Teju Cole: Blind Spot



W us the interest of his artImages that are not accompanied by historical facts allusions to classic texts and artworks or ekphrastic inventories are explained by texts about dreams memories Christian themes and a miscellany of travel ancedotes Despite this variety the photographs are nearly always formal compositions of depopulated corners of cities or people seen from behind Cole s is a common contemporary photographic practiceUnlike Sebald Cole is ust learning Western history and art 375 Whether a short novel of Sebaldesue wanderings in the Big Apple Open City or a collection of essays on literature art and travel Known and Strange Things Teju Cole s works all share a dedication to seeing clearly This book is composed of about 160 one and two page spreads in which images are matched with commentary Each piece is headed with its location with Lagos Berlin Brooklyn and various towns in Switzerland showing up freuently The author s philosophical approach elevates a few slightly undistinguished photographs It is at times difficult to spot the relevance of certain photographs that cannot stand alone without captions Others though are striking enough to reuire no clarifying prose with tricks of scale or tricks of the light reflections shadows and layers providing visual interest This serves as a prime example of memory taking on visual permanence which is precisely the aim of this hybrid text no mere collection of tourist snaps but a poetic reflection on the confines of vision and knowledgeSee my full review on the Pittsburgh Post Gazette website Cole taking inspiration from Marker s excellent San Soleil and with this particular format La Jet e has created a hybrid work of his photos and prose that though a bit uneven is a uniuely contemplative read Continuing his work in OPEN CITY we are led along by a peripatetic narrator here taken to an extreme as Cole wanders the world Lebanon to Jamaica Switzerland to Brooklyn during a BLM protest capturing liminal images He seems preoccupied with frames within frames the best photo in the book I think is of a painted ocean liner moving diagonally across a bus construction euipment and miniature cities that can be found within larger ones The photos though not necessarily arresting are always pleasant to think on especially when they work in counterpoint to the textThe writing itself is a bit uneven which is not a fault of Cole s stylistic abilities but the format itself He has structured this book so that certain thru lines surface repeatedly and some the refugee crisis an interval of blindness he suffered from simply outshine others a recurring fascination with Christ and Jacob s Ladder It would be eually easy to pull an amazing paragraph as a slightly weak one but fun to discuss a highlight ZURICH On tram No 15 to Bucheggplatz a woman sat in the seat in front of mine She was in her late twenties or early thirties Late afternoon light Her hair was pulled up and I could see her neck tattoo clearly It was in two lines a woman s name a date I wrote both down Later when I looked up the name I found an old newspaper article a woman of that name had died in a small town near Phoenix Arizona in 2007 and it had happened on the date in the tattoo In the car that night the article said had been two other people both of whom survived the crash and both of whom at that time like the woman who died were in their early twenties a man the article said and another woman 282This passage with its intentional repetitions and symmetry is paired with a photograph of a woman on a bus whose neck is completely obscured by shadow We see light through her hair There are maybe a dozen sections out of about 110 that are of this uality and they tend to be the standalones I recommend this book for them In another fabulous moment one that encapsulates my complaint Cole believes he is speaking to a woman who is curious about him before suddenly realizing that he is the subject of a small scale grift a reuest for money embedded in a well rehearsed story He thinks I saw the scrip. Memories fantasies and introspections Ships in Capri remind him of the work of writers from Homer to Edna O Brien; a hotel room in Wannsee brings back a disturbing dream about a friend s death; a home in Tivoli evokes a transformative period of semi blindness after which the photography changed The looking changed As exuisitely wrought as the work of Anne Carson or Chris Marker Blind Spot is a testament to the art of seeing by one of the most powerful and original voices in contemporary literature.

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Not chronological not predictive not what you were expecting Blind Spot is faithful to the infidelities of sight So much depends on what you perceive on how you allow yourself to be worked upon by vision periphery obscured fields chiaroscuro the bewilderment of not seeing as you usedare used to This is a book that you should let work upon you in sight in mind It will be working on you long after you ve shut your eyes Teju Cole s Blind Spot is an uncommon book a combination of writing and photography that try to meet each other on eual footing This is rare because while many people think of themselves as photographers and writers few people are good enough at both to combine the two without some sort of imbalance The usual compromise is to include an introduction or interlude in a photobook or to include a series of photos before or after a text Blind Spot is neither a photobook nor an extended essay In its 300 odd pages there are enough images series and ideas to fill multiple photobooks and while the essays in this book dance around recurring themes seeing and lightnessdarkness Christ and stories from the New Testament Greek and Roman Myth interaction between the senses and of course photography they do not by themselves add up to a complete work The photographs which often use symbols mirrors paintings and signs as well as obstructions and distortions of scale Teju Cole might be one of the coolest dudes in the world Art historian novelist photographer globetrotter These photos are not awesome natural landscapes or vibrant stunning portraits that you d want to put on your wall They re mostly of the fairly mundane and banal or of wonderful places framed in obscuring ways Perhaps if they were devoid of text I wouldn t enjoy them as much as I m not very good at thinking deeply about visual art But the prose is a helping hand that takes you through the book points things out or simply suggests them makes you think critically about the photos as well as about religion politics philosophy It feels very in keeping with the themes of Known and Strange Things Maybe now it s time for me to read his novels Teju Cole has become for me an indispensable writer because the intelligence of his work enables me to gain a compassionate understanding of the world But of course Cole is much than a craftsman of words and a sage of ideas He is also a renowned photographer His greatest gift however may be his ability to synthesize artistic mediums in order to deliver an even profound view of humanity In Blind Spot he achieves a graceful merging of his poetic prose with his thoughtful photographs This is a uniue book in that it is a travelogue with memorable observations but also a stunning collection of images resonant with the voices from both the past and present in the places he visitsEach of the 150 photographs in this captivating book is complimented by a text entry These nuggets of prose are a remarkable blend of vignettes musings histories metaphors analogies revelations meditations philosophies and politics They add depth immediacy and context to the brilliance of each photograph but sometimes they seem to stand solitary in the empathy and compassion they express the same way the power of the photographs can generate emotions beyond words This alliance of literary flashes and contemplative images has a page turning uality Journeying through Cole s visual and written reflections is both exciting and humblingCole says of his travels I want to see the things the people who live there see or at least what they would see after the performance of tourism has been stripped away 274 Perhaps then the best way to make a worthy assessment of Cole and the originality of his work is to associate his goals to those of other great minds Toni Morrison has said she attempts in her novels to make the ordinary extraordinary Seamus Heaney has said that art relies on getting started keeping going and getting started again And Hermann Hesse has said that the greatest art is music because it is essentially the obliterati. In this innovative synthesis of words and images the award winning author of Open City and photography critic for The New York Times Magazine combines two of his great passions To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at Even in the most vigilant eye there is a blind spot What is missing When it comes to Teju Cole the unexpected is not unfamiliar He s an acclaimed novelist an influential essayist and an internationally exhibited photographer In Blind Spot readers follow Cole s inim.

