Literature, Photography, and the Grotesque

During meetings with my new thesis advisor Carol Golemboski, we have talked about books.  Both of us take prompts from literature to infuse as part of the work we create.  I have written before in other essays that the more I work in photography, the less photographs inspire me. I turn to other visual arts, books, and music to find the intensity and subtleties I find so important to art in the first place.  So much so that I have decided to look into briefly, thoughts on photography and literature. When researching this topic, it brought me to a consistent theme in the books I enjoy and the kind of elements I employ in my photographic work through the topic of the grotesque. The bulk of this research became less about finding and creating linear stories but more about implying elusive ones.

Photographer Daynatta Singh poses the question, “I have always wonderned if photography could aspire to the state of literature.” Singh has been working towards creating elusive narratives in her work House of Love through creating visual short stories by juxtaposition of images through an act of providing clues and suggestions to nudge the viewer into a literary experience with viewer-based interpretations determined the story (Rich).  

As I work towards my own disjointed narratives in Last in the Woods more and more I come to realize that photographs are what Hanno Hardt describes as portals to the imagination, and vessels for elusive truths (Hardt), which is precisely what I find to be the most engaging part of literature. The books I have consumed tend to leave you hanging by a shoestring until the very end and even then, that doesn’t ensure a tidy ending. This is an outcome I have strived to create within my own work. As painter Francis Bacon is often quoted, the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.

Many of the articles that I came across more or less had running themes of connecting literature to photography but many approached this theme with a socio-political scope. This doesn’t apply to my own approach because I am solely interested in the interior of individual psychological states.  Although I am aware that an individual contributes to making up a part of the greater whole, this is just not something I am particularly engaged in exploring. That being said, this interest presents a challenge in narrowing down articles that pertained to the motivations of the work I create. Although the Hardt article is no different, there is a statement within the text that did stand out to me, “…photographs may become the means by which individuals escape their solitude to discover their social selves.” The article goes on then to talk about fictional narratives and empathetic understanding within social constructs.

The article that resonated with my thoughts towards my own work and photography happened to be contained in the discussion of the foundation and modern applications of the grotesque, a term I was originally introduced to when studying Bakhtin’s stages of carnival. Goodwin’s article focuses on the grotesque in American literature and photography through the works of such writers as Flannery O Connor and photographers like Joel-Peter Witkin. Goodwin cites a definition of the grotesque as to characterize the symbolic function as a means of seeing light within the dark as conducted through a mystical reversal of the customary meanings for dark and light (Burke, Goodwin).  Because my work is very personal and centers around the metaphysical ideas of light and dark (as I call the bittersweet) I found that a passage on Baudelaire’s thoughts related the ideas of the grotesque in a why that located in my work in such a profound way.  He writes: ...of the grotesque in the modern sense can be associated with the individual’s exceptional responses and with cruel turns in circumstance (Baudelaire, Goodwin).  There is no doubt that my work focuses on someone or something who has been given or has even given cruel a turn in circumstance.  Goodwin introduces thoughts by John Hawkes on literature, and I find this to be true about certain kinds of photography and that is the challenge for a writer (or photographer) to take a taboo subject (in my case, the melancholy) and to make it beautiful or to harmonize it (Hawkes, Goodwin).  Goodwin goes on to speak about the work of Diane Arbus, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Weegee, and Joel-Peter Witkin.  He points out that Meatyard is a subjective photographer who works with fictional aims. He also quotes Witkin, “… but my initial interest has always been to show the lostness within us.” This is exactly the literary narrative I am working to achieve in my own work.


  1. PHOTOGRAPHY AS CREATIVE WRITING.By:Risch,Conor,Photo District News, 10458158, Oct2010, Vol. 30, Issue 10 

  2. CONSTRUCTING PHOTOGRAPHY: FICTION AS CULTURAL EVIDENCE. By: Hardt, Hanno. Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 5, December 2007, pp. 476􏰀480 

  3. MODERN AMERICAN GROTESQUE: LITERATURE AND PHOTOGRAPHY. By: Goodwin, James. The Ohio State University Press. 2009.