Book Discussion Group Recap: Elliptical Narratives

© Paul Graham, Las Vegas (part 4 of 6), from the series "a shimmer of possibility"

I recently joined Flak Photo and Andy Adams to host an online community conversation on the Flak Photo Books Facebook page focused on essays from Gerry Badger’s recently published book of essays, "The Pleasures of Good Photographs."

This public discussion provided a structured setting for expanding our understanding of the essays by reading collectively.

I am following up on these community conversations with posts that will recap a selection of the ideas we discussed.  These follow-up posts will necessarily be an abbreviated selection given the length and quality of the conversation in the community discussion threads. In many cases, what arose from the conversation were questions, points argued from different sides, and ideas to continue to explore - not conclusions or consensus.

My goal with these follow-up posts is to pull out threads from the weekly discussion that can be applied beyond the individual essays to inform our general understanding of the medium itself.

The follow-up post to the essay, "Literate, Authoritative, Transcendent: Walker Evans's American Photographs" can be found here, to "A Certain Sensibility: John Gossage, the Photographer as Auteur" here, and to "Without Author or Art: The 'Quiet' Photograph" here.

Today we continue with the follow-up to the essay "Elliptical Narratives: Some Thoughts on the Photobook." (page 221)


In “Elliptical Narratives,” Badger makes a differentiation between “narrative” and “story.” By using “story” to describe basic and linear narratives, Badger frees the term “narrative” to be cast very broadly and - with the term “elliptical narrative” – includes photography such as the Provoke photographers and their “radical deconstruction of narrative” as well as books like Germaine Krull’s “Metal” in which viewers construct the image sequence by shuffling them.

By stretching the idea of narrative far enough to include such work, I asked readers if we arrive at the point where we could say Badger believes narrative is inherent in a book format, no matter how aggressively it is attacked.

Photographer and educator Dawn Roe responded, “At first I objected to the insistence upon narrative and story as being what the photobook is ‘about,’ but Badger ultimately offers a fairly rich discussion of (almost) non-narrative / experimental forms in his discussion of elliptical and non-linear narrative strategies employed by [Daido] Moriyama and others.” She later differentiated between different types of narrative and added that she thought it possible to create photobooks without narrative: “I’d just like to emphasize the distinction (for me) between the inherent narrativeS implicitly contained within any subject matter or even medium or style for that matter (socio-cultural / personal narratives, or narratives of abstraction/realism or photography itself) and the deliberate construction of A narrative, of any kind. I tend to think it’s very possible for a photobook to avoid and / or play against dominant / expected narratives through selection and arrangement of images, and that even if A narrative can still be read into the work (as is possible with anything really), this does not necessarily mean the artist / photographer’s primary goal for the work has / had anything to do with its construction.”

Leeds, UK-based photographer and writer Lloyd Spencer agreed: “A lot of the ways in which we examine photos and respond to image collections or sequences draw on instincts and reflexes that are associated with ‘narrative’...but I would not adopt ‘narrative’ as a way to describe the kind of coherence in most successful photobooks. I don't think that that quite does justice to the ambiguity of photos...We can notice ... or fail to notice but still be influenced by... all kinds of themes and interrelations (such as the flags in Robert Frank's 'The Americans,' or the role of the car, or of the road) but it still stops short of being a narrative. It remains a collection of images. A powerfully coherent, suggestive, expressive collection but for me something short of what I would call ‘narrative.’”

San Francisco-based photographer Stefan Jora argued the opposite: “Great photobooks, like 'The Americans', certainly have a narrative; it may be not be the one you're looking for, and it's for the most part different from a film's narrative. In Frank's case it is not an all-encompassing encyclopedic narrative, but a personal and a very subjective one -- pretty much a statement in the from of an extended photoessay (contrary to what he wrote in his Guggenheim grant application). Every photobook has a narrative, whether it's linear, elliptical, or something else; and this is why most photographers turn to photobooks -- because they feel there's more to photography than the isolated, individual image.”

