Literature and Photography: What a powerful combination!

I have always loved reading books. When I was a teenager, I would spend the entire summer in my room reading. It reached a point when my parents hid my books and told me to go outside and play. Yes, it was that bad!  

This passion for reading has become a passion for writing and over time I realized they both are strongly connected to the craft of photography. 

When you read a good book, you are exposed to a certain rhythm of words and ideas. Not only does the order of words develop your sense of flow and composition but most importantly it prompts your imagination to create visuals out of this order. In other words, beautifully arranged words and sentences trigger your imagination to feel, imagine and craft imagery. Just wow! 

In time I found I had a strong connection to the world of photography. After spending years documenting what is in front of me, I became fascinated by the world that we usually don’t see. It is real and present but we just don’t have time, interest or the ability to see it and reveal it in the form of a photograph or a visual poem. The objective of my photographic discoveries has become to uncover this new, intimate world of visuals that is uniquely mine. 

I cannot overemphasize the powerful role of word and imagination in this process. When I walk along the street or travel the less-travelled road I combine my imagination with the visual elements in front of me. Then using different composing techniques, I combine elements to create my own world, or visual sentences if you will. I am using the same processes as in writing. Instead of arranging words, I arrange visual elements to form an image or a visual sentence. Now I understand that years of reading books and visualizing them in my head provides me with a bridge to connect both. I am reaching out to my visual vocabulary that was born out of reading, something I am very grateful for. 

I recently asked my friends on FB, “If you could shoot imagery to portray one book in the history of literature which one would it be and why?” The response was overwhelming and thought-provoking. You, my friends, provided me and others with so much visual inspiration and many ideas. Another WOW to my friends. Well deserved, indeed. 

Let me list some ideas here:

Jose Betancourt chose a true classic, Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  
Jose writes, “As brutal as the story is, I would have loved to portray the changes each kid went through during their time on the island. I could capture their living conditions, interactions with each other, and turbulent times.”

Chris Foley picked The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Chris supports his choice with “It’s a brilliant social allegory that jumps between Cold War Russia and biblical flashbacks set around the time of Christ’s trial. It features Satan who manifests as a professor and his sidekick who takes the shape of a giant bipedal cat. I would shoot it Vanity Fair style with the cast in costume, likely in several separate panels and then assembled into a composite.” 

Tara Elizabeth picked D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. “The illustrations are so magnificent I would love to re-create them with models.”

Russel G. Adcox picked A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. He writes, “It is one of my all-time favourite books and to illustrate it in photographic form would simply be one amazing environmental portrait after another, along with documentary shots that capture the incredible range of emotion written into the story.”

Mike Vincent went with The Agony and The Ecstasy by Irving Stone. “Italy, Rome, Florence, Tuscany, portraits, Michelangelo at work on marble, Sunday Mass in the Chapel while he painted, what a glorious commission.”

Raj Sarkar chose Journey to the Center of the Earth, an 1864 science fiction novel by Jules Verne. This would be an amazing challenge and knowing Raj, a fascinating one. 

Darrell Greer proposed The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. What a fantastic choice! Brutal but so human and timely. Definitely one of my favourites.   

Elena Galani chose Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry “because it was amazing. Or Woodpecker by Tom Robbins just for the surrealism. Or…I can go on forever.” I couldn’t agree more. Great choice, Elena. 

Steven Whittaker Roddy Doyle: A Star Called Henry. “My family were Irish and lived through Cork and Dublin and the country in those dark, dull days…a gritty street photographer’s dream though.”

David Edwards goes with A biography of the life of Margeretha Geertruida Zelle aka Mata Hari, the most famous WW1 spy…you could have awesome fun with it, no question! 

Of course, there were so many other ideas which I cannot list here. Do you get my point? We often focus so much on what’s in front of us that we forget what’s inside us: our memories, imagination and visual wit. No, you don’t need to use Photoshop or any fancy techniques. Just take what’s in front of you and imagine. Take all those pieces, words, memories and feelings and arrange them in a beautiful whole. Show me the world I cannot see and I will show you my world. How about that? Let’s inject some magic into the world of photography.

What do you say, my friends?

During 2020 Visual Poet Experience Workshops we will be exploring these ideas in more details including crafting great imagery based on visuals derived from our memories, imagination and literature. If you would like find out more please check our 2020 schedule and please make sure to book your spot early here.

2019 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

10 thoughts on “Literature and Photography: What a powerful combination!

  1. Can there even be any doubt on this one? To follow the route taken by Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne would be an absolute dream for any photographer.

    You start out on the streets of London and travel on to Paris. Need I remind anyone that ‘The Visual Poet’ himself has held workshops in both those cities. Paris is frequently credited as the birthplace of street photography with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson. From Paris you make your way South to Brendisi and notice a change in the quality of light along with a distinct change in scenery.

    From Brendisi you take a steamer to Bombay via the Suez. You switch gears from ‘street’ to ‘portrait’ mode while on the steamer.

    Engage in the unpredictability of Asian street photography as you make your way East. East to Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan.

    Cross a tiny ocean to the city of San Francisco and the scene changes once again as you embark to cross the great American Continent. Sail across the Atlantic and you are back in London.

    How could any photographer resist a trip like that?

    1. OMG! I love how you planned the entire trip based on this book. I am already starting to imagine photographs we could craft along the route. Fabulous choice my friend!

  2. As always, his themes are very inspiring and motivating … like everyone else, thank you and we constantly follow his work.

  3. Right on as usual, Olaf. Two wonderful books which I treasure and look through all the time are Andre Kertesz’ ON READING AND Lawrence Schwartwald’s THE ART OF READING. The photographs are amazing and moving. The situations wherein both photographers found their subjects are inspiring, funny and humanizing.

    1. Patricia,

      I always enjoy our online interactions. Thank you so much for sharing your choices. Andre Kartesz is one of my favourite photographers of all time.



  4. I am in contact with young poets of my environment, and I try to work just in one phrase or two. It’s easier and fresher, you feel yourself at the edge, even if you are not!

    Best regards

    p.s. texts can be far more from “poetry”, and become experimental. Have you ever thought on Cortázar or Borges? This last one inspired some of Escher images…

  5. What a wonderful topic and writing about it! I would have chosen a story from Raymond Carver. They produce a dense mood, sometimes with despair, and often leave a question to me. And finding those images in everyday life, which produce a certain mood and involve me and the viewer, having not everything clear in the first instance, is great joy. Thanks Olaf!

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