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Distributed for Liverpool University Press

Photo-texts: Contemporary French Writing of the Photographic Image

by Andy Stafford
Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010
246 pp., illus. 8 b/w. Trade, £ 65.00
ISBN: 9781846310522.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Andy Stafford’s book is a welcome and attractive publication to the fast-growing field of intermediality studies, and an exciting enrichment of a series that opens new ways in the study of postcolonial Francophony. The qualities of the book, which should concern more readers than just those interested in contemporary French and francophone culture, can be situated at three levels: the subject in itself, obviously, but also the dialogue that it tries to establish between Anglophone and francophone scholarship as well as the specific accents that are proposed by the author. I will discuss these points in that order.

As far as the subject is concerned, the task of any author writing on the domain of photo-textuality has become a rather difficult one, such has been the almost chaotic development of literature and photography interaction in the last decades. Stafford pays, therefore, a lot of attention to circumscribe his corpus, not always in the most convincing ways, for throughout the book one feels a permanent struggle with the many possibilities of organizing the material. Nevertheless, since the author presents and discusses his own doubts and biases in a very open and self-conscious way, the reader can feel sympathy for his efforts, even if till the end of the book one is left with the impression that other types of classification might have been possible. Nevertheless, the global structure, which leads us from a text inspired by just one picture to a work focused on captioning, is clear and coherent and does certainly not prevent the author from doing what he wants to do. The notion of photo-text is mainly defined by Stafford in terms of “photo-essayism”, a term that is both exclusive and inclusive: it excludes the whole field of the photonovel, while it includes all kinds of textual productions (essays in the traditional sense of the words, but also prose fiction, poetry, captions etc.) that establish a dialogue not just with photography, but with specific photographs on the page. This both very narrow and very open definition allows Stafford to propose a very broad and diverse corpus of nine works, some of them very well known (such as Errance by Raymond Depardon), others less known or rarely introduced in discussions on photo-textuality (such as some works written by Tahar Ben Jelloun). What matters here is less the fact that some usual suspects may be missing (there is for instance no chapter on Sophie Calle) than the fact that the selection made by Stafford really innovates the field: the overall impression one gets from his view on phototextuality is really different than the one that is offered by most French studies on the subject, the main difference being the emphasis on postcolonialism.

The difference and usefulness of this book can also explained by its eagerness to establish a cross-fertilization of Anglophone and francophone scholarship. One of the most paradoxical and painful aspects of globalization is indeed the growing gap between humanist scholarship in these two traditions: Anglophone readers, even very specialized ones, only know of “French Theory” what is available in translation, whereas Francophone scholars like to stress their “cultural exception” to avoid or misread work being done in English (a good example is the long-time refusal or fear of cultural studies in France, a blatant case of cultural blindness which really should have no reason to be). Stafford is doing an important job in this broken dialogue, and he tries to do it in as an objective and impartial way as possible, even if one feels some unease from time to time, not at the level of the theoretical discussions, but at the level of the critical evaluation of some of the works under discussion (Stafford is clearly reluctant to criticize Tahar Ben Jelloun, for instance, whose work presents a number of features that are criticized elsewhere in the book: this stance can only be explained by the greater openness of Anglophone scholars to postcolonial authors). Once again, this is a detail, for Photo-Texts offers many insightful and inspiring confrontations of US/UK and French authors. On the one hand, he carefully demonstrates the interest of the work by WJT Mitchell as well as Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, while at the same time underling also the limits of their respective approaches. On the other hand, he gives a very sympathetic presentation of authors such as Jacques Rancière, André Rouillé and Hubert Damisch, whose names may be (very) familiar to Anglophone readers but whose writings on photography have not yet received the critical attention they certainly deserve. Here as well, the global sympathy of Stafford’s tone does not avert him from making critical remarks, which are dramatically discerning, even for Francophone readers.

The most fascinating aspect of the book, however, is the personal view of photo-textuality that is defended by the author. Four aspects should be stressed here. First of all, Stafford claims that photo-textuality has changed in the 1990s, and he links these changes in a very convincing way to the end of the ‘short 20th Century’ (i.e.1914-1989). Photography has changed after 1989 (and will do so even more after 9/11, but the main focus of the book is on the 90s), and the new relationships between word and image is one of the revealing traces of a change that shatters traditional photographic truth claims. Second, the author underlines in an even more persuasive manner how photo-textuality has become part of postcolonial culture, a point insufficiently made in French scholarship, although Stafford –and I think this is a great quality as well– does not accept the gap between metropolitan and francophone culture. Third, the political turn that underlies the two previous points is strongly linked with the material culture in which photo-textuality appears. The relationship between words in images in this kind of cultural products cannot be separated from certain material conditions such as the book market, to name just one example, and Stafford propose very astute and illuminating readings of the importance of this context, not only for the production of the works but also for their reception (how can one do for instance critical photo-textuality if the work produced is a coffee table book?). Finally, and this might be considered a really important innovation in our thinking on the field, Stafford defends the idea that the relationship between text and image should never ecumenical, but remain as critical as possible. The word critical has to be understood here in its etymological sense of “crisis”: words and images do not only need each other, they also question each other, they break each other open, and in that critical dialogue emerges a third dimension, which Stafford calls “orality”, a dimension that he cleverly relates to the broader field of memory and memory studies.

Last Updated 2 November 2010

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