The much-lauded writer Teju Cole re­turns to pho­tog­ra­phy

Pho­tog­ra­phy critic Teju Cole chal­lenges our per­spec­tive with a ‘travel’ book that crosses bor­ders and gen­res. It highlights how our own vi­sion can warp re­al­ity, Saul Auster­litz writes

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This book is enough to make the av­er­age per­son jeal­ous. Teju Cole has spent the past decade or so trav­el­ling the world, pri­mar­ily in his guise as a cel­e­brated writer of fic­tion and polem­i­cal es­says, tak­ing pho­to­graphs of what he has seen. From LaGuardia air­port in New York to Beirut, to Rome to Nairobi to Zurich, Cole has come back with ev­i­dence of the phys­i­cal world, al­ways seen at a tilt.

Cole, the pho­tog­ra­phy critic for The New York Times Mag­a­zine, has writ­ten at length about his work in the past, and each of his pre­vi­ous three books have in­cluded pho­tos in­ter­spersed in the text, in the vein of the late W G Se­bald’s work. Blind Spot re­verses the for­mula, with hun­dreds of Cole’s pho­to­graphs il­lu­mi­nated, ex­plained or mys­ti­fied by brief snip­pets of text.

It feels sur­pris­ingly chal­leng­ing to de­scribe a writer’s vis­ual work, when he has al­ready taken a first stab at those de­scrip­tions. But as those fa­mil­iar with his ear­lier ef­forts might ex­pect, Cole prefers im­ages that ini­tially sur­prise and con­found the sense of sight.

We look at what ap­pears to be a class­room set up on a city street, or a stand of palm trees on an Omaha side­walk, and it takes us a long mo­ment to dis­tin­guish the real from the imag­ined. Cole is teach­ing us to see af­ter his own fash­ion: “This in part was why signs, pic­tures, ads, and mu­rals came to mean so much: they were nei­ther more nor less than the ‘real’ el­e­ments by which they were framed.”

A crab­bier critic might ar­gue that Cole’s book is symp­to­matic of a cul­ture ill-in­clined to close Twit­ter and im­merse fully into a work of lit­er­a­ture that de­mands our at­ten­tion. There may be some­thing to that, but Blind

Spot aligns nicely with re­cent work by Sarah Man­guso, Sheila Heti, and Jenny Of­fill.

The text en­tries here are some­times akin to para­bles, some­times to frag­ments of an imag­ined larger text, some­times to acidu­lous po­lit­i­cal com­men­taries, some­times to di­ary en­tries. At times, the pho­tos di­rectly de­pict the ac­tion de­scribed in the text; at oth­ers, the re­la­tion­ship is loose at best. Cole ex­pects our oc­ca­sional con­fu­sion, and he seeks to stem our frustration with hints stud­ded through the book: “Your progress is not a line, di­rect or wind­ing, from one point to an­other, but a flick­er­ing se­ries of scenes.”

The scenes here are or­gan­ised loosely the­mat­i­cally, rather than ge­o­graph­i­cally. Chris Marker’s un­clas­si­fi­able mas­ter­piece Sans

Soleil, about an­other world trav­eller, is a touch­stone here (“I pray to Tarkovsky, Marker, and Hitch­cock,” notes Cole), and like spot­ting cats in Marker’s films, Cole ex­pects at­ten­tive read­ers to iden­tify res­o­nances across con­ti­nents and eras. That photo of the ho­tel ar­moire looks fa­mil­iar from the 2016 es­say col­lec­tion Known and

Strange Things; these pho­tos are all of lad­ders, ev­ery­where from an Italian ceme­tery to Cern, the high-en­ergy physics lab­o­ra­tory, in Switzer­land.

Cole’s fram­ing is per­pet­u­ally off-kil­ter, de­lib­er­ately cho­sen but pur­pose­fully es­chew­ing con­text. One com­pelling shot of a young man, hoodie flung over his head, talk­ing in a New York phone booth, is art­fully framed to take in just enough of the sur­round­ings and streetscape to tell us pre­cisely noth­ing about where the pic­ture might have been taken. Cole wants to con­found and con­fuse us, wants us to hunger for the per­spec­tive that he re­fuses to pro­vide.

A pho­to­graph, in Cole’s equa­tion, is less about what is de­picted than what is not, just as a pho­tog­ra­pher is less the sum of his im­ages than of those po­ten­tial im­ages he es­chewed, ig­nored, or over­looked: “A pho­to­graph, which can­not con­tain all that swag­gers on the eye, can at the same time re­veal what the pho­tog­ra­pher did not see at the time.”

A plas­tic wa­ter bot­tle on a res­tau­rant ta­ble in Fer­rara sur­prises Cole by look­ing dis­arm­ingly sim­i­lar to the cam­panile de­picted in a paint­ing on the wall be­hind it.

