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Thoughts upon the poetry in photography. In quest of the Magic Mirror.

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It is a usual phenomenon certain literary works to be accompanied with visual representations, sketches, printed paintings or photographs. Actually, the proliferation of photography during the last decades has led us into a reverse act where a photograph, a photo album or a photography exhibition, is accompanied by selected texts. But why do we so often witness this artistic encounter? And more precisely, why do we witness the artistic blending of photography with poetry in particular? Could it be that these two artistic expressions are supplementary to each other? Could it be a new form of art or just a common quality existing inside photography and poetry? If we accept as a fact that the ‘visual’ exists inside poetry, can we assume that poetry exists inside an image? Maybe, Henry Fox Talbot’s* agony about a “magic mirror” - that «a special device might preserve a poetic account of nature in the form of a visual image» - was not in vain after all.

Child in Forest, Wynn Bullock

“Child in Forest”, Wynn Bullock, 1951 (MoMA collection)

Perhaps, the most common resemblance or analogy that one can identify between photography and poetry is usually the indirect, symbolic, metaphorical or allegoric, use of language – poetry’s language on the one hand and photography’s on the other. Of course, this is not a privilege of poetry and photography only, as most forms of art potentially employ this kind of language. Besides, as Arthur Danto had argued, the works of art cover the philosophical distance between the seeming appearance and the true nature of things, consciously addressing what he called to be the “literal falsity”. But, when poetry and photography discuss the awareness of reality in a philosophical way, perhaps they show increased degrees of freedom concerning the reader’s/viewer’s expression and imagination. Words obtain an extensive freedom in poetry’s content, symbolism, metaphor, as it can similarly happen with the depicted objects of a photograph. The lyricism, the rhyme and the meter, the sound patterns of a poem, find their equivalent expression in the elements of form in a photograph, in the use of light, in structure, symmetry geometry etc. Words in poetry, released from the bonds of their literal use, work similar to the way that images in photography break free from the mimetic function and the physical entity of the objects being represented.

The Pilings, Wynn Bullock

«The Pilings», Wynn Bullock, 1958 (MoMA collection)

So, being enthusiastic by this finding, we could exclaim loudly that photography can aptly simulate poetry, legitimizing in a graceful way the “literal falsity”, the “poetic license” and the transformation of “language”. However, considering the way all the other forms of art take effect, we cannot exclude them from the above liberating function. Maybe, the connection between photography and poetry exists only due to the writer’s sensitivity and predilection. Maybe again, all arts function as one after all, and the plural form “arts” exists only for academic wanderings and ontological quests.

Gerasimos Lountzis

by Gerasimos Lountzis

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* William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) was a British photography pioneer who invented the precursor of modern photographic camera.

Below we attach a short extract from Henry Fox Talbot’s poem included in:

Talbot, W. H. F. (1830). ‘The Magic Mirror'. Legendary Tales in Verse and Prose. London.

The Magic mirror

. . .

It was the bright and sunny month of May,

The hours seem'd long... she wearied of the day.

She traversed every hall, then went again,

For Pleasure seeking... seeking it in vain...

When through the Chamber dim she chanced to pass,

Where that dark curtain veil'd the Fatal Glass.

A sudden wish arose... she long'd to see...

But fear'd her father's words of mystery.

She stopp'd... drew nearer to behold the veil...

Touch'd it... then felt again her courage fail!

Three times she paused... but ah! the veil was thin,

A glorious Light was streaming from within!

It seems so lovely! Need I fear? she cried,

And with rash hand she flung its folds aside!

What show'd the Mirror? In an azure sky

The Sun was shining, calm and brilliantly,

And on as sweet a Vale he pour'd his beam

As ever smiled in youthful poet's dream:

With murmur soft, a hundred mazy rills

In silver tracks meander'd down the hills

And fed a crystal Lake, whose gentle shore

Was grassy bank with dark woods shadow'd o'er.

Far in the midst a lovely Isle there lay,

Where thousand birds of Indian plumage gay

Flutter'd like sparkling gems from tree to tree,

And caroll'd wild, with Nature's minstrelsy.

A Temple's fair proportion graced the Isle,

The rippling waters that around it smile

Reflect its columns in their sportive play

And glitter in the sun's unclouded ray.

And prints of tiny footsteps on the sand

Betray'd the gambols of some fairy band

Who now were flown, but scatter'd all around

Lay many a rosy chaplet on the ground,

And baskets heap'd with blushing fruits, and flow'rs

Fragrant as those which bloom'd in Eden's bow'rs,

And golden harps and timbrels cast away

Spread on the sward in rich confusion lay,

As if that light and airy company

Had shrunk in terror from a Mortal's eye!


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