Posts filed under 'photography'

All That Makes a Life: Jennifer Croft on Writing Her Memoir

Translation requires striking a balance between two people’s voices that can be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

From being the co-winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize alongside the writer Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft has just been announced as a judge of the 2020 International Booker Prize. Croft works across Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, and is currently translating The Book of Jacob, a nine-hundred-page epic by Olga Tokarczuk. She is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize.

In Homesick, Croft’s memoir, words and their meanings shift and shine through in unusual, tender, and life-transforming ways as the subject moves from a family home, to being the youngest person to be enrolled in her undergraduate class, to going through tragic heartbreaks. A most engaging read, the memoir itself has shape-shifted in interesting ways, having started as a Spanish novel and as a blog. The English-language version (Unnamed Press, September 2019) too is accompanied by photographs, which operate as their own language system, bringing, by turns, softness and sharpness to the storytelling. On the occasion of the release of Homesick, poet and previous Social Media Manager of Asymptote, Sohini Basak, spoke to Jennifer Croft over email.

Sohini Basak (SB): I want to start with the photographs. Could you tell us a bit more about the role of photography in childhood and consequently in your memoir?

Jennifer Croft (JLC): Although photography played an enormous role in my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t really remember that until I started writing Homesick. Because I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina when I wrote the book, I wrote it in my strange Spanish, which is both foreign (since I started learning Spanish only in my late twenties) and very local (since I’ve only ever studied and spoken porteño Spanish in Buenos Aires). In that first Spanish-language version (called Serpientes y escaleras, coming out next year with Entropía), that language provided a sense of suspense about where this character from Tulsa, Oklahoma was going to go next, and how she was going to end up speaking the way she did. READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Genealogies, Imprints, and Flights” by Ana Luísa Amaral

in an invisible layer: / an imperceptible figment of skin, and an inherited voice: / more kora than cello / and played to a European beat

In this week’s Translation Tuesday, we follow a moving lyrical meditation on family, belonging, and racial identity in an Angolan-Portuguese family as Ana Luísa Amaral traces the elements of a ‘glorious imperfection’ through music, photography, and the contours of the human face.

Genealogies, Imprints, and Flights

My great-great-grandmother was Angolan and black,
the other day I found her name on the reverse
not of a poem stuffed in a drawer,
but of a piece of paper imprinted
with silver salts and light
READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis

Photography can do that—it can show us what an object really is. Photography is not just the object itself; it is always above it, beyond it.

This week we bring you a final installation of our series featuring Lithuanian writers inspired not only by these excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair.

This excerpt of Darkness and Company is by the prolific Sigitas Parulskis. With a healthy sampling of Plato, this piece explores questions of photography, truth, and beauty as a young photographer goes in search of the perfect light to capture a horrific scene of violence and death during the Holocaust. The jarring and unsettling nature of this piece gives us a taste for the rest of Darkness and Company and reveals an incredibly talented writer. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

The word ‘angel’ was scrawled on the blackboard in chalk. The rest of the sentence had been erased. Angel of vengeance, angel of redemption—it could have been either one.

He got up quietly so as not to awaken the other men and went out into the yard. He couldn’t see the guard, who was probably off dozing somewhere. The Germans were staying at the local police station; the brigade was sleeping in the town’s school. After a night of festivities at a local restaurant, most of the men were indistinguishable from the mattresses spread on the floor.

Vincentas stuffed his camera into his coat and headed off in the direction of the forest. He looked at his watch and saw that it was five in the morning. The sun was just coming up—the best time of the day if you wanted to catch the light. To capture the idea of light, as Gasparas would say. Where could he be now? Underground, probably; still wearing his thick-lensed glasses. Lying in the dark, trying to see the essence of things with his myopic eyes. His grey beard sticking up, his thin hair pressed to his forehead in a black band. Although short-sighted and ailing, he had been a strange and interesting person. His photography students called him by his first name, Gasparas. The photographer Gasparas. It was from Juozapas that Vincentas had first heard about photography, that miracle of light. While still a teenager he had read a few articles and a small book called The Amateur Photographer, and then, when he turned eighteen, he had bought his first camera, a used Kodak retina. But it didn’t go well, so he had found Gasparas. Without his thick-lensed glasses Gasparas couldn’t see a thing. He would take them off, look straight ahead with his strange, empty eyes and say, ‘Now I can see the real world.’

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The Invisibility of the Translator

We were taught to imagine a sliding scale between “Author,” “Text” and “Reader."

For English literature students, it has almost become cliché to mention Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay, The Death of the Author, which argued for prioritizing the reader’s response in the meaning of a text rather than the supposed intentions of the author. As students, we were encouraged to focus more on texts themselves, their connection to other texts, discourses, and historical contexts. Whatever decisions the author may have consciously made were to be treated with heavy skepticism—authors no longer had a say in the interpretation of their own work as much as readers and critics. Like many other literary theorists, Barthes’s text arrived to me through translation, and whole branches of the degree I finished one year ago gave me the chance to study a variety of literature in translation.

