It will make this discussion a bit clearer if we consider an example of photographic narrative and briefly examine how it works, as a narrative. Ron Jude’s Lago seems like it would make an excellent case-study for this purpose.[i] Jude is an artist heavily invested in the potential of narrative – the relationship between images – to create a complex meaning that perhaps could not be achieved in any other way. His works are often oblique accounts of a specific place and Lago is no exception, being centred on the distinctively atmospheric desert region around the Salton Sea in Southern California.[ii] So even at the outset we have established the thematic grounding for the work, a place, that is also more or less the subject of the pictures. Jude progressively modifies this theme by combining different views (and different kinds of picture) in the sequence of the book, which could of course function equally well on the gallery wall. The work is perhaps not ‘about’ a place, a distinction we will explore more fully soon, but the pictures do revolve around it thematically. It’s clear that the information accompanying the work has a role here, but it is the consistency of the pictures that really tells us ‘where’ we are. This is the ground on which Jude will build his narrative.
The book opens with a short ‘prelude’ of three images that appear before the title page. In many ways, these encapsulate the preoccupations of the work as a whole. The first is a view of a darkened plain rising to hills beyond, while a ring of lights from some small urban centre glows weakly against the blackness. We can’t help but feel how tentative any kind of settlement must be out here. The second is a near horizon-less view of what must be the eponymous lago (Spanish for lake), that deprives us of any clear orientation, while the last image in the sequence shows large chunks of discarded masonry, the flotsam of attempted habitation, accompanied by a pair of running shoes left to rot in the sun. So here we have a group of images, very different in subject – except for supposedly being made in the same place – that are also quite different stylistically, but that function together to shape a particular understanding of those subjects (or the relationship between them) thematically. The theme of the work is what it tells us about the subject of the pictures, how it modifies our understanding of that subject, or indeed brings us to an entirely new understanding of it. Narratives like the one that Jude has fashioned in this work create a dense, interlocking network of references between different motifs, repeated with significant variation throughout the sequence. These echo back and forth between the pictures, making the ‘world’ in which the work exists, a world that, in Jude’s case especially, is not a literal one, but a kind of imagined place, mapped on the actual places that he has photographed.
This use of repeated motifs is an inherently flexible strategy; within the thematic framework the images elaborate, the variations that can be employed are nearly endless. In some instances, the picture simply repeat a subject, albeit shown in a different way. Jude often uses the ubiquitous palm trees of the region in this fashion. They establish place, but also serve as a barometer of mood, sometimes rising up defiantly, but more often drooping or truncated. The images of barriers and fences work in the same way, metaphorical reminders of how the boundaries that have been put in place here are, at best, precarious. The line dividing the man-made from the ‘natural’ is increasingly frayed. At other times the variation is a formal one, so that the echo is between the disposition of dissimilar or even unrelated subjects. This is not simply a visual conceit. It actually serves to hold the narrative together, or to push it forward, by linking these subjects visually through a sort of rhyming that, while it doesn’t transcend the nominal subject of the picture, isn’t bound to it either. Jude also introduces another variation that is perhaps not unique, but that does seem specific to his interest in the relation between place and memory, or rather the difficulties of that relationship. He makes frequent use of lens flares and other artefacts to break up the images; this is seen often enough to count as a deliberate strategy in the work. It is an example of a thematic variation that does not depend on either subject or style.
A short group of images toward the middle of the book demonstrates these formal resonances in action. The first image shows a telephone pole tightly framed against a blue sky from which several strands of wire have become disconnected and so the hang down in a whiplash pattern, perhaps moved by the wind. The following image serves to place the one preceding it in some kind of context. We see a far wider view of a bunker-like house, which in Jude’s account at least seem to be endemic in the region, surrounded by rough ground and scrub. This is presumably where the phone lines run to (or don’t, in this case) and we can see similar poles in the distance, which the now familiar palm trees echo as well. It is the proximity of the images that reinforce this impression and Jude follows them with one of the several impromptu still-life images that populate the work, a curving line of empty cans on the sun-baked ground, a clear variation on the linear motif introduced by the photograph of the pole. He then cuts to another view of a house (or the same house) from a different angle, again linking the images with the motif of utility pole and palms. The sequence then moves to an entirely different scene, showing the circular pattern of a tire burnout, with the Sea in the background. Surely this completes the motif established in the earlier image of the pole and disconnected wires, a suspicion that is confirmed when we see the following close shot of a record standing on edge in the bare earth, another telling echo.[iii]
This idea of narrative as variation on a theme can also be seen in the case of pictures that share a subject, but that don’t otherwise seem connected visually. This is especially true of the pictures showing different animals, such as the large spider first seen in close-up and that is later confined to a jar. Similarly, there are several images of small dogs, their size emphasising how inhospitable the surrounding landscape is, (and not forgetting the bag of Pedigree dog food that features in a luminous image of wind-blown rubbish gathered in the corner of a fence). Another especially satisfying example is the motif of oranges that we first encounter as they hang heavily on the tree in one picture, which later becomes a single orange withered on the branch, and later still, toward the end of the book, peeled and lying in the sand, covered in ants. Similarly, people are almost entirely absent from the pictures, though their presence is intimated everywhere, and the exceptions are equally significant. The first leans tiredly against a gate, his face averted, while the other floats in the lake, his expression somewhat unreadable. Neither could really be described as portraits, the people are just elements in the picture. Women are also nowhere in evidence; the abandoned shoes that crop up on several occasions all look to be men’s, even the porn DVD cover caught in a fence shows only men in various combinations.
