The Photography of Writing



'The photography of writing' Broadsheet 23 (1): 9-13 (1994)

I just recently had in my mind the perfect opening sentence for this essay. As is usually the case, this fleeting inspiration came to me when I was out walking the neighbourhood. Now that I've returned to my desk, all that remains is a frightening picture of the Rottweiler dog that appeared on my path to chase that perfect sentence away forever.

There's a clear lesson to be learnt from this experience: a professional writer should not rely solely on the powers of memory. Does it make sense for a hunter to enter the forest without a gun? Should a photographer go on tour without a camera? The serious writer should be always ready to `shoot' a thought or impression while it is in consciousness lest it disappears into the void of forgetfulness. A footloose writer like Jack Kerouac certainly recognised this during his tour across North America with the photographer Robert Frank:

I sit in the car amazed to see the photographic artist prowling like a cat, or an angry bear, in the grass and roads, shooting whatever he wants to see. How I wished I'd have had a camera of my own, a mad mental camera that could register pictorial shots, of the photographic artist himself prowling about for his ultimate shot -- an epic in itself. 

Kerouac conceded that photographers were better equipped to capture the instant than writers, and he attributed to Robert Frank a superior power to perceive the odd but telling detail in a scene. But since Kerouac's time, the kind of equipment available for writers has changed radically. Now, with the advent of portable computers, a writer should be able to write thoughts into sentences whenever and wherever they occur.

Some writers may feel uncomfortable in the company of hunters --photographers, trappers, butterfly collectors, private eyes and their like. Hunting preys on the work of others. Faced with this kind of alliance, such writers might well seek identification with an antithetical pursuit, such as the calling known as craft which operates in its own time to produce a durable object. They would prefer to think of themselves as weavers threading sentences through the warp of a plot, or cabinet-makers forming seamless joins in the narrative.

It was in the company of the crafts that the idea of this essay first arose. Two years ago I had a position as writer-in-residence at the Meat Market Craft Centre. One day, I returned from a daily tour of the workshops to sit in my windowless office and tapped out this note on a laptop:

Annealing: delicate process of cooling hot glass gradually enough to prevent stress in material that may years later emerge as a crack that ruins the entire work. Freshly made it looks perfection plus, but wait on it a few days before sending it out -- there eventually arrives the crack that destroys the whole piece, well after all the sweat and inspiration have been expended. Like a manuscript that shows a seamless argument while fresh, but looked at later once the heat of inspiration has cooled, cracks emerge -- there's too much irony, what about the postcolonial question, the voice is uneven... 

Saved onto disk.

The Craft of Writing

The familiar phrase `craft of writing' suggests an attitude of serious care in the means of writing: words, sentences, pens, paper, desk, etc. It's an invitation to draw images of handicrafts, which inspire close regard for materials. An example of this certainty can be found in a brochure advertising a writing workshop titled `Why poetry not carpentry,' which invited applications with poems that could be `lathed, polished, sanded and nailed...' At a greater distance, characterisation of writing styles in biographies of two prominent French theoreticians shows how the craft metaphor might be used to praise stylistic talents. Both Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan have been described as `goldsmiths' of writing. In all cases, the craft metaphor offers certainty -- the certainty of shared techniques and materials.

The imaginary of craft includes colourful medieval pageants, secret initiations, extravagant masterpieces and patron saints. While this hardly seems to pertain to the Australian Writers Guild, its very title suggests the symbolic use of the craft tradition as a language of collective identity. The writer, often isolated during the day, has company in this imaginary community of fellow travellers. But any solidarity, even imaginary, claims its tribute from individual freedom.

There is one universal prerequisite for craft membership: dues. A `solid foundation' in basic skills provides two forms of security: it makes a democratic request of every member to undergo the same training and it provides a kind of hard currency of style by which members of a craft can trade their wares in a market confident of its purchase. The mythology of Ernest Hemingway, the patriarch of sentences, is grounded in the dues he had to pay in order to master this technique. He spoke of his time on the Kansas Star newspaper:

On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time. 

Within a craft economy, making a sentence is like making a pastry base: it's an exercise in classic technique rather than individual expression. In the dialogue between freedom and authority, the craft of writing entails a submission of the individual to traditions and apprenticeship to masters. The English rhetoric of craft is the language of the older generation, determined to break the egotism of young aspirants. The master potter, Bernard Leach, advised those beginning ceramics not to seek the glory of one-off exhibitions, but to make pots in the same modest fashion one might make bread. With a similar discipline, Anthony Trollop abided by the daily routine of writing seven pages, even if he had to end and begin a novel on the same day. The festive exterior of craft hides a sweatshop of daily grind.

