One of the funny things about “novels with pictures in them” is that, as I’ve said before, no one really agrees on what to call them, be it “illustrated novels”, or “iconotexts”, or “image-texts”, or “novels with photographs”, or “photography-embedded fiction”, or “pictorial/visual fiction”, or indeed “picture novels”, as I’ve been calling them so far, somewhat unhappily (perhaps I should just stick to “novels with pictures in them”).
Yet another term that is sometimes used to refer to this type of book is “photo-text”. Or, since nothing is ever simple and straightforward, perhaps that should be “phototext”, or, why not, “photo text”. I don’t know. Gertrude Stein had it easy, I think, since she could claim without too much doubt that “a rose is a rose is a rose”. Likewise, I’d be inclined to say that “a photo-text is a phototext is a photo text”. But is that really the case? Perhaps not.
I had initially thought that it was Wright Morris who had coined the term “photo-text”. Indeed, in an article in an issue of The Yale Journal of Criticism, Alan Trachtenberg claims that Morris used the term – in its hyphenated version – to describe the books he composed using his own texts and black-and-white photographs: The Inhabitants in 1946, The Home Place in 1948, and God’s Country and My People in 1968 (Morris’s Love Affair – A Venetian Journal, published in 1972, includes colour photographs). Trachtenberg refers to a volume edited by James Alinder and entitled Wright Morris: Photographs & Words for Morris’s account of the origins of the “photo-texts”, but I still need to get hold of a copy so as to be able to read the account myself.
But then, as I discovered a couple of weeks ago while reading Pierre Assouline’s biography of Georges Simenon, in 1931 the French publisher Jacques Haumont launched a new series of novels combining text and image entitled “Phototexte” (no hyphen). Due to disappointing sales and a dispute between Simenon and the publisher, the first and ultimately only book in the series turned out to be La Folle d’Itteville by Simenon and the photographer Germaine Krull.
This would seem to mean that Haumont was the first to use the term, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Trachtenberg was mistaken, of course. It would be surprising if Morris had heard of Simenon, let alone read La Folle d’Itteville, so perhaps Morris, too, paradoxically, was also the first to use the term “phototext”, though at a later date. But then again, who’s to say that Haumont was the first to use it, if he was at all? Perhaps he wasn’t. But then, when was it first used? And by whom? And what did the term refer to?
I got to thinking about all this recently when I came across a series of essays on photography in a small volume entitled Photo Texts (published by Travelling Light in 1988), a collection of writings by Peter Turner and Gerry Badger on photography: it consists of reviews of photography exhibitions and books, and essays to accompany exhibition catalogues. So there’s another meaning and another spelling. Photo Texts contains only one photograph, by Brian Griffin.