Image-text photobooks in a nutshell #12: Taco Hidde Bakker on The Snail in the Meadow by Oscar van Alphen
by Taco Hidde Bakker
We asked a pool of international photobook experts to share with us an image-text photobook they find particularly interesting, regardless of its publication date and where text is a fundamental element in the narrative (not a mere introduction or essay on the photoworks). Here Taco Hidde Bakker reveals why Oscar Van Alphen’s De slak op het grasveld [The Snail in the Meadow], first published by Fragment in 1991 (191 pages), has made a lasting impression on him.
My modest library contains a photobook that surprises me every time I rediscover it: the curious The Snail in the Meadow (1991), in which the photographer and theorist Oscar van Alphen (1923–2010) combines image and text by way of free association. Its title is taken from György Konrád’s novel A Feast in the Garden (1989), whose narrator — apparently Konrád’s alter ego — recounts how he tries to be as small, invisible and calm as possible, neither wanting to shout from the rooftops the few things he understands, nor wishing to participate in the latest craze, since he thinks that ‘the snail on the meadow shall still be fashionable tomorrow’.
Sometimes I ponder
The clouds in the blue
In which our heroic deeds
are to be found
Oscar van Alphen
Despite its odd interplay between image and text (on levels of both substance and form), The Snail in the Meadow appears to be natural and self-evident, as if this book could not have come into being otherwise. Van Alphen gave designer Wigger Bierma carte blanche to draw from his entire archive of ‘candid’ photographs, images Van Alphen had shot randomly or in the margins of assignments across Europe. The selection ranges from photographs documenting political rallies to still life and landscape images.
All things that form the ordinary,
the trivial detail, the insignificant,
inglorious days and daily life,
can and should be mentioned.
Even better if they would be written down.
They have become describable and transcribable,
precisely to the degree in which they are permeated
with the mechanism of political power.
That in the business of the everyday
could exist something like a secret to be unriddled,
and that insignificant things may take on importance,
remained unseen until the moment when these miniscule disturbances
where gazed upon by the colorless eyes of power.
Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976
In the late 1950s, the early days of his career, Van Alphen worked in the humanist tradition with a particular focus on children in urban public spaces. In the 1980s, after having become dissatisfied with conventional applications of photojournalism, he began to expand his practice. This led to innovative projects, most notably the slide and sound installation The Wars (1985), a daunting visual essay in which Van Alphen combined his photographs of the May ‘68 protests in Paris with those of desolate mining areas in northern France and Belgium, and animated these with spoken fragments from Georges Bataille’s Madame Edwarda (1937).
The mirror was a great help to me: I gave it the job of teaching me that I was a monster; if it would succeed my bitter remorse would turn to pity. But, most importantly, the failure having revealed my servility to me, I uglified myself to make my slavishness impossible, to renounce men, and have them renounce me. The Comedy of Evil was being played against the Comedy of Good; Eliakim was acting the part of Quasimodo. By screwing and wrinkling it up, I was altering my face; I was throwing acid at myself to efface my old smiles. The remedy was worse than the disease: I had tried to take refuge from glory and dishonour in the loneliness of my true self; but I had no true self: I found nothing except a surprised insipidity. Before my eyes a jellyfish was striking against the glass of the aquarium, feebly gathering its ruffle and fraying into the shadows. Night fell and inky clouds invaded the mirror, burying my final incarnation. Deprived of an alibi, I fell back on myself. In the darkness I sensed a vague hesitation, a banging noise, a whole living creature—most terrifying and the only thing of which I could not be afraid. I fled; and in the light resumed my role of tarnished cherub. In vain. The mirror had told me what I had always known: I was horribly ordinary. I have never gotten over it.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Les Mots, Paris: 1964
Van Alphen’s new conceptual approach, which, we might say, amounted to experiments in visual theory, culminated in The Snail in the Meadow, comprising a gamut of black-and-white and colour images in capricious dialogue with selected quotations by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Heiner Müller, Milorad Pavic and Theodor Adorno. In a pamphlet entitled ‘The Evil Eye’ (1991), Van Alphen himself described The Snail in the Meadow as ‘a book with photographs whose candour invites you to formulate a sentence, a single word or perhaps even a story, photos who don’t report on anything special and whose grey skies dissolve into the paper white, photos that can be threaded together like Queneau’s exercises in style, that retain their mystery without being mysterious.’
The child’s eyes transfixed in the night.
The horror between two walls rise like the wind on the sea.
A very old, broken woman threatens me with her stick,
a man made invisible by the stunning ring observes me continuously,
God ‘who sees everything and knows all our thoughts’ watches me sternly.
The white curtain loosens itself from the window, it floats through the night,
it bears down on me and takes me with it: softly gliding through the window I rise to heaven…
Laure (Colette Peignot), Les écrits de Laure, Paris: 1977
‘The image is a constellation in which that which has been converges in a flash with the now.’ According to Walter Benjamin, who included this insight in his far-flung and eventually unfinished Arcades Project (1927-1940), this relationship between perfectum and praesens is dialectical. The following line by Benjamin, cited in The Snail in the Meadow, may be read as shibboleth, providing a point of entry to ‘reading’ Van Alphen and Bierma’s wedding of photographic images with philosophical and literary snapshots: ‘The legible image, that is to say the image at the moment of understanding, bears to a large degree the stamp of the critical, dangerous moment, that underpins every reading.’
Although this line may be read as entry point, the most intriguing books come without a reader’s guide. The unorthodox premise of The Snail in the Meadow can be easily misunderstood. Is it because it appears as resistant to the whims of fashion as the snail that dangerously crosses the seemingly infinite meadow? The intangible interplay between image and text here seems to allude to the inter–legere of intelligence: the reading and collecting in between (the lines), thereby resisting image as illustration and text as explanation. This book forms a printed and bound Hyper-Image-Text conjunction that was published in the very same year that saw the first-ever web page go online.
Taco Hidde Bakker works as a writer, translator, researcher, and sparring partner for artists. His writings reflect on many different topics, as seen through the prisms of photography, cinema, and the visual arts. His essays, reviews and other writings are to be found in various artist’s books and in international magazines such as Camera Austria International,