Writers might find reasons here to doubt the allure of the craft metaphor. While one gains a sense of solidarity of the word, one also pays with conformity to an inherited set of techniques. This is the stolid weight of craft -- what Nietzsche calls its `leaden ceiling' which presses down on the soul, making it `crooked.' One needs to retain this discomfort with craft in case its sentimental traditions obscure one's attachment to modern facilities -- like using the word processor.

Mind candy

The master wordsmith lends a sceptical ear to the computer buff's enthusiasm for spell checkers and other whiz-bang devices. Craft encounters the word processor through a contest of appearance and substance. The craftsman of the pen sees the `soft' writer as seduced by facilities that have little to offer the substance of writing -- the delights of formatting, being able to change the look of the document at the press of a key, i-dotters and t-crossers that have no bearing on the final printed product. In 1988, the Rutgers journal, Raritan, published an extended version of the argument under the title `Writing at the computer'. The author distinguishes between the decorative and essential functions of writing:

The powers of the programs are a twofold response by software creators, not to a desire for exact and minute aspects of formatting that are meaningful, but to procedural necessities and a desire for merely visual variety and attractiveness in what is printed out. 

The author dismisses as `mind candy' the Swiss Army Knife excess of features in the word processors. Just as candy provides an addictive pleasure that has little to do with the necessary supply of long term nutrients, so word processing programs offer a sideshow of colour and speed that have little bearing on the eventual outcome of the published text.

A little deconstruction is useful here to extricate `mind candy' away from its pejorative context. The opposition between the usefulness of substance (meaning) and the seduction of appearance (formatting) need not be mutually exclusive. The process of penetrating the surface to arrive at the meaning is part of the meaning itself. Substance requires appearance to acquire depth, just as an orange needs its peel to make the fruit a matter of arrival. By this logic, the pleasures supplementary to writing, such as the design of the page, provide an essential entry into what might be thought of as the substance of the text.

This scepticism towards arguments of substance gives us space to reflect a little more openly on the use of word processors as a tool for writing. As a practice, its pleasures are not borne of contact with physical substance: a plastic keyboard and moulded screen have nothing to match the responsive plasticity of clay, the liquid spontaneity of hot glass, the clean flexibility of silver, the idiosyncratic demands of solid timber, or the warm colours of wool fibre. The less material direction of word processing celebrates facility: the abundance of formal devices for manipulating text. Facility applies both to production (text-blocking, cutting and pasting, dropping and dragging, macro operations) and formatting (justifying, indenting, sizing, selecting font, checking). Though all of these functions entail intervention, none of them engage the body of the writer beyond the digital actions (as in `digits' rather than other hand forms such as grip or pinch) of typing and clicking. This is an abstract pleasure, which seems far removed from the kinetic enjoyment of the crafts.

Write for the camera

Granting validity to this alternative pleasure enables us to make some sense of the fateful decision which all `soft' writers must one day face: do I buy an Apple Mac or an IBM? The traditional craft metaphor itself has no immediate grasp on this distinction: regardless of its model, the computer per se is seen to abstract the writing process from its concrete engagement with pen and paper. This is where photography might be introduced as a metaphor which is more open to a writer's experience of word processing. I realise that the `photography of writing' seems an unlikely combination and I may have my work cut out to establish the connection.

But consider this. The main difference between the Mac and IBM systems to a writer is the interface. Essentially Mac offers icons (`graphic user interface', GUI) while the IBM provides characters (`character user interface, CUI). The graphic icon provides an image on screen that can be clicked: it opens a pre-packaged set of instructions to the computer whose contents are inscrutable to the user. Faced with a DOS prompt, however, the IBM user must manually type in the commands that initiate the program. In a recent review of word processing programs, a DOS version was recommended for those who like to `see under the hood', while the GUI seemed appropriate for those who like everything on the surface. So far we have a difference which parallels the manual and automatic camera. But if this were all there was to the photography metaphor we would simply be invoking the tired separation between amateur and professional practice.

Does the camera metaphor reveal aspects of `soft' writing which present new questions for consideration? To test the fruitfulness of the metaphor, word processing is divided into three operations that have mirror functions in the camera: how information is sent to the computer (input device), what guides its location in the text (cursor), and how it is presented to the user (display).

