A Certain Kind of Distance: Picturing the Art of Moyra Davey

I picked up Long Life Cool White because the book was beautiful and I like the topic: photographs and essays. My sustained interest in looking at photographs is taken as politeness when the subject is someone’s family album or vacation slides; it’s not, it’s genuine. In gallery shops or bookstores I’m lost to time and appointments in the photography section. And the essay is a writing form I admire and where I strive, in my own work, to achieve some competence. I’m glad to have Moyra Davey’s new book, Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays (Harvard University Art Museums, 2008).

I’m taking the premise of the book’s significant essay, “Notes on Photography and Accident,” as it was offered at the outset and read her concluding caveat as an intelligent writer second-guessing or hedge-betting firm conclusions. The caveat is tentative because she punctuates the interrogation of her thesis with provisional words like “while” and “might” and “nonetheless.”

Starting at the end and coming around is consistent with Davey’s including happenstance and surprise and, indeed, accident as components in her work. There’s a group she identifies as her “quartet of writers”: Walter Benjamin, Janet Malcolm, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. She draws, she says, on their insistence on the value of ” … the inherently surrealist contingent, ‘found’ quality of the vernacular photograph.” Here, at the essay’s outset, Davey says, “My goal is to reclaim this critical history of ideas in relation to contemporary photographs, and to understand how the notion of accident might still be relevant.” Accident, and her other stated goal–to make some photographs that spring from language–seeded in words, she said.

The book’s subhead–Photographs and Essays–binds writing and photography. Davey said in a conversation with Border Crossings that it is her intention to link them and that the kind of writing she admires is fragmentary, diaristic–like snapshots. But there’s nothing in reading her photographs that is quick and opportunistic, the way a snapshot comes into being. So, by snapshot I think she does mean fragment, and a subject that is come upon rather than staged or arranged.

There’s a strong, evident connection between Moyra Davey’s reading and writing and the photographs. Susan Sontag is a link among the three forms, being one of the writers on photography, and on accident and surrealism, to whom Davey refers, and because she herself works to achieve her writing. Sontag wrote in her essay, “Photography within the Humanities,” “Every writer has to reach and is constantly aware of how basically it comes from inside; … whereas for photographers, the world is really there,” and Davey quotes her in her own essay as reminder and guide. For Davey “writing seems like the ultimate magic trick,” making something from nothing. But “nothing” is also the place from which her photographs are produced. The generation of accident happens, she says, “outside the frame.” As for physical contiguity, Davey likes the book-sized scale and location of photographs inside books, embedded there, supported and bolstered by the companionship of words…

Buy Issue 108 to read the complete article!

Volume 27, Number 4: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #108, published December 2008.

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