Poets on Photography
December 10, 2014 | by John Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach, Richard Howard, and Ben Lerner
The latest issue of Aperture magazine focuses on the relationship between literature and photography. The editors were kind enough to share the feature below, in which four poets discuss some of their favorite photographs. It appears in Aperture magazine #217, Winter 2014, “Lit,” as “Collectors: The Poets.”
Sergio Larrain, Boulevard Saint-Germain, Before the Deux Magots Café, 1959.
I lived in Paris mostly from 1955 to 1965. This photograph, called Boulevard Saint-Germain, Before the Deux Magots Café, Paris 1959, is by Sergio Larrain. The Café Deux Magots was a favorite hangout of mine, at least when I was flush enough to afford it. I could conceivably have been there when the picture was taken. The photograph sums up beautifully the atmosphere of Paris on a rather chilly autumn afternoon, with well-dressed and well-behaved tourists sipping their café exprès and two fashionable cars, a sports car and a sedan. The three people chatting around the sports car are almost crystallizations of Parisians of that now distant era. The young man at far left, with his back to the camera, is an iconic silhouette of the time, with pleasantly rumpled clothes and both shoes planted firmly on the pavement. I keep this card tucked into a picture frame over my desk to remind me of the past in all its melancholy variety.
The Fellowship Photograph (Portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein), 1929.
I live in an old schoolhouse, built in 1885, in Germantown, New York. It has a large room with south-facing windows. Along the walls, above wainscoting, at about waist height, there is a very narrow, slightly indented shelf that, I am told, once held chalk. It now supports my collection of poetry chapbooks and the occasional postcard portrait of writers: Proust, Samuel Beckett, and this startling one of Ludwig Wittgenstein, known as The Fellowship Photograph, taken by an unknown photographer. It was sent to me some years ago by the poet Mónica de la Torre, with a note about a piece of mine she was publishing in the Brooklyn Rail. For so many years, postcards stitched us to one another and to the world! The Wittgenstein photograph is unsettling; it’s as if he can barely see out from his mind’s fervent activity. There’s something eerie about looking back at him, into his uncomfortable, intelligent eyes, and thinking about the silence that every photograph compels us to acknowledge. I think about this silence often, and the indifference of images to it, and the ways in which captions try, but ultimately fail, to undermine it. Wittgenstein thought a lot about the relationship of silence to words, which is probably why so many poets cherish his writing. He is very good company.
David Alexander, Dogs and Hydrant, 2014.
I have lived with this photograph taken by the artist David Alexander for the last five years. It consists of a repetitive frieze of three horizontal rows of the same alternating pair of dogs’ faces beneath a slender horizontal strip of what is too severely cerulean to be an indubitable sky. The two dogs’ multiplied faces stare straight ahead, interrupted only on the lower right corner of these repeating posters by four identical placards of an oddly shrimplike image which eclipses all but the sable ear tips of one puppy and the even sabler nose and chin of the other. In front of the dogs is an alluring fire hydrant which offers a curiously practical attraction to the multiple pairs of dogs. Considering the shiny wet surface in which the hydrant stands, it is possible, even likely, that all the poster dogs have already taken advantage of the opportunity.
Stills from Chris Marker, La Jetée, 1962.
Chris Marker’s La Jetée is composed entirely of stills—save for one brief shot of a woman opening her eyes. This image—the last shot in the photomontage before it briefly becomes a “motion picture”—is a photograph on the verge of becoming film, a flickering between media and their distinct temporalities. I’ve had various images of the image: a cellphone capture of it from a screen, a page in the book version of La Jetée—and what I find most haunting about the photograph is that I always feel her eyes are about to open, to look at me. All photographs I can think of are in the past tense, even if it’s the instant past of Instagram—except for this one, which I feel like you have to be careful not to wake.
John Ashbery is the author of more than twenty volumes of poetry. He has been the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and a MacArthur Grant, among many other honors.
Ann Lauterbach received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1986 and a MacArthur Grant in 1993. Her most recent book is Under the Sign. She teaches at Bard College.
Richard Howard, as you can tell, is a devoted dog lover as well as a teacher and translator, notably of works by Baudelaire and Barthes. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 and a MacArthur Grant in 1996. His latest book of poems, A Progressive Education, was released this fall.
Ben Lerner is the author of three books of poetry, and the novel Leaving the Atocha Station. His second novel, 10:04, was released in September.
This piece originally appeared in Aperture #217. Reprinted with permission.