Input device: Mouse versus keyboard

The keyboard provides direct alphanumeric input to the computer: it has substance and direct meaning. The action of the mouse, on the other hand, pertains to whatever element on the screen is pointed to and clicked on: it is abstract and dependent on context. The keyboard invites all fingers of both hands: using function keys without a template exploits the individual memory acquired of the programme's operation. A mouse requires little user memory: it is dependent on the options displayed on screen.

The mouse is like a camera's cable release (the plastic bubble squeezed by the photographer at a distance from the camera). It simplifies its relationship to the device by reducing the possible input to a single response, like ticking a box. Where the mouse goes beyond the cable release, of course, is that it has the capacity to aim its signal at a certain point on the screen. As a device for targeting intervention, it is thus a function that invites iconic ornamentation, such as an arrow or an actual mouse.

DOS users have disparaged the mouse-orientation of the GUI system (where you click an icon rather than press a key): the mouse is seen to encourage a `hunt and peck' kind of scavenger who gambles on the program rather than using advance knowledge. The danger of this, according to DOS advocates, is that it disrupts the train of thought: moving one's hand away from the keyboard to the mouse requires a conscious interruption to the flow of communication between mind, hand and keyboard. Because the mouse is so dependent on context, it interrupts the outward flow of words while menus are prompted and the right option targeted. Though keyboard commands are more complex to remember, they are more easily aligned to the automatic flow of writing. The mouse function positions itself in an argument about the nature of the computer as a machine for capturing thought.

Cursor: Vertical versus horizontal

The cursor signals the location of the input device on the screen. DOS systems generally have a horizontal cursor, while in Windows or Macintosh it is vertical. The horizontal cursor sits under the character (e.g., word) -- its design favours the alteration of already existing text. By contrast, the vertical cursor stands between individual characters (e.g., wo|rd). In this manner, it invites the introduction of new information within the existing text.

In photography, the problem of establishing correct focus is usually solved by various features of the range finder that sits in the middle of the field of view. One common device is the split circle. When the two halves of this circle are aligned, the scene is in focus. Cameras vary according to whether this split is positioned horizontally or vertically. Given the abundance of horizontal lines in most typical fields of view, this slit is often vertical. Vertical is most useful with landscapes, whereas horizontal suits portraits.

Both the orientations of cursor and focusing method give shape to the point at which the writer/photographer intervenes in the world beyond the screen -- the text or the visual scene. As a minor feature it is often transparent to the operations of the user, yet the fact of its variation suggests that alternative attitudes are subtly at play.

Display: Inbuilt character set versus WYSIWYG

DOS word processing programs utilise the computer's inbuilt character set. What appears on the screen, therefore, often differs radically from the final printed output. Most often the screen shows a different font to the one chosen for printing, or even different colours for alternative characters (e.g., italics appear as yellow letters). The alternative system celebrates an immanent screen logic: WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) guarantees that the characters on the screen will be faithfully reproduced in the printed product. This feature of the GUI system is perhaps the most significant for the act of composition.

WYSIWYG enables the author to begin writing in a form that matches its final printed product. Traditionally, the progress of text could be measured by the movement from handwritten drafts... to typescript... to camera ready copy. With WYSIWYG, it is now possible for the composition to commence at a level that entails decisions about fonts and layout. Here the decision about the look of the text becomes part of the very construction of the work. Previously, the look of the text was the responsibility of editors and designers --the words were the basic material on which the capacities of others could be exercised. Now these functions can be combined in the single act of writing. This `multi skilling' is parallel to the emergence of video journalism, where the accessibility of the video camera has enabled journalists to take their own footage, matching their text. A division of labour no longer separates text and image.

WYSIWYG is also a critical element in camera design. In the range finder, a view is only available through an aperture to the side of the lens. The Leica range finder typically provides a frame of light lines, which indicates what will be exposed to the film. Thus, the range finder provides the photographer with a sense of what is being excluded from view at the cost of lessened accuracy. In the SLR (single lens reflex) camera, on the other hand, an arrangement of mirrors enables the photographer to see directly through the lens. While the SLR enables a photographer to get close to the `instant' of the shot, it narrows the field of vision.

