W.G. Sebald (1944-2001)

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

Some of you, looking at the pictures which here and there illustrate my story, may think that I have stolen this idea, the melancholic photograph, which encapsulates the preceding text and departs from it at the same time, like an Aufhebung, the synthetic term of a dialectical movement, from the German writer W.G. Sebald, who illustrated (if that is the right word) his books with photographs.

How, you are asking, can I think that, by setting photographs alongside the text of this Commentary, I will do anything more than Sebald already did? How can I hope that I will do nearly as much? Listen, this is my answer to you: I don’t hope that at all. Of course, I am stealing, and so what? Those of you who guessed my game a page ago aren’t harmed by it. Those of you who don’t know W.G. Sebald’s work might, on the basis of my frank acknowledgment that his use of the photographic image is canonical, pentaxical, and also nikonical, be tempted to take a look at one of his books, The Emigrants, maybe.

I will go farther. Wouldn’t Sebald be disappointed if he thought (if he hadn’t died in a car accident, in 2001) that no one had imitated him? I think he would rather know that his photograph-and-text way of working, which he must have developed carefully over a long period of time (unless he stole it from someone else?), had become a widely used technique. So it was among the painters, once. Chiaroscuro, modelling by means of shadows, was invented by monks, illuminating manuscripts. Soon everyone was doing it: Rafael, Tintoretto, Ugo da Carpi, Caravaggio, who had the nerve to rename it tenebrism—as if he had invented it himself. At least I haven’t called my technique anything: photomelancholism, for example. I leave that to someone else: one of you, maybe, you critics, you.

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