. The Helsinki businessman and amateur photographer started to use autocrome in 1907. A Helsinki amateur photography club AFK is also often mentioned. Founded in 1889 and still alive.

    Westö went through a lot of old Helsinki photos when he wrote the book. Another Finnish author said that you can’t write about Helsinki anymore as Westö has already written everything.

    The book has been translated to many languages like French (Les sept livres de Helsingfors) and German (Wo wir einst gingen) but unfortunately, AFAIK, not to English. Unfortunately English-speakers are not very interested in translated literature unlike most other Westeners.

    One of the best books I’ve ever read.

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