Visible: Text + Image
(Two Lines Press, 2022)
Visible: Text + Image is an anthology of six hybrid works edited by Sarah Coolidge and recently brought out by Two Lines Press, a San Francisco-based publisher specializing in translated books. As its title suggests, the anthology approaches translation as an act that occurs not only between languages but also between media and disciplines. The sixth addition to Calico, publisher Two Lines’s thematic anthology series that covers topics ranging from speculative Chinese fiction to Russian poetry, Visible is the first to pair writing with art. Through this dual lens, fourteen contributors on four continents examine timely and thorny questions about the limitations of witness and testimony, questions that form the backbone of this thoughtfully curated book.
Most of the images in Visible are photographs and many of the texts are meditations on the fraught relationship between past and present in today’s information-saturated attention economy. “The internet is the most complex calligram in existence,” writes artist Verónica Gerber Bicecci in the book’s first chapter. The web is “a network of image-text connections in an ‘invisible’ space, ruled by algorithms and with an interface of users.” Bicecci’s assertions frame the rest of the book; Visible is about the way information mutates and gets away from us.
The second chapter is an ekphrastic short story by French novelist Marie NDiaye, titled “Step of a Feral Cat.” In this story, the genre of historical fiction is taken to task: its narrator, a white researcher at a prestigious university, attempts to write a novel from the point of view of a nineteenth century Black entertainer with nothing but a photograph by Nadar to reference. That her project is doomed to fail is not, at first, apparent but a fact that creeps in as the researcher becomes entangled with a modern-day singer who channels the entertainer in her melodramatic musical performances. The mysterious and ill-fated nineteenth-century entertainer is seen through Nadar’s camera, then through the eyes of a well-heeled twenty-first-century researcher and conflated with the image of a modern-day impersonator, all of which is captured in NDiaye’s French and transformed again by its translator Victoria Baena, who is herself a research fellow in English and Modern Languages at Cambridge. The questions the story poses are formally and socially significant: What is lost and found in the process of translation? Do images tell us anything that words cannot?
These questions are complicated by Polish anthropologist Monika Sznajderman’s “The Boarding House of Memory,” an excerpt from her memoir The Pepper Forgers. Here, Sznajderman describes her family’s boarding house that once stood in the Warsaw suburbs and was used as a clinic for people with respiratory ailments. As she attempts to reconstruct, in lush visual detail, a building that was, along with its inhabitants, destroyed in World War II, she reminds readers that she is working from pre-war photographs, not from lived experience. “I inspect [the photograph] carefully,” Sznajderman writes, “trying to imagine this scene. It’s my way of conjuring [my family members] into life and entering their world—the only way I have.”
In one striking passage, Sznajderman claims that her family photos—her only visual evidence—are “strong and joyful” because they were developed in a functioning darkroom and mailed to the US before the war. “They were expertly developed and the sodium thiosulphate was rinsed off very well,” she explains, “for which there was neither time nor space during the war. This is why there are brown spots, rust-colored stains, smudges, and shadows in most of the photos taken during the Holocaust.” (The spots, stains, smudges, and shadows, in turn, appear to “testify to the Holocaust.”) The photographs reproduced in Sznajderman’s chapter index not only childbirths, family gatherings, and laundry days but also the material conditions that made photography possible. The photograph “thinks,” to quote Bicecci, and speaks for itself.
One of the sharpest and most emotionally focused images in Visible is an untitled black-and-white snapshot that appears in the sixth and last chapter. Taken by Paris-based photographer David Damoison, it shows a middle-aged Black man wearing a trench coat and standing in a waterlogged subterranean corridor, casting the reader a sidelong glance. A poem by French writer Monchoachi is printed beneath it. The poem identifies neither the subject of Damoison’s photograph nor the context in which it was taken. Yet, a story unfolds, if not in facts, then in feeling. A few lines from the poem read, “when the body and writing show themselves / (on dull walls, along dreary / corridors) they don’t speak only of their own / instability, the bitter solitude that slips / from an exhausted glance, they speak of the instability / that belongs to presence in and of itself.” Weighing text against image, and vice versa, presents an opportunity to read and see differently and to momentarily jettison one’s assumptions about historical evidence and truth.
Visible does not fully resolve the tension between its subjects and their interlocutors, “those whose stories have yet to be told” and those who attempt to excavate and communicate scenes from the past. However, associative and incantatory pairings like Damoison and Monchoachi’s deftly approach history by answering generously to its subjects. Past and present come together in a refreshingly collaborative spirit.