“The Language of Vision,” by Joseph R. Millichap

Joseph R. Millichap

Reviewed by MW Rishell

In The Language of Vision: Photography and Southern Literature in the 1930s and After, Joseph R. Millichap mines a rich stock – the literature of the South – and finds a comparatively new vein, that of photography supporting the cultural aura of kudzu and long memory.  Bringing visual rhetoric and the written word together promises to excite and generate new meaning to the aforementioned lore.

By definition a work of intertextuality, Millichap’s book concentrates on the 1930s –though he notes examples both before and after this era.  The 1930s has significance primarily because of the work of the WPA photographers in general and of Walker Evans in particular.

Millichap notes, as well, the importance of the 1960s to artistic expression in light of the Civil Rights Movement and new approaches in both photography and literature. The Civil War years of the 19th century may have been equally significant, as Millichap suggests, but they’re not the chief focus of this study.

Walker Evans, arguably the WPA photographer whose work has the most relevance nearly ninety years later, is the primary visual artist under examination here; however, Millichap also examines, not just an individual and his medium, but the notion of the literary photograph as a rhetorical device within a work of fiction.  He credits this grounding to Katherine Henninger and builds upon her concept with specific examples and essays. Milichap notes Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! where photographs of the central characters reflect mysteries of identity.

Millichap notes that Evans’s work and perspective are reflexive with literature. It could be argued that Evan’s literary instincts added to the narrative instincts of a theretofore static art and gave story a primary relevance in his work. The intersection of Evans and James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is given as an example.

Millichap does point out that Agee insists the photographs are not illustrative of the words of the text and we know the authors see them as two distinct works. Throughout the era, Millichap shows this idea to be reflexive as Faulkner spoke of the language of vision and was the subject of photographic works by Carl Van Vechten and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

The shadow that covers the entire book is Millichap’s decision – whether forced or not – to go without any photographic examples through the entire tome. His stated argument is that all of the photographs referenced in the text are easily available online.  There is also a certain consistency with those authors referring to fictional photos – especially if the referred works themselves are fictional.  Certainly, including images would raise the cost of the book well beyond affordable for the individual purchaser.

For my reading and research habits – especially using a physical, touchable source – I would treasure the instant availability of the referenced works.  Perhaps I am a victim of our culture’s demand for immediacy, but I think this limits the work.  At least Millichap was upfront with this issue, noting it in the preface.

All this being said, Millichap’s extended study of the intersection of photography and Southern literature is a treasure trove. While my knowledge of the realm is not encyclopedic, it is easy to see Millichap’s work as foundational and as thorough grounding for many studies – especially doctoral work – as time passes.  “As time passes” is an important phrase here: this work should age well.

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