The first question with Mikiko Hara’s and Stephen Dixon’s Change is how to read it. The photobook, the first published by the Gould Collection, interleaves Hara’s photographs with a short fiction by the novelist Stephen Dixon. The photos are printed on a fine white semi-gloss paper; the pages of the story are on a blue rag paper and an inch shorter on the far side than the rest of the book. The two papers keep words and pictures nicely distinct.
Which is good. Even though I’m both a novelist and photographer, I like my disciplines separate, and I’m hardly alone. In a recent interview William Eggleston says, “It’s tricky. Words and pictures don’t—they’re like two different animals. They don’t particularly like each other.” Of course Eggleston isn’t talking about a book like Changes as much as what his interviewer wants from him, to comment on his own work, though he probably also is talking a bit about what I’m doing here, writing words about photobooks … but still.
So, again, how to read Changes? I chose to take it first as a photobook, looking only at the shots, in order, moving through the book. Hara’s photos, her in-book bio tells us, “capture the random people and places of her daily existence,” and that they seem to do. There’s nothing self-consciously arty here, nothing particularly dramatic, just somewhat washed-out, seemingly casual shots of those daily people and places. (The work of Masafumi Sanai comes to mind.) Yet there’s not a weak photo in the bunch, and even if the photos are intentionally random, the power of their being in a book comes through: The photos begin to imply a small, secret, but telling story.
I can’t tell you what Hara’s story is, at least not yet. So now it’s time to read Stephen Dixon’s actual story, “Change.”
Whew, good job! Short, intense, focused on a random man and his daily dayness, exhorted at the beginning by a woman in his life to change, to lose his “cynicism, scorn, arrogant egotism and unsociability, and overall unfriendliness.” Fair enough, right?
The nameless man has a plan. He’ll start “from the most elementary human intercommunication and gradually [work himself] up to the most complex.”
How hard can this be? He’ll simply start saying “Good morning” to everyone he meets.
And here’s where Dixon’s story lays down a deep floor of meaning under Hara’s own daily dayness. In the story “Change” the nameless man’s effort to be welcoming and friendly to everyone at first simply annoys people, then really upsets a boy, who threatens to call the police, which brings a crowd, and suddenly our narrator is in jeopardy. So much for good will. Turns out everybody on the street’s too busy to make too much of him, so he’s off the hook, only to keep crying out “Good morning” loudly enough to draw the ire of a man in an apartment who thinks this ostensible civility is all way too early in the day and tosses a bag of garbage at the narrator.
So underlying our most casual, well-intentioned daily civility lies anxiety, indifference, fear, and anger? And our hopes of changing for the better? How quickly do you want a bag of garbage thrown your way?
Hmnn, good to know.
And I sense that Hara knows all this, too.
The photos in Change are deep in emotion. The young woman gazing wistfully out a subway window; faded not-quite-golden straw windblown before a train track; a woman, palm forward, lost behind a gauzy curtain; a stern-faced woman at a bus stop; lychees in a metal bowl; a woman’s blurry bare shoulder; even what’s probably a self-portrait, a woman, features unclear under her straw hat, holding a child to her, camera pointing into a bathroom mirror.
Daily shots. Nothing-special shots. Some focused, some (like the woman with the bare shoulder) easy to toss aside. Whether it’s actually there or not, it’s not hard to read into Hara’s photos a quotidian disquiet, traces of anomie, anxiety.
Emotions certainly amped up by Dixon’s always in-focus, never ambiguous short story.
So this is how I read the photobook Changes, and how it works. What’s implicit in the photos is drawn out by the vivid message of the short fiction. Images and words mix, and meaning is turned, amplified, and, yes, changed by putting the two together.
Credit to Russet Lederman, Laurence Vecten, and Yoko Sawada, the editors of the book, as well as Tadao Kawamura, its designer. Change is expected to be the first of a series of blendings of photobook and short fiction from The Gould Collection, which has been established in honor of Christophe Crison, a Parisian photobook collector who died recently at forty-five. Crison’s online moniker was Gould Bookbinder, the protagonist in two of Dixon’s novels, so it’s particularly appropriate that Dixon let “Change” be attached to this book.
Changes indeed. It turns out that a photobook paired with a short fiction can work as long as the integrity of both forms is respected, and extreme care is taken to make sure the photos set up the fiction, and the story in turn enlarges implication and deep meaning in the photos.
Maybe not the first of its genre, a photobook paired with literature, but one that definitely makes welcome more to come. We should all look forward to further works from The Gould Collection.
Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here and his latest book here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.