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The relationship between Photography and Poetry

Poetry and photography are very distinct art forms. One communicates with words, the other communicates with light. But, how are poems and photographs similar? What unites poets and photographers?

Often, we refer to photographs as having “poetic” or “lyrical” qualities. It was an ancient Roman poet named Quinto Orazio Flacco (known as Orazio) who first said that “a picture is a poem without words“.

According to Jonas Mekas (a Lithuanian filmmaker, poet and artist):

Poetry is a state of being, of attitude. It’s an exalted, ecstatic state of living, of seeing, of experiencing: [an] intense, intensified way of seeing, perceiving reality, both in art and living. There is poetry in literature, in cinema, in dance, in all of the arts.

– Jonas Mekas
© Guido Fuà

The origins of Photopoetry

The relationship between poems and photographs was pioneered by members of the avant-garde in the early 20th century.  Not surprisingly, Surrealism, a movement founded by poets and dedicated to blurring the boundaries between different art forms, produced so many wonderful examples of photopoetry.

The most famous example is a collaboration between Man Ray, Paul and Nusch Éluard titled Facile (1935), in which Maria Benz (Paul’s wife, known as Nusch) inspired the poems and posed for the images. This is a beautiful publication in which images and text create an integrated and unified design.

Paul Eluard & Man Ray: Facile (1935)

Contemporary PhotoPoetry

The following publications are a variety of examples of more recent photopoetry. You can see them in chronological order, with the name of the poet, followed by the photographer’s name.

Poetry and Photography: common points

Poems and photographs are both a representation of something, and they are both types of signs. One can be used as a metaphor for the other. It is a combination of the photographic image with the verbal images emerged from the poem. The photograph is the representation of visual language; the written word is the image of spoken language.

Both are an abstraction of reality, sending an experience of heightened perception, an intensity of looking and feeling, brought about by the union of visual and verbal images that merge, clash, contradict, emphasize and evoke each other.

Poets and photographers share a common interest: to transform a lived experience into a work of art. Both are attentive to aspects such as light, rhythm, narrative and emotion. Both love to collect, narrate, sequence, publish, communicate.

Poets construct images through words. On the other hand, a photographer works in verse, weaving impressions and notions that awaken in front of the viewer’s eyes.

The photographer P. H. Emerson said:

The value of a picture is not proportionate to the trouble and expense it costs to obtain it, but to the poetry that it contains.

– P. H. Emerson

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