Writing the Picture

David Hurn
John Fuller
Publication Date: 
Saturday, June 5, 2010
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Writing the Picture is a rare collaboration between a leading photographer and an eminent poet. Even more rare, it is a collaboration in which the poet responds to images, rather than a photographer or artists ‘illustrating’ a poem. The book evolved from a previous assignment for The Independent in which Fuller agreed to write about Hurn’s pictures “as long as the ‘captions’ could be poetry”. The result was a group of startlingly good poems which drew upon and illuminated a selection of Hurn’s equally stunning images.

Writing the Picture extends that early success into a book of 50 duotone images and poems in which Hurn’s particular skill as a photographer of reportage sparks Fuller’s own skill as a writer who both draws out meaning and launches into the thought-provoking. The sheer variety of image and poem makes the book an all the more impressive achievement. From warm portraits of rural Wales to a drug addict shooting up, from a raucous hen night to a moving suite of images of the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, photographer and poet respond to all aspects of life. The result is such a marvellous and magical meeting of artforms that it is surprising it doesn’t happen more frequently.

Hurn and Fuller provide an intriguing Introduction by way of a ‘conversation’ in which they discuss the processes of their collaboration and the differences and similarities which poetry and photography share in the creating of art.


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Review from Source (The Photographic Review)

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Writing the Picture, by contrast, is much more a photographer's book. Larger, glossier, there are 66 duotone images here, and 50 poems. The book evolved from a previous assignment for the Independent, in which Fuller agreed to write about Hurn's photographs, 'as long as the "captions" could be poetry'. Such poetic captions, Fuller suggests in the introduction, are quite different from the usual ones, which merely offer a stage of interpretation beyond the title: 'An accompanying poem supplies a voice which may only be implicit in the photograph...there is a difference between the poetic voice of the photograph'. It is this ventriloquism that Fuller has clearly found liberating. Hurn's photographs are black and white, more people than McBeaths (indeed, they allowed me to see how opaque McBeath's images are in their own right), full of narrative - and very Welsh. Fuller's accompanying poems are open hearted (even, at times, naïve) in providing voices for black-faced miners, leaping sheep and children playing football against a back drop of factory chimneys. There are grittier and more complex picture/poems here too. Brides in full Indian dress smile beneath a kitsch oil painting of not just one but three blow-dried Princess Diana's; heroin addict shoots up on the floor of a public toilet '(Don't look at me, don't look. This is a dirty place' begins Fuller's companion sonnet). My favourite image from Writing the Picture is of a large battered photograph of a suave Dylan Thomas, placed on top of an old fireplace against spectacularly dated wallpaper - a welcome moment of almost Muldoonian self consciousness.

By coincidence the Hurn/Fuller collaboration also features a photograph of not one but two Classical statues wrapped in polythene. This not only makes me wonder whether this is the kind of thing people photograph a lot, but provides a reminder of something the photographer and poet have eclipsed, by sleight of hand, in stressing the primary of the photographs. This is 'ekphrasis', term for the dramatic description of a visual work. It's not rare, in fact it derives from Greek and is thus very, very old.

Leontia Flyn, Source (The Photographer Review) Issue 65

15/02/2011 - 12:23
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Review from New Welsh Review

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Tim Liardet is impressed by a new collaboration of photography and poetry by David Hurn and John Fuller This is another Seren book of superb production values. It contains no fewer than one hundred and eleven duotone photographs by the Welsh photographer David Hurn and a complementary number of poems by John Fuller in response to them. The ekphrastic force comes from the poet responding to image, rather than the other way round; Ted Hughes did the same when Fay Godwin offered up such a batch of memorably dark, suggestive photographs, and Remains of Element was the outcome. In Writing the Picture the photographs - halftone superimposed on halftone - evoke their peculiar sense of verite and the spontaneously stopped. Hurn clearly takes his camera with him wherever he goes in order to curry his flaneuring yen - a child in mid-air, as if in mid-flight, Nijinsky-like, leaping over a pole; a newly-shorn sheep also leaping in mid-air, similarly held; an old man's face obscured by a plume of his own cigarette smoke; three living men stood by a plate of glass window through which four dummies seen to survey the street; a male stripper swinging his meat before a room of women; the street-player playing his accordion in the street, beside his old suitcase containing a scatter of coins; a drama group in extempore; two horses about to mate:a middle-aged woman about to cross the road, holding a single rose; the brilliant artistry of the arc-welder; the steelworks at night. And so forth. What seems to draw Hurn is the momentaneous - the fragile microseconds and nanoseconds which alter everything and which photography can rescue from oblivion, the [often] minor human event about to happen in sequential time, or actually in the process of happening. All in all, this is a formidable array of photographs. The fun starts in this book when the images are cast into a new aesthetic space by Fuller's formally elegant poems. It is entirely fitting that a humane visual artist should turn to an equally humane poet for language. Fuller's poems are classic examples of ekphrasis - they continue the work of interpretation the photographer began. Photographers often claim not to interpret, merely to bear witness; but the decision to take the shot, from that angle, in that light and of that subject is itself an interpretative, if not political, act. Fuller understands this only too well and time and time again takes the artistic endeavor a significant stage further. He is one of those rare poets who gets better and better. Clarity and elegance are his trademarks. He reminds us that formal discipline needs to be carried into vers libre such as this; however loosely he writes, the formal discipline is always there like an instinct in his fingertips. Confronted with so wide an array of classy duotones Fuller shows great tact, even humility, and never over poeticises; he allows the image to be itself and the accompanying poem a version of it, an aesthetic partner than a translation. In the splendid introduction to this book - comprised of a conversation between poet and photographer - Hurn says '...the best photography not only reproduces the visible but also makes visible the unseen'. And that's what Fuller seems to be doing with his spare, clear-minded and gracious poems..[.]. Hurn and Fuller have known each other for twenty years or more and this collaboration is enriched by that knowledge. Of all the many virtues their project possesses the primary one is an overwhelming sense of mutual trust. Tim Liardet, New Welsh Review, Winter 2010

