'A mag photo before I was'

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Anita Helle

Poet Ann Sexton was often photographed when young and later as a fashion model and celebrity. Poet William Stafford produced nearly 200 photographic portraits of twentieth-century writers—the most ever made by a photographer, let alone a poet.

Both writers referred regularly to photography in their poetry. And both are key figures in Anita Helle’s new project: Photo-signatures: Poetry, Photography, and the Changing Shapes of Literary Authorship since 1960, a literary and cultural history about writers who have established a distinct relationship to the photographic image, particularly photographic portraiture.

“My historical frame is the relationship between poetic identity and changing models of literary authorship after World War II, when the marriage of art and commerce in magazine production, the increasing power of photojournalists as editors, new forms of book production, and new advertising and publicity strategies challenged earlier models of romantic and modernist authorship and the performing self,” Helle wrote in summarizing her project.

As Robert Lowell quipped about his publicity image in a sonnet: “A mag photo before I was.”
Post-war literary publishing was conducted under the aegis of the photo-op, which functions as both a “representation and a challenge to the authenticity of self-representation--it imparts a conscious awareness of identity as artifice.”

Each chapter in the book investigates a particular photographic production, that is, an archive, exhibit, or photo-book. The opening chapter is a case study of the collaboration between photojournalist Rollie McKenna and poet-critic, editor, and modernist impresario John Malcolm Brinnin, in the making of the first anthology to give the photographic portrait of the poet equal visual space with the printed poem, with full-page photographs of poets on each facing page.

“Their collaborative partnership and the photographs themselves epitomize the changing relations of photographic portrait and the poet, intellectual and commercial culture, and intellectual property,” said Helle. Her time at the Center will be devoted mainly to the chapters on Sexton and Oregon’s own Stafford.

In Sexton’s case, said Helle, poetry and photography are linked by a problem of textual narcissism that has long been associated with the poet’s writing and reception. In “The Fortress,” Sexton wrote: “I give you the images I know/Lie back with me and watch.” Helle observes that Sexton’s reflections on the photographic images and her consciousness of “looked-at-ness” also is likely related to cultural spectacles of femininity.

A significant dimension of Sexton’s photographic legacy has to do with her complex relationship to fame and celebrity. Helle cited the observation of another writer who said, “the social visibility of the genius and the criminally insane may be uncannily linked,” adding that Sexton appeared to be haunted by the thin line dividing the hysterical appearance of the “criminally insane whose every emotion was scientifically delineated in the nineteenth century asylum, and the frenzied look of adulation on the faces of audiences drawn to the performance of gifted individuals in celebrity culture . . . That thin line also becomes a theme in her major poetry.”

Stafford, a contemporary of Sexton’s, turned the camera outward by becoming a photographer himself. The first published picture of Stafford with a camera slung over his shoulder appeared in The Oregonian, where he is shown with fellow writers and academics protesting the Vietnam War. Beginning in the 1960s, he belonged to a camera club—one of the few groups this anti-organization writer conceded to join—and he built a home darkroom. Of the more than 200 photographs in the Stafford archives, most are portraits of other writers. The archive has been open to researchers only since 2008.

In her study of Stafford’s writing, Helle has particularly noted the relationship between creativity, literary authorship, and camera work: “God snaps your picture—don’t look away—this room right now, your face tilted/exactly as it is before you can think.” (From “An Archival Print”). As a photographer and a poet, she wrote, Stafford was a reluctant documentarian, wary of the commercial power of the image. As a mid-century modernist, he is better known as a contemplative, meditative observer in the tradition of Robert Frost.

“The question of just what to make of this larger archive of photographic portraiture as a personal and communicative aspect of ‘daily ‘ composition and social bonding at a time when. . . the photographic portrait is increasingly made to be exhibited on museum walls, is one of the questions I would like to explore,” said Helle. Her project will be the first critical work based on Stafford’s photographs.