WYSIWYG is the SLR of word processing technology -- it is a new horizon. With this system, the author acquires responsibility for the look of the text. Here brews a new matter of contention between writers and editors. Writers' care for their manuscript now extends beyond editing to incorporate design. Magnum photographers asserted their `artistic' autonomy when they disallowed editorial cropping of images and supplied their own by-line --are writers to follow and request from editor's control over the look of their text?

Moment of judgment

So what kind of fruit does the camera metaphor bear? It is this very phase of the demonstration -- the moment of judgment --which itself is most clearly revealed in the photography of writing. In taking a shot, a good photographer makes an intuitive adjustment between what appears to the eye and what will eventuate in print. The camera features such as cable release, range finder and reflex lens are all devices which assist in that negotiation. Similarly, a good writer moves in the space between subjective thought and what they might mean to someone who finds them in hard copy. The mouse, cursor and screen display, are among the devices which steer words in this journey through the computer. Text files and photographic negatives are never things themselves -- they both require a printing technology before they can have material presence. This immateriality enforces a break between the captured words/images and their release into print. There is no such break in craft because material presence in continuous throughout the working process. To bridge this divide it is necessary for writers/photographers to `dress rehearse' their work in print outs/contact sheets. The photography of writing thus adds a special tension to the journey from inside to outside -- but once outside, does this journey matter?

From the other point of view

There is an essential participant in the writing process for whom this discussion of word processing appears totally irrelevant: the reader. If the analogy between the camera and the computer extends only to the act of writing, what difference does this make to those on the outside of the process? To go further here requires some faith that the act of reading involves a projection of the author's experience in the act of writing. In a time like ours which champions user rights (`you be the judge'), such faith is difficult to maintain. Why should readers care how the writer produced their book?

In my conscience, I cannot answer this question with an appeal to writerly authority. What I do have is a simple case of how knowledge of the writing device might support a particular way of reading a text. I hope my case is strengthened by the pre-technological choice of writer. Gerald Murnane stands apart from the community of `soft' writers as a patient Silas Marner, typing on a portable typewriter with the index finger of his right hand (with left finger poised over the shift key). Much of his writing appears to be a record of his thoughts as his eye gazes on an image, whether `in the mind' or present in front of him. In a talk on Proust titled `Invisible Lilacs' Murnane recorded an image that came to mind of a photograph, taken in 1910 but looked at in 1961.

While I was writing the previous paragraph a further detail appeared in the image of the garden inside the wall in the image of the garden beside the wall in my mind. I now see in the garden in my mind an image of a small boy with dark hair staring and listening. I understand today that the image of the boy would first have appeared in my mind at some time during the five months before January 1961 soon after I had looked for the first time at a photograph taken in the year 1910 in the grounds of State school near the Southern Ocean in the district of Allansford.

The pleasure of this method for the reader is to follow Murnane as he traces the location of the image on a map that jumps quickly through space and time. It is hardly a spontaneous outpouring onto the page, but a sentence that begins `I now see...' does present the reader with a context of immediacy where writing coincides with the act of thinking.

The relative irreversibility of the typewriter compared to the computer provides a context more conducive to this kind of reverie. Work constructed on the typewriter has an immediacy which is similar to blown glass. When glass is blown, there's little opportunity to adjust the size of the bubble once the glass has begun to cool. There is a difference between listening to a live performance and a recording that is not to do with quality or immediacy, but simply the awareness of the different reversibilities of time. The same difference pertains to the experience of reading work written on a typewriter versus a computer. Here, the kind of writing experience projected by a reader need not involve subjection to authorial intention, it can rest with the more neutral question of writing process. The difference between Murnane's Box Brownie and my Pentax does more than just admit personal taste.


Though both writers and photographers have to invent titles for their works, only one of them has to write a conclusion. The conclusion is a point internal to the text itself where the writer must stand back and assess what meaning has been achieved. The significance of this moment is recognised by Walter Benjamin, who recommends that the conclusion of an article be written apart from the usual location.

11. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there. 

Given the lapse that opened this essay, though, I fear the loss of any idea gained outside the familiar devices that sit on my desk. Forced to have `courage at home', therefore, I will target my words on quite immediate matters: that keyboard, that mouse, that disk drive, that screen, that blinking cursor. What do they mean?

This article was written with the assistance of the Visual Arts/Craft Board (Australia Council). Written on location at Workshop 3000, Wood/Marsh architecture, Lyn Pool's darkroom and the #19 tram.

An earlier version of this article was published in Broadsheet Autumn 23 (1), 1994 9-13.

Kevin Murray©199