I never seriously questioned how a translation can affect the meaning of a text until we were assigned to read the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found it incomprehensible, along with many of my classmates. The one-hour lecture we had as a kind of introduction essentially came to, “Just keep reading the original text and you’ll understand it,” and I remember telling a friend at the time that the actual, original text was in French; perhaps the translation had something to do with it. Granted, even in French Derrida’s text is notoriously difficult to understand, but there could very well have been issues with Spivak’s translation, as one reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books suggested.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “The Unfinished Life of Phoebe Hicks” by Agnieszka Taborska

The prospect of death, however, releasing her once and for all from any obligation to taste the fried fare, was not entirely unwelcome.

Rendered with a light touch, the fictional story of Phoebe Hicks is just as much about the place in which the action unfolds (nineteenth-century New England) as it is about its heroine, the inspired star of spiritualist séances. In the ingeniously composed miniatures that make up the book’s chapters (we present just a few of them below), Agnieszka Taborska consistently steers a middle course between rationality and the creation of a deception, between humour and erudition. Don’t miss the duel between Harry Houdini and our protagonist!

Clam Fritters

The theory that a piece of stale clam, which had found its way into a culinary delicacy known across New England, gave birth to Spiritualist photography is no exaggeration. Precisely this toxic morsel was the root of the madness possessing the hearts and minds of New England puritans for decades to come.

 On 1st November 1847 Phoebe Hicks returned home earlier than usual. Barely over the threshold, she rushed into her bedroom and instead of climbing onto the high and, by today’s standards, rather short bed ran straight to the washstand. She leaned over and threw up—once, twice, unable to control herself even after the third time. She vomited all night, occasionally rinsing her perspiring face in water from the blue sprigged ewer. After only an hour, she had nothing left inside but brown bile, which she continued to bring up. Strands of black hair escaped from her tightly-wound bun—stiff, sticky, stinking—and clung to her cheeks like seaweed. She shivered all over—hands numb, head splitting from the violent convulsions. Her back ached, jammed like her knees in an awkward position.

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In Conversation with Michael von Graffenried

"I’m a bit like a plant, I put down roots somewhere and then I see what grows."

Michael von Graffenried is what one might call a global photographer. He has projects from all over the world, slowly translating different worlds and lives into photographs. From Bern, Switzerland, he started out taking candid photos of the Swiss Parliament. His first major global work is from Algeria, where he went to document the civil war with a panoramic camera held at his waist. He has also taken photos in Egypt, India, New York, Germany, and many more. He works between Bern, Paris, and Brooklyn.

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AR: You’ve done a lot of work with candid photos. What do you think is the advantage of that when you’re in a foreign country?

MVG: I don’t think it has to do with the foreign country, I think that the human being is different if he knows that he’s being photographed than if he doesn’t know that he’s being photographed. People behave differently when they know. Today, when you take up a camera, everyone knows it’s there. I like the real situation. People act differently, without the interference of the photographer. You have to be quick, and you have to be discreet. The best thing is not to put the camera in front of your eye, because then if even if they see the camera, they could think it’s at rest. That’s why the camera is only on the belly, because people can’t imagine that you could shoot blindly. With the rise of the digital camera and cameras on phones, shooting blindly is more common. But in 1991 and in Algeria, nobody thought I could shoot like that.

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Finding Quiet Places: Interviewing Guest Artist Cody Cobb

Berny Tan, Asymptote's lead graphic designer, in conversation with the artist behind our July Issue.

Photographer Cody Cobb is Asymptote’s guest artist for the July issue. His poignant snapshots—a departure from the breathtaking landscape imagery that defines his practice—grace nineteen of our texts in the Fiction, Nonfiction, Drama, and Multilingual Writing feature sections. I interviewed him about his artistic motivations, his affinity for landscapes, and his experience contributing to Asymptote.

Berny Tan: I’d like to start with a question about your own photography practice. You describe your photography as “attempts to capture portraits of the Earth’s surface, devoid of human interaction and interference.” What motivates and informs this approach?

Cody Cobb: Finding quiet places to be alone on a planet with over 7 billion humans is my motivation. This seems to be getting harder, so I end up trekking way out into the mountains and forests. READ MORE…

Art Talks: the Photography of Andrea Modica

"Many believe photography is different from language, that it is less culturally contingent. But Modica questions such oversimplifications."

Looking at the work of Andrea Modica, professor of photography at Drexel University and recent recipient of the 2015 Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media, is a bit like reading a poem for the first time in translation. Engaging with her images, I am struck by the knowledge that I carry my own culture alongside my language, and that my language brings me to my experience of Modica’s photography.

This is to say that what results is a harmonious coexistence of estrangement and intimacy with the image. It’s widely understood that you can never really read the same poem in translation. Many believe visual art (and specifically photography) is different from language, that it is somehow less culturally contingent, or even a container for a sort of singular, “universal” meaning.

But Modica’s work is particularly poetic in that it boldly questions such oversimplifications, drawing attention to the language systems that inform our diverse understandings of images. In one black-and-white photograph, a distinctive silhouette emerges from behind a long, pale curtain, both defined and obscured by its paper or canvas-like veiling. To the viewer, the semiotics of this shadow, with its distinct black and white contours, constitutes a horse. READ MORE…