A sixth of the way into this book of photographs by Teju Cole, the author includes a picture of a rubbly street in Lagos. The accompanying text, though, discusses the art of American painter Cy Twombly, which interests him, he tells us, for its use of open space.
“Like having two rooms in a New York City apartment that you use for nothing,” Twombly’s scribbles strike Cole as “an indefensible spatial luxury”. It’s here you realise the picture that faces this brief discussion is mostly of a mirror, and its own internal spaces seem suddenly huge and harsh; the street scene in the photograph is both there and not.
This is just one of 150-odd pairings of text and photographs in Blind Spot, but it illustrates much of the appeal. Cole takes ordinary pictures and spins them into ordinary observations, but does so with speed and panache. What he calls the “small, dark room” of the camera is an investigative space, and its operations become metaphors for metaphors. Twombly and New York real estate are representative touchstones of this educated and cosmopolitan book, and the author hops among them with expressive grace.
While the book is a tour of largely unlinked images and ideas, each of them bound together for a double-page span, it works because Cole is a strong analyst of form, a skill handy in both the styling of prose and the production of photography. Many of the images here are classical compositions, as in Zurich, in which warm blues and oranges balance into shapes that turn out to be an obstructed view of a faraway wave.
The book is lent authority by its serious production – it’s a heavy volume cloth-bound in olive green – but also by Cole’s leanings towards convincing epigrams, the audacity to make substantial claims about the world. “A folded drapery is cloth thinking about itself,” he proposes in Nuremberg. Or: “Darkness is not empty. It is information at rest.” A lot of thinking happens in this book, in not so many paragraphs, and much of it invites the reader to quote it out of context.
And yet the context matters; image and text are linked. “Now the landscape is long settled, like a reputation,” he writes in Muottas Muragl, a section of the Alps. “Nevertheless, in one enciphering corner of my mind I believe still that every line in every poem is the orphaned caption of a lost photograph.” This photo depicts mountains, but it’s about corners, too: the viewer is kept from taking a clear look at the landscape by the hazy opacity of a glassy shield. The picture is divided by the dark lines of a railing, and anchored by the intersection where those dark lines meet. In other words, an enciphering corner.
Sometimes the writing functions as a praxis on photography; many sections can be used to position thinking on craft. These sections are balanced with those that focus on objects, which are meaningful beyond the act of capturing their forms. “It holds violence in reserve,” Cole writes in Milan. “It is symmetrical, as are most vertebrates. It is in fact bipedal, like the animal that stands up, the animal that can mourn strangers.” Here he is discussing scissors on a bedside table, lying closed and perfect in a broken field of light.
In some of these passages the writing risks feeling overblown, doing double-duty with the photographed objects. But Cole also ensures the book contains a counterargument. “What work are the words in this book doing?” he writes in the Qadisha Valley. “These words are excessive, the way a dancer must be excessive, must always give a little more than is necessary. The extraness of the dancer must nevertheless maintain the illusion of economy.”
He explains in a postscript that the book should stand on its own, but also joins his novel, Open City, and his two books of nonfiction as “the fourth in a quartet of books about the limits of vision”. With those three books it shares an outward focus, good curatorial instincts, deep knowledge and a plain tone, as well as a nice sense of when to move from one topic to another.
Blind Spot does circle around an upsetting narrative, a stone it spends more time on than others and which anchors the book. “I sat there for hours and watched the sun slip across the landscape,” writes Cole in the caption of a beautiful photograph of a mirrored wardrobe in Zurich, water reflected on glass, with a tiny ship slipping along it. “The point is to shatter serenity; the absurdity of contrast between before and after is the very point.” We realise he must be discussing something else: the light and ship aren’t shattering serenity, they’re building a slow sense of time.
“I am haunted especially,” he continues, “by the innocuous phrase I saw in a news article – ‘in hotels popular with Westerners’ – for these are the most frequent targets, and these are the places where I spend my days and do my work.” It’s a hotel room in Zurich. But Cole’s thoughts are somewhere else. In 2013, the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor was shot dead by terrorists at Nairobi’s Westgate mall, while Cole was in the same city giving a reading. He’d met Awoonor that morning.
An argument begins to build across the book. “Finally it’s not what one person does to another, it’s not usually that,” Cole writes in Rome. “It’s the superstructure of the way we understand ‘other’, but even if life is only properly understood in the general, it must be lived in the particular.”
Siri Hustvedt, in a foreword, notes the “photographs in this book have little to do with the glossy and gorgeous scenic images that weigh down coffee tables all over the world. … They emphasise the pedestrian.” They emphasise a body living in the daily world, creating the general from the particular. CR
Faber, 352pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "Teju Cole, Blind Spot".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.