On of language or rather the highest level of language Cole s Blind Spot captures the extraordinary within the ordinary day and his work constantly feels as though it s starting anew and meticulously keeping going striving to attain a musicality with its lushness of words and images My review of Cole s novel Open City review of Cole s fiction Every Day is for the Thief review of Cole s essays Known and Strange Things Teju Cole s art is exceptional at the same time it is accessible In my experience the confluence of these two things happens only rarely which is how Cole has come to occupy an exalted place in my pantheon of artists If I say his photography can stop us in our tracks it says nothing of his writing which always adds something to my understanding Today I discovered his website has soundtracks which open doors And there it is his specialness Cole s observations enlarge our conversationThis may be the most excellent travel book I have read in recent years the result of years of near constant travel by the author Scrolling th Small pictures big words Gives you vivid dreams If I were a book I would like to be like Blind Spot apparently sleek beautiful and voluminous but edgy and dark on the inside With words that draw lasting images in one s mind and images revealing words and meanings you have always pictured in your mind but never found the means to express And with a foreword by Siri Hustvedt Dangers of Following SebaldTeju Cole is a Nigerian American photographer critic and novelist who is also the photography critic of the New York Times I imagine their choice puzzled some academics there are many ualified people who know the literature better than Cole Blind Spot is the kind of book that can only be produced by an author with popular appeal it s 330 pages all color with heavy coated stock and a cloth cover with an embossed tipped in front cover image Yet the text is like an artist s book than a popular novel it has no continuous narrative and it s full of allusions Most of the book has photos on the right and brief texts on the left and each text is titled with the name of the place where the photo was taken There is also a map at the end of the book and a two page Postscript explaining how the author likes to travelThe narrator doesn t describe why or how he travels which makes him seem much as he actually is the privileged recipient of invitations to literary festivals and to teaching programs as he says in the Postscript In the book the narrator is simply a wandering observer of a number of cultures superficially like the narrator of Sebald s books But Cole s wanderings aren t directed like Sebald s were he isn t circling around specific cultural memories Instead he samples various atrocities and genocides as he goes Balinese First Nation German Syrian even Swiss When he s not commenting on historical events the narrator usually wants to tell us about his own photographs On a number of pages we re told what to look at effectively we re told why the photos are good There are several seuences of textimage pairings that work as self contained lectures in which the narrator tells us how to notice things in his images for example pp 64 71 These passages are unintentionally teacherly for example this text which faces an image of tables in a restaurant in Ferrara with a panoramic painting of Ferrara on the wallOnly later did I see what was at stake I had assumed that the image was merely saying something about the unsteady boundary between the real and the painted But obvious as it was I didn t see it until I saw it the way the table on the left announced a phantom cityscape of its own in homage to the old city of Ferrara grouped glasses for towers porcelain houses p 128It doesn t make the prose natural or conversational to pretend the narrator didn t see the virtue of his own photograph and then to tell us about it As a writerly device this doesn t work because it brings us out of the narration and into a lecture hall where Cole The Devil Made Me Do It just offstage uses a red laser pointer to sho. Itable artistic vision into the visual realm as he continues to refine the voice eye and intellectual obsessions that earned him such acclaim for Open City Hereourney through than 150 of Cole s full color original photos each accompanied by his lyrical and evocative prose forming a multimedia diary of years of near constant travel from a park in Berlin to a mountain range in Switzerland a church exterior in Lagos to a parking lot in Brooklyn; landscapes beautiful or uotidian that inspire Cole

I was born to Nigerian parents and grew up in Lagos My mother taught French My father was a business executive who exported chocolate The first book I read I was six was an abridgment of Tom Sawyer At fifteen I published cartoons regularly in Prime People Nigeria’s version of Vanity Fair Two years later I moved to the United StatesSince then I’ve spent most of my time studying art histor