Contributor John Armstrong built from Jora’s comments by writing, “Isolated pictures can communicate meaning only in limited and hit-or-miss ways; a set of related pictures – pictures about the same thing – can do much better. As to narrative, everyone has their own preferred meaning for the term. I think Badger uses it in a very simple but also very appropriate sense. Etymologically narrate means to make known. But making known can happen in two basic ways, all at once – a revelation – or incrementally over a period of time. Narration normally refers to the second kind of making known, the one that involves a process that takes some amount of time to complete.”

George McClintock presented a tight definition of “elliptical narrative” by quoting Badger and writing, “The 'elliptical or nonlinear narrative' form of the photobook 'solves the problem of photography's ineffability' by substituting 'poetry and mystery' for 'clarity and the concrete' aspects of linear narratives. (223-224) Words cannot speak for photographs, and sequences of photographs cannot constitute a linear narrative, thus ellipsis is the rhetorical foundation of the effective photobook...elliptical narrative simply means not making known all the information that could be expected, or making it known in a way that is not readily evident.”

In the essay Badger writes, “A photograph is synonymous with the single film frame – in fact they are exactly the same thing – and as a collective entity, the photobook, as I hope to demonstrate, shares particular characteristics with the film.”

Roe wrote in response: “Of course the still and moving image are inherently different, but also share essential characteristics. When we can rely upon a viewer’s knowledge of both forms, we can potentially take advantage of the distinctions - between stasis and movement, arrest and reactivation – to address the very nature of our mediums, and how they work upon the viewer.”

She also added, “And, however we feel about "Camera Lucida," [Roland] Barthes certainly has some things to say on the matter including, 'The photographic image is full, crammed: no room, nothing can be added to it. In the cinema, whose raw material is photographic, the image does not have this completeness…Why? Because the photograph, taken in flux, is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views…Like the real world, the filmic world is sustained by the presumption that, as [Edmund] Husserl says, 'the experience will constantly continue to flow by in the same constitutive style'.”

Armstrong disagreed with Badger in a longer comment worth quoting at length:

   The film theorist Christian Metz called out a fundamental difference  between the ways the audience
   relates to still vs. moving pictures, identifying still photography as fetishism (viewer in control) and
   cinema as voyeurism (viewer not in control). This distinction goes down through the pragmatic to
   the psychological and ultimately to the cognitive layer of seeing. It is the difference between actively
   examining an object and passively watching action unfolding before your eyes.


   I’ve long been troubled by the idea that a moving picture has to be a sequence of still frames...In
   practice they normally are, given the way film and video cameras work, but they don’t have to   
   be...camera obscura and shadow projections don’t have this property, and a recording device that was   
   completely analog in the time dimension (in the way a traditional analog sound recorder is) would not   
   suffer the lossage you see with frame-based cameras, and would let you zero in on smaller and   
   smaller intervals until you reach the limits of its recording precision.

In "The Pleasures of Good Photographs" Badger writes that it’s in the photobook that photographs sing their loudest and most complex song. I asked readers if they felt that the possible expressive capabilities of multi-media and the exhibition were secondary to those of the photobook.

I challenged Badger’s idea by testing it against a list of some of the expressive possibilities of the exhibition: the ability to use a wider scale difference between prints for expression, arranging prints in space on a wall as a vehicle for meaning (witness Paul Graham), being able to take in the sweep of many images and their relationships at a glance, the importance of the photograph in space as an object (framing types, thickness, etc.), and lighting.

Jora replied, “All mediums of expression have both advantages and limitations, and the photobook is no exception. I think the main advantage of the photobook is its ability to preserve an underlining authorial voice (mostly due to the inherently linear layout that a viewer can break out of at any point, but never fully escape, at least not in the traditional format), while the greatest advantage of multimedia books that I foresee is the possibility they offer to decentralize the power of the narrative from the linear path chosen by the author into the hands of the more adventurous viewer.”