The whole narrative is built up from variations like this, that cross between the pictures, creating echoes and a larger, cumulative meaning. Of course, the interpretation of any sequence does not entirely depend on what the pictures are of or even the relationships that I have noted between then, but actually requires both to function, along with our impression of the overall narrative. The linkages here can operate in a number of different ways, as we have seen. They are essentially what the work is about – what it ‘means,’ and that meaning is created by the relationship between the images. The subjects of the pictures serve as motifs that direct the viewer to a particular understanding of what the work is about. Rather than showing a real place, here they serve more to describe the experience of place, invoked as an experience – and also as a history, a layering of events that have left some trace. The effect the narrative has, or rather what it does, as a narrative, is in this case to form a decidedly pessimistic mood in which communication is thwarted, fruit dies on the vine and people waste their days with curtains shut against the incessant glare of a sun that can sometimes render even what is right in front of us unintelligible. This is a landscape of memory and of metaphor where the instability of meaning rests, somewhat paradoxically, on a finely calibrated relationship between the images that make it up.
The progression of the images is, of course, equally, structured. The rhythm created by the different motifs as they emerge, the size and placement of the images on the page, the breaks between different sections, these all count in realising the impression that defines the narrative – indeed, the narrative is that impression, although Jude prefers a distinctive irresolution to any kind of neat ending. Instead, he implies progression in other ways. One particularly distinctive example of this approach occurs about three-quarters of the way into book, where he inserts a break consisting of a blank spread, and the following images move the narrative forward by making us aware of specific themes that have been latent so far – and putting to effective use a variation on the motifs that he has already established. The first image after this break is a kind of reverse view, looking out from one of the many windows we have seen, glimpsing sunlit trees through a crack in the curtains. Literally and metaphorically this is an interior image, perhaps intended to remind us that the territory the work inhabits is as much psychological as geographical. The following images help to reinforce this idea. Here we have two successive views of the churning grey water in a sandy creek, one closer than the other and also slightly blurred. These are followed by an image of palms so dark as to be almost unreadable. The result is to suggest something violent but inexpressible behind what is visible, so that this seemingly anomalous sequence actually reconfirms the thematic preoccupations of the narrative, not least because of its subtlety articulated structural relation to the whole.
There are, of course, many other ways for a narrative to work. This is just an example, and a partially examined one at that. Ron Jude’s Lago is, nonetheless, a sophisticated work that amply demonstrates the potential of the narrative approach. That it isn’t the only strategy for a project should also be obvious, however; the distinction I have made between photographic narrative and a photographic series is just one possible alternative for a myriad of ways to realise a body of work. It should be clear as well they all in some measure depend on the relationship that comes to exist between the pictures, whether that is thematically, in terms of subject matter, or some other way. I would argue, however, that it is the specificity of this relationship that defines a narrative approach to the medium, where the basis for the work itself lies precisely in how the pictures interact, the network of shared meaning and formal resonances that the photographer has created from the pictures, but that does not, in the final analysis, depend on any one of them alone. It is this aspect of narrative that makes it such a potent tool for producing work of substantial complexity, regardless of how the narrative is framed, not least because of how it overcomes the limitations of the single (or singular) photograph. Pictures don’t really tell stories, but maybe they can do something that’s even more interesting.
(Part 1 of this article can be found here).
[i] Ron Jude, Lago, Mack, 2015. The book is also accompanied by a sound work from Joshua Bonnetta that is an ambitious attempt at expanding the photobook (and narrative) form, but that is also unfortunately a bit outside the scope of our discussion here, so I won’t be mentioning it in what follows.
[ii] Not really a ‘sea’ of course but a large in-land lake that has, nonetheless, very high saline levels. Its history is a fascinating mix of geology, disaster and failed hopes. Formed when a massive dry lake-bed was flooded by over-run irrigation canals in 1905, there was some attempt to develop the area as a resort in the 1950s, but this came to nothing, largely because of declining environmental conditions in the region.
[iii] According to the label it’s C.O.D Polka by Bill Gale and his Orchestra. Admittedly, a further image of palms falls between this one and the photograph of the circular tire burnout previous to it, but if anything this just demonstrates my point, as well as Jude’s decidedly filmic sense of pacing.