Ensnaring the Moment: Excerpt from a talk delivered at the Tuesday Noon Academy, Malott Commons

by Leah Ollman '83

So often in writing about photography, I have described a work as poetic. This talk was born out of challenging myself to figure out what, after all, I mean by that. Is there more to it than innocuous generalization?

Likewise, in reading poetry, especially contemporary poetry, often an image or experience is conjured that feels photographic, like a slice snatched from the continuum. It’s easy to tag those sensations with a single word. Is that gratuitous? Or is there more to it?

I realize that it’s as foolhardy to generalize about poetry as it is about photography, since each can assume so many different forms. Each has a multiplicitous nature, and like any medium, resists a singular definition. Photography is said to be a slice of reality, a distortion of reality; a moment petrified, a moment prolonged; a way of freezing time, a way of slowing time; a means of devouring time and honoring time, defying it and yet succumbing to it. Is a photograph a moment embalmed, or a moment revivified? Does the photographic act clarify or does it complicate?

Poetry emits the same deliciously mixed signals; it refutes the same kind of succinct summation that it itself can be so good at. The poetry I’m interested in addressing here is lyric.The poems are musical, brief, based on incident or impression, unlike the ballad or narrative, which might more commonly be filled with events or storytelling.The narrative and the ballad might bear comparison to film, but the concentrated quality of the lyric poem relates to the still photograph in its approach to time, moment, and space.

The reciprocity between painting and poetry has run high at least since Horace declared them sister arts: as in painting, so in poetry. It was common among the Pre-Raphaelites, for instance, to work in both and to stage dialogues between works in the different forms. Photography’s history is obviously not as long as painting’s, and there are fewer examples of poems and photographs made to speak to one another. Not enough examples, probably, to call them sister arts. But another sort of kinship seems to be at work.

A poem can get to the heart of a photograph by a different route than any other more expository form of writing, and there’s something reciprocal happening there, too.When photographs and text appear together in the press or in documentary works, conventionally one of the forms is primary and the other subordinate.There are exceptions, of course, but in general, text captions the image or the photograph illustrates the text.Words explain, images verify.

When photography and poetry are joined, the balance of power usually follows a different model. Both forms occupy common, shared territory, neither dominating the other.That shared territory has more to do with evocation and sensation than verification and explanation.

There is much solid evidence of intersection—poets writing in response to particular photographs, photographers catalyzed by certain bodies of poetry—but also something more, indicating a deeper resonance between the two media.

To start with, photography’s own etymology connects it to writing: photography literally means writing with light.A great many poems focus on light and time, photography’s two essential ingredients. Illumination is at the heart of both enterprises, the illumination of something evanescent, intense, fleeting.

Poetry and photography also share terminology that derives, I believe, from deep affinities in their relationships toward space, time, and the specific moment.

The words stanza and camera both mean chamber in Italian. Both the stanza and the camera are means of enclosure, of framing, articulation of one space or view apart from the rest. Both the stanza and camera act to isolate and contain within a defined space: the frame; the walls; the limits of the text. Both inscribe as well as circumscribe. The photograph, like the poem, is a contraction of experience.The world in a room. Its nature is defined by abbreviation and distillation.

In both the lyric poem and the image defined by the camera, the walls of that chamber are key.The edges are always acknowledged, the boundaries kept within sight. In photography, especially, there is a heightened consciousness of edges.The edge, the wall, edits out all else outside of it.This sounds self-evident, but isn’t true of other media, such as painting.The world of a painting is self-contained within the work.With photographs, generally, the world continues beyond that frame, so where those edges are imposed is all-important. In poems, too, brevity is implicit and lines break with intention, relating to breath, rhythm, pacing.And to the visual presence of the words on the page.

Both photography and poetry engage the fugitive, the fleeting.As the artist Chuck Close describes it,”Paintings exist in novelistic time, and photographs, because they are instantaneous, exist more in poetic time.”The photographer and writer Wright Morris referred to snapshots as “time’s confetti.” How much alike poems and photographs can feel, both of them concise slivers of the whole, blinks of time and sensation. How they draw upon and feed into memory, too, is alike. Both are born of the private and the immediate.

The act of making a photograph has been commonly likened to the act of pointing. Poems, too, according to a definition from W.S. Merwin, are a form of attention. Recognizing something particular in a moment and seizing it. Photographs and poems both extrapolate from the act of witnessing.They derive from discovery and recognition, often working on the plane of the everyday and familiar.

In an introduction to his book Breathing Room (2000), Peter Davison summarizes well some of the affinities between poems and photographs. He says he was tempted to call his poems audiographs, “since, like photographs, each is of a particular dimension and utilizes the same aesthetic…each is intended to evoke a mood, a scene, an enigma, the unfolding of a metaphor, the entrapment of an idea, in a space or shape that will contain it without killing it.”

Wright Morris, photographer and writer, maker of books that combine his work in both fields, describes his working practice, when writing, as photographic, having to do with an eye for detail and for the moment arrested:”I do not give up the camera eye when I am writing—merely the camera.”

Both photography and poetry are practices, but the photographic and the poetic are also catchall terms for manners of experience that feel closely related, having to do with distillation, concentration, density, concision, compression, the evocative and singular.

The singular eye of the photographer is akin to the singular voice of the poet. (By contrast, think of the multiple viewpoints assumed by a film director, or the multiple voices channeled by a novelist.) A photograph is an exposure—of the scene before the lens, and the photographer’s take on that scene. Perhaps poems are exposures of a similar nature.

Where, then, do photography and poetry intersect? How do they relate to one another? Maybe not as sister arts, but perhaps as soul-mates, resonating on a deep level when apart, and when together, always keeping each other’s best interest at heart.