Saturday, October 3, 2009

This Museum Is My Proof: A Meditation for the Month of Atlanta Celebrates Photography

Duane Michals’ This Photograph Is My Proof was one of the quintessential postmodernist documents of the first wave of conceptually inclined picture taking.

If you recall, this 1974 photo with text asserted that the photo accompanying the impassioned scrawl was proof that things had once been “still good between us…see for yourself!” But the photo theorists taught us that maybe the whole scene was a pose, and the earnest handwritten plea might be a manipulation that is part of the whole fiction woven around what we regard as solid evidence…. (Or it might be totally the sincere outpouring of some goof for whom the photograph really is, as in the Ringo Starr song, “all I’ve got.”)

In Atlanta, Robert Stewart had gone with the other end of the proof-positive department, creating “nude self-portraits” that consisted of nothing but a block of text describing in detail the scene in front of which he was supposedly posed nude as he took the picture we could not see.

The two poles of photo-trustworthiness and storytelling in word and image ultimately spin off, in one sense, from AndrĂ© Breton’s photo-illustrated novel Nadja, where the photographs are certainly proof of something, but we cannot quite be sure what, even though we know the real history behind the novel (or, after the efforts of many biographers, we believe we do).

And in the fullness of decades, we got W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and his other novels in which emotionally or physically injured individuals illustrated their monologues with photographs that might or might not be genuine documents of events that might or might not have ever happened.

And this led to a spate of non-graphic novels with photographic accompaniment, from Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana to Jonathan Saftan Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close …a transient trend about which I meant to write back in 2005, and, because it was a pre-blog time for me, I did not.

Now we have the fascinating example of Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, newly translated by Maureen Freely. And Pamuk, as always with his extraordinary novels, exemplifies a trend that has scarcely even been identified as such yet.

Although regional folks including a certain guy in Tennessee were creating fictional museum displays decades before they were internationally cool, the tendency to make up documentation of non-existent events has lately become a veritable obsession.

In the case of Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, he is said to be creating an actual museum of Istanbul paraphernalia that corresponds to the museum through which his narrator is leading the reader as he tells his story.

But there are no photographs of the displays in this novel. As in Stewart’s self-portraits, words do the job.

And yet there will supposedly someday be real physical objects to look at, in Istanbul, presumably at the spot shown on the map in the novel. Pamuk already cancelled a preview exhibition at a museum in Germany thanks to delays in publication of the novel, so those of us who read news stories about such things have been waiting for this museum almost as long as the good people of Istanbul have.

News reports say it will open in 2010. In the meantime, the museum, like the novel it does not illustrate but exists alongside, constitutes the latest chapter in a long history of interchanges between images, objects, and words.

I wrote about Leanne Shapton's novel-as-illustrated-auction-catalogue earlier this year, here:

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