Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Looking sideways at life

“Blind spot” is a book of photographs taken by Teju Cole on his global travels and each of the images is accompanied by text on the facing page. Surprise number one: there is often a disconnect between the pictures and the prose; what you see does not always relate to what you read.


Blind SpotSean Sheehan


The second surprise is that most of the photographs are not very good. Yet – and this is puzzling – there is a peculiar pleasure in reading and viewing this book.

The subject matter of the photographs is commonplace – street scenes, room interiors, walls, trees, places – and the photographer’s sense of composition and viewpoint is usually just as banal.

The passages of text on each page are brief, more like aphorisms or visual anecdotes than developed pieces of prose, and some of them fail to impress. So where is the source of this book’s appeal?

There is a space, literally on the page but more importantly in the mind of the reader, between each picture and the facing text.

The language of the image speaks plainly and for itself; the language of the text is lyrical, philosophical and reflective. Being too obvious is not Cole’s shtick. He prefers to be allusive and to come at something sideways.

Teju Cole - Schriftsteller und Fotograf
Teju Cole – Schriftsteller und Fotograf

In Holbien’s famous painting, ‘The Ambassadors’, the artist places a skull on the canvas but its appearance is distorted and only recognisable by looking at the painting from the side. A version of this technique, called anamorphosis, may explain Cole’s approach– hence the title he has chosen for his book.

A blind spot is the point where the optic nerve enters the retina. It is insensitive to light but the blind spot that results is not registered as such by the eye.

We get so used to it that it fails to disturb our sense of clear vision. Cole uses this biological fact as a metaphor for the gaps we allow into our understanding.

On one page we read how waking life can be haunted by anxieties that surface in dreams: “The soul cries wolf often”, he notes, “then one day the wolf appears for real”. The accompanying photo shows a ruffled pillow on a bed.

New York City May 2015 (2)
New York City May 2015

Another page shows the back of a woman walking down a street in New York. Cole has followed her for one block: “On Instagram, the ones who see what you see are called your followers. The word has a disquieting air.”

A photo of trees in autumn accompanies the observation that colour is the sound an object makes in response to light: ‘Objects don’t speak unless spoken to. An object does not have a colour, it makes a colour (the way a bell makes a sound).’

“Blind spot” may or may not work for you. You’ll either dismiss it as pseudo-profound mutterings by a not-very-good photographer or delight in poetic musings and haunting mental spaces brought into the light by the act of looking and reading sideways.

“Blind Spot” by Teju Cole is published by Faber & Faber.

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