Photography in Fiction


Photo: Marco Merkli

My work on photography in fiction, which spans several national literatures, aims to understand how artistic and documentary truth can be conveyed across the photographic image and what implications this has for a literary text and for the reader's understanding of photography.

In broad terms, I explore the relationship between photography and literature in "Photographic Interventions" (2008), a co-authored introduction to a special issue of Poetics Today on photography in fiction. This introduction provides a detailed overview of the field of study as well as an extensive bibliography of its critical literarure. "Photo-Literary Encounters in Italy" (forthcoming, 2015) is a co-authored piece that also explores the relationship between photography and literature, but with a focus on Italian literature. Both fo these articles serve to introduce readers to this field of study.

In "Reading the Photographic Text with Lalla Romano," (2003), I draw from research in semiotics and communication theory to analyse Romano's treatment of the photographic image as text. The changes she makes (structural arrangement, fewer prospettive di lettura, visual clarity) to her photographic novels serve to instruct readers in the ways of reading and experiencing the image as text. This article builds on the observations I made in "From Photographic Product to Photographic Text" (2001), where I examine Romano's use of ekphrasis alongside the visual reproduction of the same image in several of her documentary fictions. Whereas ekphrasis postulates the photographic image as a mimetic representation of reality, the inclusion of the actual image confirms its status as a text that not only narrativizes (and thus transforms) the real, but also takes on as many readings as there are readers. When the photograph is understood as text, artistic truth is added to its traditional documentary truth and its meaning is freed from the constraints of personal memory.

In "Documenting the Fictions of Reality" (2008), I examine the use of photography in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes to shed light on how the photographic documentary is secured in life writing. It is argued that photographs in life writing invite readers to look beyond what is imaged to their own private experiences, rather than to some sort of universal reality. When photographs are reproduced in literature, the subjective and not the objective is paramount in determining their evidential value. In other words, the photograph's evidential value is secured through a transformative process that is put into play by an active engagement, a stepping into the visual, on the part of the reader.

The question of reader engagement is further explored in "Disenchanted with the Referent: Photography in Emanuele Martino's Cara fotografia: Racconti" (2014). Approaching Martino's collection of short stories as an extended examination of the photograph's referential status and, by extension, of photographic meaning and veracity, I show how it encourages readers to experience the interaction that results between the photographic image and its viewer. I propose that the collection shifts attention away from the camera's or the photographer's connection to its subject to examine the spectator's role in the photographic act. This leads to the conlcusion that Cara fotografia asks readers to revisit and ultimately dismantle their trust in the power of photographic reference.

Photographic reference and its problematic relation to reality and representation is also explored in two articles that examine the use of photography in comics, "Cartooning Ex-Posing Photography in Graphic Memoir" (2012) and "When Photographs Aren't Quite Enough: Reflections onPhotography and Cartooning inLe Photographe(2011). Please refer to the Comics Studies section in Research Interests for the details of these articles.

I have also explored some examples of extreme uses of photography in literature, such as when absent framed photographs or blurry photographs are reproduced in the narrative. In "Le silence photographique, un geste provocateur" (2008), I question the narrative uses of photographic silence in Janice Williamson's Crybaby!. The reproduction of the backs of photographs (replete with scribbles) coupled with captions that problematize the photograph's referential status reveals how the autobiographical "I" risks being concealed (or silenced) behind photographic conventions. To resist the effacement of the "I", Crybaby! adopts provocative narrative strategies that accentuate the silence of photographic images and, by extension, their storytelling properties.

In "Empty Photographic Frames: Punctuating the Narrative" (2014),  my focus is on the narrative function of empty photographic frames  reproduced in a number of literary texts. I propose that the empty frames in Janice Williamson’s Crybaby! (1998), Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1991), and John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Seventh Man (1975) do not merely announce the presence of the visual, but influence meaning-making and reading practices through the varying degrees of containment and freedom the frame offers. I propose that the empty frame is a particular form of graphic punctuation that jolts, stops, blocks readers and asks them to supply information and details that may very well be suggested either verbally or visually, but that ultimately reside within their subjective imagination. In this way, the photographic frame enacts a poetics of photographic reading by making readers acutely aware of their decisive role as readers.

In "Narrated Photographs and the Collapse of Time and Space in Erri de Luca's Non ora, non qui" (2015), I explore photography's relation to time and space.  I show that despite Non ora, non qui's disruption of the photograph's claims of documenting a past time and place, references to photographs nonetheless sustain the image's documentary work. They do so not by confirming the image’s temporal-spatial fixity that relies heavily on the process of its making, but rather by exposing its documentary status as dependant upon the interaction of image and viewer, an interaction that highlights the photographic image’s narrative fluidity.




Nancy Pedri

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