There’s a lot of photography writing that’s all about who can out-quote whom, who can show that their vocabulary is larger than everybody else’s: photographers compete with Megapixels (or film size), writers with words. It’s not that I’m worried about the number of words I know, it’s just that I find those kinds of games tedious. If anything, it’s not the number of words – or quotes – you know that will impress me, it’s your wit, your ability to tell me something new with the least amount of effort: call it style if you will.
Nicholas Muellner got style, in fact plenty of it. I’m convinced he got the words and quotes as well, but he’s a confident enough writer to know that he doesn’t have to compete on those terms. After all, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted (granted, in a different context): “What can be said at all, can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
In the context of art, the second part, the “whereof one cannot speak”, does play a role. Good art writing concerns itself with attempting to do just that, to somehow speak of the unspeakable. But good writers know that when doing so it ought to be done in a clear, simple, elegant manner (not to dive into international art English too much, but it is never elegant — in writing, beauty does matter, too).
A new collection of Muellner’s essays is now available as Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography. The book ought to find itself on photoland’s required-reading lists. It compiles an assortment of essays written by Muellner over the course of the past decade, some of it done as contributions for other books. The largest piece, The Photograph Commands Indifference, was originally published in 2009 and has been out of print for a while.
I’m feeling intensely self-conscious about my own writing, and the projector in me assumes that other writers find themselves in the same position. Whether or not that is in fact true, this projection usually has me refrain from producing criticism that centers on other people’s writing. This is a bit of a problem since this article will not write itself. I could, of course, produce something using my smartphone’s predicative text, but that would feel like a glib gesture, one that doesn’t do the task at hand justice. So then, let’s try…
At the end of The Photograph Commands Indifference, Muellner sums up some thinking around photographs made by tourists. Following Susan Sontag’s lead, tourist photography has been much maligned. “Contrary to Sontag’s damning readings,” he writes, “the tourist photograph is not always an extension of a consumer economy’s blunt equation of acquisition with success.”
And he continues (buckle up!): “The photograph of the monument can also be read as an expression of our desire to mean something when we are away, ripped from the usual props and contexts of home that obfuscate questions of the existential. […] The photograph, including the acts of making, having and showing it, reasserts and reformulates for the individual the core paradox of the monument, you being here makes meaning.” (emphases in the original, p. 197 in the book) Well, yes! And we could easily extend this idea and take it as that, which drives the now much maligned photography on sites like Instagram.
In an obvious way, The Photograph Commands Indifference and the book’s very first essay, Making Doubles, are bookends. But in a larger sense, I feel that here we have this author’s core concerns expressed, namely the idea that somehow through writing one can come closer to understanding the desires that underlie photography.
That possibly is a losing proposition, but it is one very much worthwhile engaging in regardless. Right at the beginning of Making Doubles, Muellner warns the reader that the “essay has failed,” possibly using criteria for the failure that might be too strict. But that is the writer’s task: to set oneself criteria that are too strict. In other words, you set yourself up for (your own) failure.
As readers, we don’t necessarily have to accept these criteria. The writer’s task is not necessarily the reader’s; and even where it is the writer’s failure could still very successfully show the reader some things she has never before imagined.
I already noted above that there is much in Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography that is of immense value and that makes this book a most welcome addition to a canon of writing that all too often is a bit on the dry, if not tedious side. For sure I will come back to Muellner’s advertures often.
Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography; essays by Nicholas Muellner; 208 pages; Self Publish Be Happy; 2019