reviewed by Harry Giles
Interdisciplinary work is a chance for two forms to speak with each other. When works in different media are matched well, two artworks are talking around and about the same thought, feeling, moment or argument – they talk to each other's silences, open up hidden aspects of each other. The dangers in matching poorly, though, are double-underlining and overstating: the artworks, instead of complementing each other, emphasise each other's flaws, making both more shallow.
Too often the images are merely an illustration of one object or one thought from the poem.
Exposure (Falcon Editions, September 2012) matches 40 poems by Jonathan Steffen to 40 photographs “by photographers from around the world”. To pair poetry and photography as an extended book project is still unusual, and it's a beautifully-presented undertaking: designed and laid out well on large pages, with a single full-colour photograph across the spread from each poem. At best, the works illuminate and shadow each other in stimulating ways. But, despite the effort and design, and the strength of individual poems and photographs, too often the photography merely illustrates an inconsequential aspect of the poem, or the two forms draw attention to each other's shortcomings.
The book is strongest with pairings like 'I Drive, You Count the Miles and Navigate'. The photograph here (by Johan Walbrink), takes the journey central to the poem and relocates it to a single track road through Nordic rock and ice. The quotidian travelling of the poem is set against the epic, stark-toned landscape of the photograph – an image quite distinct from the images of the poetry, instead offering a different and enlivening perspective on what a road journey can be.
In contrast, just over the page, the photograph (by Ken McCown) for 'Unter den Linden' is more disappointing. The poem quotes a red rose against a cerulean sky, and indeed the photo is simply a red rose against a cerulean sky, a shot which may as well have been plucked from a stock photo archive or Google Image Search, so little freedom is the photograph given to explore the texture of the poem. When photography is paired with poetry, the camera has to compete with the higher resolution of the mind's eye – the poem's red rose in my imagination outclasses by far even the best-photographed rose. For the pairing to work, we have to ask more of the photographs.
The poetry itself is mostly strong, and many times delightful. Steffen employs throughout a delicate and appealing self-consciousness, as in 'The Moments When We Meet':
The moments when we meet
Alight like a bird on my hand
As a bird might alight on my hand
If birds ever alighted on my hand
Not that birds do so
There is too a joy in sensuality, especially in kaleidoscopic vision. The peculiar language of colour forms the core of several poems, as in 'The Colour of Love', which features, wonderfully, “Scarlet Lake”, “Permanent Green” and “Quinacridone Magenta”. In smaller, quieter poems, meanwhile, there is a world of feeling – in 'Primary Colours', for example, when the poet wishes:
if there were
Another primary colour,
I would miss you
In another way.
This is a kind of immediate demotic speech which is deployed confidently and effectively. It is contrasted throughout by rhymed sonnets and short ballads, which on the surface appear to be from a quite different world, though one equally appealing. I am straightforwardly romantic enough to delight in lines like “Thus should love end, thus should love end / A broken catch one cannot mend” ('Love-Poem for February'). The choice of ballad-form in these poems is not realised in just rhythm and metre, but also in such repetitions, in the consciously archaic signifiers (the “deerskins” of 'The Deer of My Heart', the “battered knight” of 'The Language of the Hart and Turtle-Dove'), and in the high romantic, even chivalric articulation.
The connection between these and the more vernacular poems is the immediacy of their appeal: the simplicity – even naivety – of both forms is complementary. At Steffen's best, their plainness has significance, their transparency is that of a deep, clear pool. It seems important, too, to find a rather traditional or populist voice experimenting with presentation as in Exposure.
However, the same demotic speech sometimes leads the poetry into pitfalls, as when an anonymous lover's “sex” almost unforgivably “opens as a flower” ('French Hotel Room'). The direct appeal of vernacular here does not excuse cliché. Similarly, especially in the colour poems, there is regular recourse to gushing over overwhelming inexpressibility, as in 'Colouring by Numbers' – “The mystically indescribable colouring of the hairs / On your inexpressibly beautiful forearms.” – which comes off more as inarticulate than immediate. The attempt to always be direct can occasionally be merely dull.
It is harder to discuss the photography separately, because the book uses forty different photographers. What consistency of voice there is, is found in the selection rather than in the photography itself. In the subjects, for example, there is a preponderance of thin, white, blonde women, mostly turned away, mostly with heads out of shot or otherwise rendered faceless, plus a few brooding men, who have their facial expressions foregrounded. This is a definite theme, but its result is to make the poets' preoccupation with knights and aristocratic animals ('The Falcon to the Falconer', 'The Language of the Hart and Turtle-Dove', 'Conquistador' and more) seem disturbingly posed rather than charmingly deep.
There is a tendency too for single-layered images: the blue forest (Michael Grobke) of 'The Extent of His Love for Her', the paint splash (Mark Alexa Sporys) of 'Primary Colours', the close up pizza boxes (Louie Maxwell) of 'Pizza for One'. These are all attractive, well-framed photographs, each capturing a single experience, but they lack tension or contradiction. This could still work if the tension were between the photograph and the poem – and when that's there, as in Rita Giulietti's striking, unbalancing photograph for 'The Colour of Your Skin', it's very satisfying – but too often the images are merely an illustration of one object or one thought from the poem. The result patronises the reader, which spoils the directness of the poetry. When the verse speaks in such a straightforward and pleasing way, blandly illustrative photography shallows rather than deepens the voice, as if the poet and editor don't quite trust the reader to cope with more.
Amongst the awkward editorial selection and the cacophony of photographic voices, a few images still sing out. Gabriella Nonino's pavement portrait for 'The Moments When We Meet' has tension and an emotional heart independent of the poem; Gina Soden's astonishingly-sited nude for 'Bury Your Dead' is quite the most striking image in the book. On these pages, the potential of the project is clear.
What's happening with the work, I would argue, is that the photography is not quite being taken seriously as an artform. The photographs have been selected to match the poems after the fact: they have not been taken by artists responding to the poems, nor do they form a narrative of work in the way the selection of poetry does for Steffen. They have been chosen by an editor searching for an image of the poem that they have in their mind, which means the poet is not necessarily speaking to the photographer, nor the photographer to the poet. If more had been invested in the quality and consistency of the photography, and in its own fulfilment as an artform, or if the verse's directness had been trusted to hold its own, this could have been a popular and engaging work; as it is, it's frustratingly patchy and unrealised in its ambitions.