Genre benders: where fiction and photography meet
A series of films offers a fascinating picture of an unsung chapter in literary history when prose and photography combined
A still from the film Bruges-la-Morte (1915), based on the Georges Rodenbach novel
Bruges- la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach
Life Is Not Enough by Joe Duggan
In 1928, a time between wars when art travelled to increasingly bold and transgressive places, a pair of seminal tomes fused fiction and photography in an inspired fashion, suggesting bold new possibilities for literature. They were André Breton’s surrealist masterwork Nadja, and Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending farce Orlando.
Both offered dazzling prose with vivid black-and-white images, one illuminating the other perfectly, resulting in audacious one-offs that astonish to this day – though it might be noted that many later editions of Orlando disregarded the photographic element, which was key to Woolf’s wry proto-feminist vision.
The basic concept wasn’t exactly new – examples of “photo-embedded fiction” stretch even further back, to 1892, with the publication of Belgian author Georges Rodenbach’s symbolist novel Bruges- la-Morte, a radical work that later served as an inspiration for Boileau-Narcejac’s seminal French crime novel The Living and the Dead, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Vertigo.
Bruges la Morte
And so it continues: in recent years, the practice has been co-opted by authors as diverse as Iain Sinclair, Stephen King and Jonathan Safran Foer, with perhaps the most noteworthy – and committed – practitioner being the late, great German author WG Sebald, who delivered a remarkable quartet of novels (The Emigrants, Vertigo, Rings of Saturn and, his literary swansong, Austerlitz) that took the concept into intriguing, elliptical territory, with stunning results.
Celebrating the artistic intersection
Now a new series of seven short documentary films, created by the Belfast-based photographic journal Source, in collaboration with The Irish Times, celebrates the artistic intersection between literature and photography – specifically books that either incorporate photographs or whose authors have utilised photos in their composition.
“The two worlds – literature and photography – have always interacted in any number of fascinating and unexpected ways,” says Source editor Richard West, who oversaw the project. “Now, more than ever, those worlds are crossing over regularly, in really intriguing ways, with new technology helping enormously.
“We’re always trying to create a dialogue and that’s ideally what these films are doing: examining the genesis of key works and dissecting individual creative processes while suggesting a bigger picture. We’re looking at the way literature has incorporated photography and vice versa.”
How, then, to label a wantonly unclassifiable sub-genre; one that delights in wilfully defying categorisation at every juncture?
In 1931, Maigret creator Georges Simenon dabbled in the form with a crime tale entitled La Folle d’Itteville, a collaboration with photographer Germaine Krull dubbed a phototexte by the publisher, who scrapped an intended series of follow-up novels after audiences summarily rejected Simenon’s inaugural efforts.