Writer in Residence

An attempt to reclaim the selfie

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I don’t hate writing. Except sometimes I get so sick of it that I need an antidote. My brain has a hard time shutting off so meditating rarely works and I’m not very sporty, plus this antidote needs to engage me creatively, otherwise I’ll just feel guilty about not writing. Long time ago, I realized I could go back to my first love, visual art, and spend some time there while I took breaks from words. I used to paint and draw, then I took up creative photography—I love setting up my shoots, getting dressed up for them, sometimes trespass to take a fun picture. And post-production is immensely satisfying when I get to manipulate my pictures to get the effect I’m after. In that way—planned-out set up, breaking the rules, controlling the audience—my photography is a bit like writing.   

I’ve asked a couple of writers who also partake in visual art about their practice and why they do it and how it does (or doesn’t) complement their writing, and to also tell me about their favourite visual artist.

To start us off, here’s Douglas Anthony Cooper: the author of Amnesia, Delirium, and Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help and a photographer who’s had photos published in Travel & Leisure, Food + Wine, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, etc.

 Before telling me about his art, Cooper says, “I hate writing—I suppose I should mention that—whereas I don’t hate making images.” Repeating this statement later, he adds, “There’s probably something wrong with me.” He says, presently, he spends more time with his camera: “I’ve always been caught between verbal and visual art.  I suppose I’m better known as a writer, but I never studied creative writing—I went to architecture school.  So I have more training in design than I do in prose.  I’ve never studied photography, but for a long time my cash gig was travel writing for New York Magazine, and from the start I photographed my own stories.  My images were mediocre at first, but—as my editor put it—they were still better than the ‘crappy pick-up art’ that the magazine generally relied on.  And after a few years I figured it out.”

As for your current visual pursuit?

“My most recent photographic project is an attempt to reclaim the selfie.  I spent last year in Florence, where you see this odd dichotomy:  not just hordes of tourists with selfie-sticks, ruining the public spaces; but also the Vasari Corridor, which is now a mysterious (and not very public) gallery of self-portraits—some of the most important works in the genre. I decided to put together a series of formal, highly aestheticized selfies, leaning on Renaissance principles of composition and perspective.  Most of these are shot in windows, and I’ve been learning how to collapse the space divided by the glass—in many of my pictures, it’s difficult to tell just where the objects exist in space.  Note that none of these are manipulated (except in ways acceptable in, say, documentary photography:  dodging, burning, etc.) I continued this project when I left Florence, and the image here was actually shot in Siracusa, Sicily.”

And your favourite artist?

"I’m convinced that our greatest living artist is Anselm Kiefer.  That’s hardly a controversial opinion, I suppose.  His work is vast, in every sense:  it transcends media and genre—he’s never been purely a painter, or a photographer, or a sculptor.  In many ways his most interesting projects can be understood as literature or architecture. He’s made actual books:  giant sculptural pieces with leaden covers and decayed photographs; like something you’d dig up from the wreckage of a firebombed city. If I could write a novel that looked something like one of his books, I could die satisfied.”

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.