I have been giving some consideration this month to the uses of the photographical in creative writing and its relevance particularly in shorter fiction. By inviting the reader to look through a photographic lens how do we as writers hope to ‘animate’ the reader? How does the insertion of a photograph impact on our cultural involvement with the text? Descriptions [of photographs] are answers to questions, “What is here? What am I looking at? What do I know with certainty about this image?” (Barrett, 2000, p2).
Semiotician Roland Barthes’s theories of the photograph illuminate memory: death/’that has been’, indexicality, temporality, ‘posing’, duality and subjectivity. My conceptualisation of the photographical first and foremost scrutinises presentational logics, particularly types of imagery. Shared in all photographic practice are presentational techniques – the use of light and shadow and visual evaluation. I attempt to draw on these photographic imperatives in my own writing, locating my work within the space between image and storytelling.
What might the photographical suggest of the relationship between presence and absence and of indexicality (where visual meaning is conditional on the situation of use)? How can the photographical be engaged to shape the narrative and then as spectator how does one read the intention in reverse? For example, how might the insertion of a photograph in a story affect the complexity of time and the presentation of linearity and non-linearity?
The photograph in the text might be presented in the ekphrastic tradition (its content/referent described) or merely illusionistically. By illusionistic in this context, I mean employing certain characteristics redolent of classic photography. This could be the use of shade and light as already mentioned or perhaps a ‘freeze-frame’, a zooming in upon detail.
The most obvious connection between the photographical and shorter fiction is the idea of the short story as a ‘snapshot’, capturing a fleeting moment. Famously, in Edora Welty’s words, “a camera could catch that fleeting moment, which is what a short story, in all its depth, tries to do. If it’s sensitive enough, it catches the transient moment” (Cole, 1989).
Mike Smith suggests that contemporary approaches to writing short fiction represent a ‘new view’ as opposed to the ‘old view’ supposedly embodied by ‘traditional’ short stories:
The ‘old view’ part of a story, even if it is a very short story, perhaps even if it is a flash fiction, will create a world that seems rounded, full, complex and rich. The ‘new’ view, by comparison, will tend to be one-dimensional, a snapshot against the movie footage of the ‘old’ view (Smith, 2011).
The ‘one-dimensionality’ referred to might nowadays be called ‘photo-bite’(byte) – a close up of the moment. At the same time, the ‘new view’ seems to convey the idea of summarising many elements of a story into a single shot and also appears to suggest, image-wise, moments of stasis rather than implied movement. However, this definition also implies a sort of chronological ‘progression’ in that a more ‘traditional’ short story, ‘way back then’ as it were, might be defined more cinemagraphically, whereas nowadays the scope of imagery may be reduced down to a snapshot. Has shorter fiction changed to the extent that this more ‘snapper’ type of imagery is the vogue? I also empathise with AS Byatt when she suggests that she has developed a dislike for the ‘over prescriptive’:
Manuals on how to write short stories, and much criticism stress unity of form, stress that only one thing should happen; that an episode or incident should be developed, or an emotion caught with no space for digression, or change of direction or tone (Byatt, 2009, pxvi).
Certainly I feel that a shorter piece of fiction cannot contain the complexity of time that a novel might. HE Bates talked of atmosphere and precision being the two key ingredients for capturing the essence of the short story (Bates, 1971). For Bates, a certain Chekhovian flair for precision is important in the condensing of time – to describing a part of something in order to capture the whole. In terms of the scope of the tale being told, “Time need not move, except by an infinitesimal fraction” (Bates, p21).
I think of ‘precision’ in writing as a focussing in upon and capturing of the essence of a thing just as one might do with photography. However, I think that modern short fiction can still make room for interruptions, digressions and a myriad of images and ideas.
Barrett, T. (2000) Criticising Photographs: An introduction to understanding images. Put in place of publication here, eg. London: McGraw Hill.
Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. R. Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography. Place of publication: Bloomsbury
Bates, H.E. (1972) The Modern Short Story. Place of Publication: Evensford.
Byatt, A.S. (Ed.). (2009) The Oxford Book of English Short Stories: Oxford.
Cole, H. and Srinivason, S. (1989) Eudora Welty, Inquiring Photographer New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/books/98/11/22/specials/welty-photographer.html [Accessed 26 January 2015]
Smith, M. (2011) ‘Thresholds’ Old and New Views in the Short Story.[Online]. Put in place, eg. London: Available at: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/old-and-new-views-in-the-short-story/
[Accessed July 2014]
Winther, P, Trussler, M, Toolan, M, May, CE and Lohafer, S. (2012) ‘Reading the Short Story’ Narrative Journal, 20 (2), pp. 135-170. Available at: http://may-on-the-short-story.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/special-short-story-issue-of-narrative.html [Accessed January 2015].