The blind spot is the point of entry of the optic nerve to the retina that lacks sensitivity to light. It is an area where a person’s view is obstructed, where visual information is missing. Normally sighted people compensate through inference from past experience—patterns of repetitions become recognitions that generate expectations filling in the blanks of absent visuals so that we don’t notice the lacunae. But how does this work? What is seeing? What are the limits of vision? How do we observe and make sense out of it all?
These are the questions explored by Nigerian-American essayist and award-winning novelist Teju Cole, who is also the New York Times Magazine’s photography critic, in Blind Spot, a first collection of more than 150 of his original color photographs inspired by his extensive travels. Each picture is accompanied by a textual commentary on how the world emerges through his lens. The outcome is a lyric essay that combines photography and text in a unique blend of visual and narrative art via a multimedia travel journal, an aide-memoir on perceiving place.
“We see the world: this simple statement becomes . . . a tangled tree of meanings. Which world? See how? We who?”
Blind spot has a very personal meaning to Cole who had to reorient his ways of seeing and negotiating space after suddenly developing a serious eye condition.
“In the spring of 2011, shortly after I turned thirty-six, after a brief episode of blindness, I received a diagnosis of papillophlebitis and underwent surgery to repair a number of perforations in the retina of my left eye. The photography changed after that. The looking changed.”
This personal insight follows a short comment on the anguish suffered by the painter Degas who, also at 36, developed the retinopathy that curtailed his work. This vignette is paired with a soft-toned photograph of a living room in Tivoli, a small village in Dutchess County, New York. A close-up shows a well-used armchair beside a fireplace mantel displaying a small statue of a godlike figure driving a horse-drawn chariot, with a mirror hanging above on floral wallpaper drawing the viewer into the fuzzy reflection of the curtained window opposite. Frames within ever-smaller frames. The fear of artists who live by their sight of losing it is palpable.
“To look is to see only a fraction of what one is looking at. Even in the most vigilant eye, there is a blind spot. What is missing?”
This is Cole’s genius—to make us see what is not seen. He does this by concentrating on the mundane sights of everyday life he experiences on his world travels. So you won’t find pretty pictures of conventional tourist destinations, rather he shows us what locals might see on their daily rounds or what he sees from his hotel room or rental house or on rambles around town and country. A park in Berlin, a mountain range in Switzerland, ships off Capri, a church façade in Lagos, a parking lot in Brooklyn.
In other words, Cole is not the fly in fly out kind of photojournalist. Rather he comes across as a peripatetic sojourner who is, at the same time, a visual ethnographer cum archaeologist excavating enigmatic artifacts to uncover the hidden, unexpected and sometimes strange.
We jump around the globe in dizzying fashion—Chicago, Brazzaville, Beirut, Nuremberg, Auckland, Sao Paulo, Lugano, Bombay, Seoul, Mexico City, Palermo, Vancouver and many more. These destinations are not packaged together tidily but are scattered throughout the book, so the reader/viewer is not fed an easy pre-digested experience.
But the arrangement is not at all random. After 50 photo essays or so, you start to discern patterning and continuity in topics, symbols, and motifs while the texts often back-reference each other and self-reference Cole’s persona in the unpacking of a single theme.
The reading is made even more difficult for some by Cole’s erudition, especially his depth and breadth of knowledge of Western mythology, religion, literature, and art history. Intrigued readers whose knowledge of these areas is cursory or rusty may spend a lot of time Googling allusions to Homer and the like. This is a book where you slowly absorb the picture and what Cole is trying to make us see, then tease apart his elegant and positioned verbal expositions seeking the marriage between the two.
Grappling for meaning is made even more difficult by the paucity of human anchors in the scenes portrayed. Most photographs highlight textures, angles, shapes, and symbols. Few include people and those that do are likely to show a back or a silhouette with facial features obscured. The meaning of this moment is always in flux. The photographer has to sense the instant to capture.
“Your progress is not a line, direct or winding, from one point to another, but a flickering series of scenes . . . In the middle of this multidimensional movement you must decide when to push the shutter, decide which of these rapidly refreshing instants is more interesting than the others around it. A second before, it has not yet arrived. A second later, it is irretrievably gone.”
A photograph presented near the beginning of the collection taken in Brazzaville shows a boy wearing a white shirt and black gloves playing on a railing above the rushing river. His face is in shadow.
“Ahead of him is the cross on which he is supported, reinterpreted as red elements of iron and painted concrete, On the boy’s body is the infant Christ’s towel, the condemned Christ’s loincloth, the Sudarium of Saint Veronica, the linen shroud of burial: white cloth on a body, the solid-fluid that mediates between the cross and the river. Behind him the river rushes. Is he a type of Christ, or is he an angel (that glove is as intense and uncanny as a pair of wings), or is he Saint Christopher, the Christ bearer at the river’s lip? But all three are carriers, and types of one another too. Like them, the boy moves between metaphors. Suddenly, he lowers his head, his eyes disappear.”
There is much to ponder here. And we are not yet done.
The last photograph in the book is the same scene developed differently.
“Darkness is not empty. While preparing this book, I rescanned the negative of the boy by the Congo. ‘His eyes disappear,’ I had written. But all of a sudden, with slightly altered settings, I could now see his face, his eyes. Darkness is not empty, it is information at rest.”
Teju Cole is far from being the first to explore the artistic potential of pairing words and visuals. But his uniquely eclectic take on the marriage opens a window on a whole new way of viewing the world wherein the reader learns to see not only the component parts, but the way these elements relate to each other against a backdrop of the unseen. In the process, you may uncover your own blind spots.