Literature, Photography, and the Grotesque


During meetings with my thesis advisor Carol Golemboski, we spoke about our common love; books.  Both of us take prompts from literature to be integrated as part of the work we create.  I have written before that the more I am immersed in photography, the less photographs inspire me. I turn to other visual arts, books, and music to find the intensity and subtleties I find to be important to art - more so than in most photographic works.  So much so, that I have briefly explore thoughts on the connection between photography and literature. While researching this topic, it brought awareness to a consistent theme in the books I enjoy and the kind of elements I employ in my photographic work. That common theme is through the topic of the grotesque.

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 and implied clues to suggest or nudge the viewer into a literary experience with viewer-based interpretations directed by the story (Rich).  

As I work towards my own disjointed narratives in Last in the Woods I come to realize that photographs are what Hanno Hardt describes as portals to the imagination and vessels for elusive truths (Hardt); this is precisely what I find to be the most engaging part of literature and effective visual art. The books I have consumed tend to leave the reader hanging by a shoestring until the very end likely without any standard form of resolution. 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 read 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 an artist who is solely interested in the interior lives of individuals.  I am aware that individuals contribute to the makeup of a greater whole or collective consciousness but this is not something I am particularly engaged in exploring. My interest presents a challenge in narrowing down articles that pertained to the motivations of the work I create and the work of others that attracts me. Although the Hardt article is no different, there is a statement within the text that did stand out; “…photographs may become the means by which individuals escape their solitude to discover their social selves.” It is true that I and others use the practice of photography as an escape and to better understand our place in a social context. The article goes on to discuss 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 on the foundation and modern applications of the grotesque. The grotesque is a term I was originally introduced to when studying Bakhtin’s stages of carnival and it goes without saying that it is always mentioned in the same breadth as any commentary on Southern literature. 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).  There is one aspect that can be agreed upon in the definition of the grotesque and that is the mystical or mystery components.  In O'Conner's essay on the grotesque in Southern literature she writes that these themes will lean from the expected tropes of social standing and the writer interested in the grotesque will embrace mystery.  

The nature my own work is personal and centers around the metaphysical ideas of light and dark (the native language of the shadows) I found that a passage recounting Baudelaire’s thoughts conveyed the ideas of the grotesque in a why that I located within my work.  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).  Can "cruel turns of circumstances" be equated to the mystery of the ordinary?  I hold no doubt that my work focuses on someone or something who has been given or has given a cruel turn of circumstance.  Goodwin introduces thoughts by John Hawkes on literature, and I find this to be true about certain kinds of photography as well, that the challenge for a writer (or photographer) to take a taboo subject 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.” It is within these themes the photo-literary narrative I am working to achieve.

  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.
  4. O'Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1969.