Book review: the seen and unseen in Teju Cole’s Blind Spot

Blind Spot reverses the formula, with hundreds of Cole’s photographs illuminated, explained or mystified by brief snippets of text.

American writer and photographer Teju Cole in Ramallah, West Bank, 2014. His images are of the physical world seen at a tilt. Rob Stothard / Getty Images
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This book is enough to make the average person jealous. Teju Cole has spent the past decade or so travelling the world, primarily in his guise as a celebrated writer of fiction and polemical essays, taking photographs of what he has seen. From LaGuardia airport in New York to Beirut, to Rome to Nairobi to Zurich, Cole has come back with evidence of the physical world, always seen at a tilt.

Cole, the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine, has written at length about his work in the past, and each of his previous three books have included photos interspersed in the text, in the vein of the late W G Sebald's work. Blind Spot reverses the formula, with hundreds of Cole's photographs illuminated, explained or mystified by brief snippets of text.

It feels surprisingly challenging to describe a writer’s visual work, when he has already taken a first stab at those descriptions. But as those familiar with his earlier efforts might expect, Cole prefers images that initially surprise and confound the sense of sight.

We look at what appears to be a classroom set up on a city street, or a stand of palm trees on an Omaha sidewalk, and it takes us a long moment to distinguish the real from the imagined. Cole is teaching us to see after his own fashion: “This in part was why signs, pictures, ads, and murals came to mean so much: they were neither more nor less than the ‘real’ elements by which they were framed.”

A crabbier critic might argue that Cole's book is symptomatic of a culture ill-inclined to close Twitter and immerse fully into a work of literature that demands our attention. There may be something to that, but Blind Spot aligns nicely with recent work by Sarah Manguso, Sheila Heti, and Jenny Offill.

The text entries here are sometimes akin to parables, sometimes to fragments of an imagined larger text, sometimes to acidulous political commentaries, sometimes to diary entries. At times, the photos directly depict the action described in the text; at others, the relationship is loose at best. Cole expects our occasional confusion, and he seeks to stem our frustration with hints studded through the book: “Your progress is not a line, direct or winding, from one point to another, but a flickering series of scenes.”

The scenes here are organised loosely thematically, rather than geographically. Chris Marker's unclassifiable masterpiece Sans Soleil, about another world traveller, is a touchstone here ("I pray to Tarkovsky, Marker, and Hitchcock," notes Cole), and like spotting cats in Marker's films, Cole expects attentive readers to identify resonances across continents and eras. That photo of the hotel armoire looks familiar from the 2016 essay collection Known and Strange Things; these photos are all of ladders, everywhere from an Italian cemetery to Cern, the high-energy physics laboratory, in Switzerland.

Cole’s framing is perpetually off-kilter, deliberately chosen but purposefully eschewing context. One compelling shot of a young man, hoodie flung over his head, talking in a New York phone booth, is artfully framed to take in just enough of the surroundings and streetscape to tell us precisely nothing about where the picture might have been taken. Cole wants to confound and confuse us, wants us to hunger for the perspective that he refuses to provide.

A photograph, in Cole’s equation, is less about what is depicted than what is not, just as a photographer is less the sum of his images than of those potential images he eschewed, ignored, or overlooked: “A photograph, which cannot contain all that swaggers on the eye, can at the same time reveal what the photographer did not see at the time.”

A plastic water bottle on a restaurant table in Ferrara surprises Cole by looking disarmingly similar to the campanile depicted in a painting on the wall behind it.

The book is itself named after an essay of Cole's, first collected between hard covers as the coda to Known and Strange Things. In it, Cole is at a writers' residency in upstate New York (that travelling bug again) when he wakes one morning to find "a gray veil across the visual field of my left eye". The malady is ultimately diagnosed as papillophlebitis, and Cole's doctor told him it was unlikely to recur. "But of course big blind spot did recur," Cole concludes. "That insurgent area of darkness took over my eye, and I returned to the hospital later in the year, and again it cleared up. And I expect that it will happen again, and again, until it is supplanted by something worse, as it was written."

This story of a frightening but mostly benign health scare comes to stand for something more for the author, a memento mori and a philosophical reminder of the limitations of the artist. Darkness is forever encroaching, sometimes without our knowledge, and the insurgents are forever on the move.

Vision and photography and mortality are like vines that wrap around each other until where one starts and another ends grows unclear. For Cole, his books, too, are all tendrils of the same branch, "so that at times I feel as though the photographs and captions in Blind Spot have escaped from a novel named Open City, or that there are things said here, and which belong here, that first belonged in Known and Strange Things."

If any single image can be said to capture the disarming aesthetic of Cole’s work, it may be a seemingly simple picture of a peeling, broken screen door, taken in the upstate New York town of Tivoli. A closer look reveals confounding questions, and a riot of competing textures: painted wood, metal handle, plastic tarping, mesh screening. Where do we look first? What is primary, and what is secondary?

Our eyes warp reality, unable to entirely resolve the question of the relationship of foreground to background. There is, quite literally, nothing of interest in Cole’s photograph, and yet the picture asks us to consider the author-artist’s connective, suggestive aesthetic: “It is also the way those things relate to one another, the way they combine and recombine.”

The photograph itself raises the question of how things, known and strange, relate to each other, and the dichotomy of image and text, of two differing but overlapping means of expression, raise it anew. Which here is meant to be the text, and which the commentary? To which do we direct our attention first?

Cole has no answers, although there are hints in the text of how he might prefer us to consider his work. "I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance," Cole quotes Sojourner Truth on her photography side business, but for Cole, which is shadow, and which substance? "This book stands on its own," Cole tells us near Blind Spot's conclusion. "But it can also be seen as the fourth in a quartet of books about the limits of vision."

Blind Spot is ultimately neither a photography book nor an essay collection, its implicit desire to frustrate any and all such assumptions about what we might expect from it. It is a travel book not much interested in travel: "I keep deferring my arrival at the destination. The destination is to arrive at this perpetual deferral, to never reach the destination. I dream all day. At night I dream of drifting."

Instead, Cole is aiming for a hybrid inspired by Sebald but not entirely akin to The Rings of Saturn or Austerlitz (no relation). It is the shock of the new that motivates Cole to lift his camera to his eye, to place his fingers above his keyboard: "When I make a work, no matter how small, no matter how doomed to be forgotten, only its poetic possibility interests me, those moments in which it escapes into some new being. If everything else succeeds but the poetry fails, then everything has failed."

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.