Conversations: Text and Image
This exhibition is intended as a quick fifty year review of the practice of combining written text and image by artists who use photography. It was organized to coincide with Story Week Festival of Writers, presented annually by the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Combining written text with images has a long history in art. Medieval manuscripts in Christian Europe are interlaced with pictures that exist in a rhetorical relationship with the written text to create layered meaning and verbal/visual puns. William Blake, eighteenth century British poet, published books of his writing with his own illustrations and quickly learned that the synthesis evoked meanings beyond the power of words or pictures alone. Dadaists and Surrealists in early twentieth century Europe combined fragments of found text with appropriated photographic images to open alternative, sometimes irrational, paths of communication they felt were missing from straight art.
During the 1930s, influenced in part by contemporary art he had seen in Europe, Walker Evans created a seamless text/image collage by including advertising signs, often fragmented, in his photographs. Evans’ achievements are a good place to start in trying to understand contemporary combinations of text and photographs. As a frustrated writer and friend of important writers like the poet Hart Crane, he purposefully explored both the formal and conceptual implications of placing text and image together. First, the advertising signs and other extraneous words in his prints force awareness of the limitations of the photograph. The two-dimensionality of the text reestablishes that we are observing a flat field of limited information in spite of the seeming replication of visual perception. Second, since we know that the words are a code, we have an opportunity to transfer what we know about reading codes to the photographic image. Evans created complicated arenas in which our attention caroms from verbal to visual and back, making us aware that both are describers of and not substitutes for experience or knowledge. They surround meaning like wolves running around sheep, eyeing but not reaching their prey.
Lee Friedlander, in photography, and Robert Rauschenberg, in print making, continued this exploration in the 1960s and 70s, partly based on Evans’ work and partly on the much earlier Dada work of Kurt Schwitters and Raul Hausmann. In the late1970s and early 80s writers Susan Sontag, Alan Sekula, and Leroy Searle, among others, began to question photography’s pervasive acceptance as a simple conduit of truth and suggested treating it as a language-like phenomena, only as trustworthy as the person or power using it. At this time an increasing number of artists began to consciously combine text with their imagery to widen the discourse of the critics. Martha Rosler produced the project seen in this exhibition, The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, in 1974-5. As her title suggests, she was interested in theoretical issues concerning photography as a purveyor of truth, but she also was, and is, more concerned with the practical matter of distorting or ignoring social truths.
Placing words and images in the same perceptual space is not as easy as it looks. The artist has to keep track of four phenomena, not just the apparent two. First, the words have accepted, coded meanings and contexts that affect what we see in the adjacent images. Second, the words invoke mental images that might also conflict with what we see. Third, images have meanings and contexts that may alter our engagement with the adjacent words. Fourth, images can call up words in the mind of the viewer. The coordination of image/word/word/image is not easy, but the more difficult it is, the more possibilities present themselves for qualifying or clarifying the larger world.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s combining words and photographs had become a genre of art photography with wide and varied practice, ranging from simply writing on photographs to the first experiments with digital collaging of word and image. At the same time, the photograph had long outstripped the word as the mass media’s choice of descriptive system. As a consequence, artists could no longer rely on the same frames of reference for language as even Evans could in 1936, the birth year of Life magazine. This caused some of the work to be opaque to the general art consumer. Jim Goldberg solved this problem by inviting the subjects of his Rich and Poor series to write directly on the paper that contained their own image, a practice common in the non-art world since the introduction of the Kodak No.1 in 1888. Interestingly, what Goldberg’s subjects chose to write was either a critique of their lives or a critique of the photograph.
Jeff Wolin invades, or perhaps violates, the photographic space by writing extensive commentary of his own over images of his family and other evidence of his life experience. The shock that we feel seeing his dense writing seems like clear evidence of our confidence in the power of the photograph to communicate by itself. Wolin is the other end of the spectrum from the publications of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Walker Evans, where the photographs are carefully isolated from any kind of caption.
In his project on photography and memory, derived from an extended stay in northern India, Notes from the Stone-Paved Path, Lewis Kotch places carefully selected pages from somebody else’s text next to his photographs. Aware that his images reflect his partial view of this unbearably complex country, he gives up some of his control over the viewers imagination, and allows them, like him, the pleasure of being lost.
The power of Lorna Simpson’s work is founded on her ability to place powerful words and powerful pictures in the same ring and make their battle cooperative to her ends. Aware of the loss of textual meaning in most of American culture, she pulls words from areas where they still have strength for better or worse—race and sex. Unlike Kotch and Goldberg, she retains complete control—the referee—hoping that whichever half of her complex synthesis wins, somebody will learn about race and/or sex in a more complex way.
Matt Siber has extended Evans’ experiment by reminding us of the pervasive image/text stream that we swim through every day. One complicating difference is that now the landscape is also full of photographic images. At this late date we are barely aware of the effects of this stream—fish have no need to wonder about water until it is gone. By removing the text from an entire photographic image and placing it to one side, Siber forces us to again consider Evans’ point about differential “reading.” Cleansing the advertisements of their text makes us aware of how the photographs in them work, and how clever the ad designers are at manipulating our “reading.”
The video and installation works of Gary Hill have consistently utilized his own writings and others’ texts to explore our confidence in this extension of the still photograph. In Mediations (toward a remake of Soundings) 79/86 he takes this genre to another level with a video image of a speaker being filled with sand while it tries to speak. The muffled words we hear—Hill’s own writing—are recorded coming from the increasingly dysfunctional speaker. In this piece the hands of the artist himself manipulate and distort our access to words he presumably needs us to hear. The image we see extends the meaning of his text, but it also creates a visual analog for the value of indirection and distraction in art.
In all these works the meaning in the text combines with the images to produce thoughts and feelings not generated by either alone. We are forced to face the mysterious empty spaces between the two “descriptive systems” in Rosler’s words, and to come up with a variety of possibilities for filling that space. But we are also forced to confront our profoundly untested confidence in both text and image.
-Rod Slemmons, Director