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The Double-image of Poetry and Photography

Creative mediums are not indefinable. They have essential elements that mean they are not something else at root. But their practise is not best served by recourse to the ‘it is whatever you want it to be’ line of thinking.

I mean, that’s fine, of course – people can think what they like – but does it hold? Is everything whatever we want it to be? Is a poem whatever we want it to be? A photograph? Is my coffee table a photograph? Is my cat a poem? If not (and maybe they are?) then what is it that makes these things what they are or what we understand them to be? The question preoccupies me. It confounds but challenges me. Neither poetry nor photography is quantifiable; not mathematics or science or engineering, this is obvious. But that simply means that definition of these mediums must be subjectively formulated, with real rigour and thought. Perhaps we find out what poetry is when we place it next to and in front of a medium it most definitely is not. Photography, for example, has as little to do with poetry as any creative enterprise might. It requires an external technology to exist. It is painfully recent. It works with light. Nothing is further from language than human perception and the sensation of light.

We might reach for metaphor to describe how the two are alike. They both express an essential experience of the human . . . Yes – maybe, I suppose. But what do they really have in common? They are often juxtaposed as a tennis match: poem–photo photo–poem, back and forth, one then the other. What is the skill of doing this well, beyond having good photos and good poems? What lies beyond the exchange of one with the other? How might we begin with the most difficult (exciting, challenging, beautiful, engaging) task, that is, to align the mediums? How might we fail and succeed? How might we rob from the photo to make our poems visually resonant? How might a photograph think through form, what form really is? What is the language of photography, beyond the loose metaphor? How does poetry engage with framing, perspective, cropping? What might we do with a two-dimensional page that is alive to the three-dimensional trickery that photography suggests?

This course will explore exactly these matters.

This weekend is a product of many questions I have asked of myself, it is the result of many hours talking to photographers and poets, of reading across both mediums, dipping into theory (but not too much of that) and finding artists from fine art, performance, theatre, film, and cinema, who have, in their own way, posed these questions too. It will, if nothing else, offer anyone who enrols provocations that stir, I hope, new ways of seeing the photograph with text, and understanding the poem next to imagery.

More than that, I think, it’ll open doorways to things I can’t conceive of. These will be the answers you provide, new concepts, thoughts, ideas, and above all, actual works – photopoems / phoetry / poemgraphs – that aim to resolve the challenge we’ve set ourselves.

Explore how poetry intersects the medium of photography by signing up for SJ Fowler’s new workshop, The Light Room: Intersections of Poetry & Photography. Book online or call 020 7582 1679.

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Image Credits:

Image credit: Richard PJ Lambert

This image has been filtered and cropped