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Photographs that may deaden the prose of a fiction writer might enliven the work of an essayist; the same photographs that enable the precision of the journalist might inspire the whimsy of a poet.Digital photography, endless and inexpensive, has made us all into archivists.
Whole writing exercises are devoted to photographs: choose a picture and create a narrative from its visual content; provide a photograph and ask a writer to use a person or an object in it as a character or prop for a story.
Both fiction and nonfiction writers walk with this crutch, hobbling their way through writer’s block or memory loss.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of the selfie coincides with the age of autobiography.
Photography engenders a new kind of ekphrasis, especially when the writer herself is the photographer.
Last year, I wrote something about a leech salesman whom I’d met in Istanbul.
Weeks later, a friend who had been with me in Turkey wrote to say how impressed she was by the particulars that I had been able to recount.“Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” documented Henkel’s findings after taking two groups of students through an art museum.The first group was instructed to observe works of art for thirty seconds, the other group observed the art for twenty seconds and then photographed it; the next day, both groups were surveyed about what they remembered.That is why I have found myself so willing to put down my notebooks and rely fully on my photo stream.My photographs are a more useful first draft than my attempted prose was, a richer archive than the pages of my binders.I can’t remember exactly when I stopped carrying a notebook.Sometime in the past year, I gave up writing hurried descriptions of people on the subway, copying the names of artists from museum walls and the titles of books in stores, and scribbling down bits of phrases overheard at restaurants and cafés.When my own albums fail me, I go down the rabbit hole of Google image search.James Wood, in “How Fiction Works,” writes that photographs can deaden prose.Even when I’m writing longhand, it’s rare that I do not have my photo gallery open, or have a few photographs in front of me.If I am trying to describe a place, I find pictures that I took of that place; if I am sketching a human subject, I look for images of her.