In his biweekly column, Pinakothek, Luc Sante excavates and examines miscellaneous visual strata of the past.
Fotonovela, fumetti, roman-photo—the terms betray the fact that the form never got much traction in the Anglo-Saxon realm. There is no word for it in English, exactly. You could say “photo-comics,” but you’d risk being misunderstood. These narratives, often but not always romantic, are conveyed by means of photographs arrayed in panels on a page, with running text often in talk balloons. Their impact has been almost entirely restricted to countries that speak Spanish, Italian, or French; their readership is overwhelmingly female, at least in Europe. Their history formally begins in 1947 in Italy, in the magazine Grand Hotel, soon followed by its French sibling, Nous Deux; both magazines still exist. Fotonovelas flourished in the fifties and early sixties (into the eighties in Latin America), then began a slow decline that still refuses to yield to extinction.
The culprit of their near-demise, of course, was television, in combination with social anxiety. Fotonovelas were associated with the poor and unlettered (my mother aspirationally ignored their weekly appearance in Femme d’Aujourd’hui, to which she subscribed for almost fifty years), the naive and sheltered and perhaps delusional. Roland Barthes, having written that “love is obscene precisely in that it puts the sentimental in place of the sexual,” went on to call Nous Deux “more obscene than de Sade.” Some years earlier, in a less militant phase, he noted of the fotonovelas that “their stupidity touches me” and ranked them with other “pictographic” forms, such as stained-glass windows and Carpaccio’s Legend of St. Ursula. There are even more specific antecedents, although no record of actual influence: Nadar’s famous conversation with the centenarian chemist Michel Chevreul was published as sequential captioned photographs in Le Journal Illustré in 1886, and La Folle d’Itteville, the collaborative photo-novel by Germaine Krull and Georges Simenon, was published in 1931. Read More