Armstrong responded with more questions: “If you take the photos and texts of a photobook and put them on to the gallery or museum wall, what do you lose? Certainly the tactile experience of holding the book in your hands and leafing through the pages, but what else? And what do you gain? If nothing else, showing real prints and, the temptation that’s hard to resist, large prints, much bigger than the reproductions in the book.”

Badger makes a series of comments in the essay about the photographer and their cultural context: “Like other major artists, both Frank and [William] Klein were closely attuned to the cultural zeitgeist,” and later on, “Through the medium of the book, [Japanese photographers in the 1960s and 70s] reacted in different ways, some obliquely, some directly, to the political and cultural events of their era,” and finally, “Clearly, most photography reflects – indeed should reflect – the age in which it was produced...”

Badger has formed this essay through the idea of a strong relationship between the photobook, the photographer, and the age in which they photograph. This lead to questions we left unanswered: What is our relationship to context as photographers? Are we inevitably shaped by the era we make work in? Do we have a responsibility to the era in which we photograph? Should photography reflect our times as Badger suggests? How much of our relationship to our context is conscious; how much are we just simply shaped by our surroundings, perhaps inevitably so?

These questions raised the idea of zeitgeist. Armstrong asked, “It's easy enough to identify Zeitgeists in the past and see how they were reflected in art of the time, but what about now? What is our current Zeitgeist and how is it reflected in the art of today?..We are now well over a decade into the 21st century. Where is the 21st century art? There is no question but that the Zeitgeist of today is very different from that of the 90’s (just as the Zeitgeist of the 90’s was different from that of the 80’s and so on back)...At least for Americans, everything changed after 9/11...where is the art of the post 9/11 age?”

Armstrong later wrote that our conversation had perhaps gotten towards some answers to his questions, “Current Zeitgeist: backward rather than forward-looking, pessimistic, impotent, focused on loss rather than gain, nostalgic, savoring the smallest things because everything will be gone. 21st century Art (the first decade): expressions of the same.”

Badger concludes the essay by using Paul Graham’s “a shimmer of possibility” as a case study for the idea of elliptical narrative and the final conversations of the week revolved around Graham's work.

Badger writes that Graham’s images look like “missed moments,” something between decisive and indecisive moments and that Graham’s images have the feeling of film grabs which “tend to have a different quality off stopped motion than still photographs.”

Roe replied, “For me, Graham is extending the notion of the moment and how it’s defined through his mode of image selection and sequencing. Or at least challenging the expectations of the photographic moment, or maybe instant would be a better word. They are not missed moments, as they are still moments. But are they ‘decisive’? And, do they need to be? I guess I think of these as anti-instants more than missed moments, if that makes any sense...it seems these shimmers of possibility (anti-instants, but poignant glimpses) provoke the viewer to think outside/beyond the frame and to rely on or call upon memory (of the preceding images/moments/details and in general) to fill in gaps.”

London-based photographer Pete Massingham added, “I think what is interesting is the manner in which Graham's strategy emphasizes what is not seen - particularly the psychological space in an interrupted flow of time. The repetitions or slight shifts function as an almost lyrical device highlighting an experiential dimension perhaps not as readily found in the single statement. Graham like others, shifts our attention away from the single visual experience, to one where we are more inclined to consider the passage of time.”

Finally, another contributor said, “One of the most intriguing parts of this work for me is the use of repetition as a kind of memory trigger. In the book, an experience of the image is no longer a singular encounter, and like memory arises unexpectedly with a slightly different version.”

Massingham raised the issue of audience and the moral, commercial, and critical implications of promoting limited edition works. The point arose from the humbling current market value of the full, hardcover copy of “a shimmer of possibility”: £750.00. He wrote, “I have no qualms over Paul Graham or any other artist making a good financial return on his/her work, but at what point I wonder, does the market come into conflict with the very people who are interested in that work? So many books now are limited editions, immediately collectible and put out of the range of most people...I wonder who/what the audience for Graham's work might be. How diverse I wonder?” The conversation was raised, but not completed – I hope to see it resumed in a separate thread on the forum.