Literary Lives: James Joyce by Berenice Abbott

In this photograph taken by Berenice Abbott in 1928, the Irish writer James Joyce adopts a listening pose, as if caught mid-conversation. He is bespectacled, with a large hat brimming over his forehead, and rings bejewelling his fingers. He carries a cane, and adopts a relaxed, open stance. The man is plain, understated, and little what we might imagine for the father of literary modernism to look like.

This photograph was taken on one of two occasions where James Joyce sat for Abbott. The portrait is intimate, depicting the author as introverted and thoughtful, allowing the viewer to speculate on the character of the man in question. The portrait invites us to consider the author, and his relation to the medium of photography.

Joyce published Ulysses – undoubtedly his magnum opus – serially in the American journal, The Little Review, from 1918 through to 1920. The title comes from Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. The book gained contemporary renown for its avant-garde experimentalism, of the like no one had ever seen before. It remains gargantuan both in physical size, and in artistic ambition.

The ubiquity of photography is evident is Joyce’s wider oeuvre. To take Ulysses as an example, in Episode 14 of the book, Joyce includes references to ‘artistic coloured photographs of prize babies’; later Bloom mentions a ‘fading photograph of Queen Alexandra’ in his home. More pertinent, however, is photography as a symbolic presence throughout his work. In Ulysses, Joyce takes on the project of trying to document every detail in one, finite day. This understanding of lived experience as something that can be infinitely divided into discrete moments, or snapshots, is a concept undoubtedly owed to the advent of 19th century photography, in particular, sports photography, and the birth of film.

Photography informed modernist literature because it reconfigured the way we conceptualise time. Where early photography relied on long exposure, so that subjects ‘grew into their pictures’, the advent of the snapshot was understood to give insight into man’s unconscious mind and reveal the mysterious mechanisms of the everyday which had previously gone undocumented. In his famous essay, On Photography, German writer and philosopher Walter Benjamin recounts:

‘Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals that secret.’

Perhaps the first photographer to really thematise time was Eadward Muybridge, with his collotypes of the 1880s. In these pictures, Muybridge set cameras on timers to photograph subjects in motion. Entitled ‘Animal Locomotion’, he captured movements previously considered mundane, such as Plate 11 (Nude Man Striding), or Plate 475 (Child Climbing onto Chair).

Here, Muybridge introduces an ontological shift in the way we think of ourselves moving through time, from one, continuous present, to a present made up of discrete units. His photography conceptually illustrates the difference between time as a qualitative concept – linear, neutral, inert – and time as a quantitive concept – made up of individual units that can be measured. It was this mode of photography – the snapshot – that informs so much of how modernist authors and artists understand the passage of time; a characteristic, cultural theorist and writer, Frederic Jameson, views as the founding principle of twentieth century modernism.

This renewed consideration of the minutiae of everyday, explored by Muybridge, is nowhere more evident than Ulysses. Indeed, Ulysses takes on a quantitative, rather than a qualitative, quality. At the heart of the book is the same, scientific, documentary impulse that motivates Muybridge. The book explores a single day in the life of Stephen Dedalus: the ‘dailiest day’ there is. Joyce’s mission was to be as encyclopaedic as possible, to document every last detail. Joyce intended to ‘give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’.

Joyce adopts a stream-of-consciousness style, where dialogue and interior monologue become indistinguishable from one another. Here, Joyce imbues every minute detail with universal importance. In one episode, Mr Bloom walks the streets of Dublin. The reader is privy to his interior monologue:

‘Postoffice. Must answer. Fag today. Send her a postal order two shillings, half a crown. Accept my little present. Stationer’s just here too. Wait. Think over it.’

Here, Joyce’s prose not only takes on the staccato rhythm of Muybridge’s photography, but his attention to the detailed processes of thought nods to Muybridge’s documentary style photography. Here, no detail is too minute to be documented.

The impulse of the inner monologue, which photography inspired in Joyce, is reflected in his portrait by Abbott. Depicting the writer in a moment of introspection, Abbott invites the viewer to psychologically engage with Joyce, and to consider their own idiosyncratic subjectivity.

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