Books interview: Kate Flint

The author of Flash! on photography in fiction and poetry, and the power of the photographic image

November 23, 2017
Kate Flint

What sort of books inspired you as a child?

I modelled myself on a combination of Nancy Blackett, in the Swallows and Amazons books, Jennings and Tom Sawyer – when I didn’t think that I was a horse.

Your new book Flash! traces the development of flash photography back to its origins in the 19th century. Which general books on the history or aesthetics of photography would you recommend?

Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida prompts us to think about what photography is and why it has such a personal impact on us. Robin Kelsey’s Photography and the Art of Chance offers a grand arc of photographic history and shows us how to look carefully at images. Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History moves us beyond photography as fine art. Susan Sontag’s polemical On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others provoke us to recognise photography’s invasive, discomforting powers.

What are your favourite accounts of photography and photographers in fiction?

Amy Levy’s 1888 The Romance of a Shop is a great story of a family of women who run a photography business in London in the Victorian period. In fictionalising Edward Curtis, Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher puts across plenty of photographic history while moving between past and present, and gets us to ask how far we may trust photographic records. Penelope Lively’s The Photograph plays with the disquieting puzzles posed by a photograph found after a woman’s death. But photography is perhaps best served by poetry: Sharon Olds’ I go back to May 1937, which always makes me tear up; George Szirtes’ Kertész: Latrine; and Philip Larkin’s slightly creepy On Looking Into a Young Girl’s Photograph Album. Poetry is so good at bringing out the lacerating, irrevocable pastness of a photo.

Which books spurred you to focus on the specific impact of flash photography?

None! I wrote this book because it didn’t exist. That said, writing by Alan Trachtenberg, Elizabeth Edwards, Miles Orvell and Raphael Samuel provided models for the kind of writing I was aiming for in Flash! These scholars see photography as a medium with particular characteristics, whether it’s documentary or art, vernacular or commercial. They look at the role of photography in everyday life. And, most important to me, they understand that photography’s development is inseparable from broader technological, consumer and social shifts.

What is the last book that you gave as a gift, and to whom?

Sue Grafton’s latest, Y is for Yesterday, to my parents (and then I’ll borrow it).

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?

I’m currently writing about the Victorians’ observation of the ordinary, the everyday, and their ecological world – and artists today who take up 19th-century styles and allusions to ask questions about today’s environmental crises. So at the top of the pile are Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia; Jesse Oak Taylor and Tobias Menely’s new collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times; and a lot of Richard Jefferies.

Kate Flint is provost professor of art history and English at the University of Southern California and the author of Flash!: Photography, Writing, & Surprising Illumination (Oxford University Press).

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