The book is it­self named af­ter an es­say of Cole’s, first col­lected be­tween hard cov­ers as the coda to Known and Strange Things. In it, Cole is at a writers’ res­i­dency in up­state New York (that trav­el­ling bug again) when he wakes one morn­ing to find “a gray veil across the vis­ual field of my left eye”. The mal­ady is ul­ti­mately di­ag­nosed as pa­pil­lophlebitis, and Cole’s doc­tor told him it was un­likely to re­cur. “But of course big blind spot did re­cur,” Cole con­cludes. “That in­sur­gent area of dark­ness took over my eye, and I re­turned to the hospi­tal later in the year, and again it cleared up. And I ex­pect that it will hap­pen again, and again, un­til it is sup­planted by some­thing worse, as it was writ­ten.”

This story of a fright­en­ing but mostly be­nign health scare comes to stand for some­thing more for the au­thor, a me­mento mori and a philo­soph­i­cal re­minder of the lim­i­ta­tions of the artist. Dark­ness is for­ever en­croach­ing, some­times with­out our knowl­edge, and the in­sur­gents are for­ever on the move. Vi­sion and pho­tog­ra­phy and mor­tal­ity are like vines that wrap around each other un­til where one starts and an­other ends grows un­clear. For Cole, his books, too, are all ten­drils of the same branch, “so that at times I feel as though the pho­to­graphs and cap­tions in Blind

Spot have es­caped from a novel named Open City, or that there are things said here, and which be­long here, that first be­longed in Known and Strange Things.”

If any sin­gle im­age can be said to cap­ture the dis­arm­ing aes­thetic of Cole’s work, it may be a seem­ingly sim­ple pic­ture of a peel­ing, bro­ken screen door, taken in the up­state New York town of Tivoli. A closer look re­veals con­found­ing ques­tions, and a riot of com­pet­ing tex­tures: painted wood, metal han­dle, plas­tic tarp­ing, mesh screen­ing. Where do we look first? What is pri­mary, and what is sec­ondary?

Our eyes warp re­al­ity, un­able to en­tirely re­solve the ques­tion of the re­la­tion­ship of fore­ground to back­ground. There is, quite lit­er­ally, noth­ing of in­ter­est in Cole’s pho­to­graph, and yet the pic­ture asks us to con­sider the au­thor-artist’s con­nec­tive, sug­ges­tive aes­thetic: “It is also the way those things re­late to one an­other, the way they com­bine and re­com­bine.”

The pho­to­graph it­self raises the ques­tion of how things, known and strange, re­late to each other, and the di­chotomy of im­age and text, of two dif­fer­ing but over­lap­ping means of ex­pres­sion, raise it anew. Which here is meant to be the text, and which the com­men­tary? To which do we di­rect our at­ten­tion first?

Cole has no an­swers, although there are hints in the text of how he might pre­fer us to con­sider his work. “I Sell the Shadow to Sup­port the Sub­stance,” Cole quotes So­journer Truth on her pho­tog­ra­phy side busi­ness, but for Cole, which is shadow, and which sub­stance? “This book stands on its own,” Cole tells us near Blind Spot’s con­clu­sion. “But it can also be seen as the fourth in a quar­tet of books about the lim­its of vi­sion.”

Blind Spot is ul­ti­mately nei­ther a pho­tog­ra­phy book nor an es­say col­lec­tion, its im­plicit de­sire to frus­trate any and all such as­sump­tions about what we might ex­pect from it. It is a travel book not much in­ter­ested in travel: “I keep de­fer­ring my ar­rival at the des­ti­na­tion. The des­ti­na­tion is to ar­rive at this per­pet­ual de­fer­ral, to never reach the des­ti­na­tion. I dream all day. At night I dream of drift­ing.”

In­stead, Cole is aim­ing for a hy­brid in­spired by Se­bald but not en­tirely akin to The Rings

of Saturn or Auster­litz (no re­la­tion). It is the shock of the new that mo­ti­vates Cole to lift his cam­era to his eye, to place his fin­gers above his key­board: “When I make a work, no mat­ter how small, no mat­ter how doomed to be for­got­ten, only its po­etic pos­si­bil­ity in­ter­ests me, those mo­ments in which it es­capes into some new be­ing. If ev­ery­thing else suc­ceeds but the po­etry fails, then ev­ery­thing has failed.”

Saul Auster­litz is a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Re­view.

Rob Stothard / Getty Im­ages

Amer­i­can writer and pho­tog­ra­pher Teju Cole in Ra­mal­lah, West Bank, 2014. His im­ages are of the phys­i­cal world seen at a tilt.

Blind Spot Teju Cole Ran­dom House, Dh147

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