29/11/2010 - 10:21
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Review by TLS

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The book's poetic highlight accompanies a picture of a young girl dressing up in wedding gear and holding daisies. It has the unsentimentality, magic and timelessness of great folk rhyme and song, and it enriches the photograph that brought it into being. At such moments one wonders if perhaps John Fuller could prove to be the popular poet of the age after all. William Wootten, TLS

03/11/2010 - 11:31
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Review from Planet

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Writing the Picture presents a fresh collaboration between image and word, and a new departure for the ever enterprising publishing house, Seren. What is new is that Hurn's documentation of Welsh urban and rural life stretches back over forty years, and his collaboration with Oxford poet John Fuller, over almost twenty. David Hurn is unusual among Magnum photographers in travelling the globe less, in order to keep his focus on his adoptive homeland of Wales. Fuller, an Emeritus Professor in his home city of Oxford with a clutch of important literary prizes, remains more an outside observer, and - the reader senses - has learnt of Wales more through Hurn's eyes than his own. He admits of being "bowled over" at his first sight of the images, so sumarising a principal difference between the collaborators. While photography serves to frame external reality, poetry's first allegiance is to the inner world of the imagination that inventively reframes experience. All in all, this compilation offers a rewarding interplay of image and imagination, picture and text. Like reading a children's storybook, the eye is drawn first to the former and to the latter for further illumination. Amanda Hopkinson, 'Planet', Issue 200

25/10/2010 - 19:20
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Review from The Guardian by Charles Bainbridge

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This impressive collection contains 66 duotone pictures by the magnum photographer David Hurn for which John Fuller has written 50 accompanying poems. Hurn has been consistently photographing and exploring Welsh life since the 1970's and this book grew out a 1989 newspaper project for which Fuller was commissioned to write pieces responding to Hurn's images. The relationship between poem and photo is varied and flexible throughout. The opening piece, for example, is placed between three separate pictures. The first photograph is of a party of schoolchildren preparing to enter the Big Pit Coal Museum at Blaenavon. Fuller responds by giving voice to the sounds experienced on such a journey rather than to the imagery - "She hears only the steady drip / Of the stopped vein, the voice of the mine / Which speaks of profit and fellowship, / The cough, the dark and doubled spine." Another of the three accompanying photos presents the very different mage of two sheep taking shelter from the rain in a narrow hut on Mynydd Eppynt. But here Fuller's wit, his visual sense and his use of comparison transform our experience of the photograph - "And sheep are waiting in a lift / As though they might descend again". These two lines change the image and bring it closer to the subject of the first photograph, the poem standing as an open, flexible link between them. One of the most successful pairings of the book is inspired by another photograph of a sheep, newly shorn. leaping into the air on a sunny day in Snowdonia. The sun, whose intense light emphasises the shadow thrown by a fence across the floor, is compared to a photographer momentarily creating "the sudden illusion of a gate / Laid out in yard-light and concrete'. But it's the poem's final lines describing the bounding sheep that capture Fuller's persistent delight and adeptness in description and that send us hurrying back to the photograph to see it afresh - "Each clipper-nick like a raw hyphen / In the tense of the belly, and the heart pounding." Charles Bainbridge, The Guardian, 2 Oct 2010

17/10/2010 - 20:41
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Review from The Independent

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After initial discussion, included in the fascinating introduction, they concur that the specificity of a poem can only follow on that of the image, not the reverse. Either way, this brave volume offers a proud collaboration between two masters of their chosen arts.

Amanda Hopkinson, The Independent

27/08/2010 - 12:05
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Review from Amateur Photography

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This unique tome is the evolution of a project that began as an assignment for The Independent newspaper, when eminent poet John Fuller agreed to write about Magnum photographer David Hurn's images of Wales, 'as long as the captions could be poetry'. So that is exactly what he did: Fuller wrote original poems to tell a story about the images opposite - and it really works. Fifty of Hurn's duotone reportage images have been chosen, ranging from hen nights to battle reenactments and local tragedies, but astutely we are not told what the pictures are. All we have to go on are Fuller's poems, which probe the emotions and mood captured by the image. Ultimately, this tells a fuller story (no pun intended) than any conventional caption ever could. Jeff Meyer Amateur Photography

23/08/2010 - 11:47


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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
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09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The windows clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

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09/09/2014 - 11:44
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