Known and Strange Things, a new collection of essays by Teju Cole, is a testament to its author’s voracious consumption of culture. Cole is a novelist, art historian, and photographer, and his essays run the gamut of his obsessions. Over the course of the book, he describes having dinner with the Nobel Prize–winning author V.S. Naipaul, experiencing Barack Obama’s election night in Harlem, and retracing James Baldwin’s steps through Switzerland.
But Cole is at his most precise and incisive in the book’s second section, “Seeing Things,” when he turns his attention to the visual arts.
When Cole writes about literature and politics, he writes about individual moments and phrases and authors and politicians that he finds fascinating. When he writes about photography, he writes about a whole aesthetic: what photography means to the world, why it’s important, how it’s changing, what makes it good.
So while his literary criticism can be hard going if you’re not familiar with the exact book he’s discussing, his art criticism is wildly compelling even if you’ve never heard of the artist he’s writing about.
In “Memories of Things Unseen,” Cole writes about how photography can function as the only representation of something lost or destroyed. His associations careen from the German artist Thomas Demand to a missing van Gogh painting to Snapchat, always returning to the central idea of photography as memorial:
Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. … [Photography] is about retention: not only the ability to make an image directly out of the interaction between light and the tangible world but also the possibility of saving that image. A shadow thrown onto a wall is not photography. But if the wall is photosensitive and the shadow remains after the body has moved on, that is photography. Human creativity, since the beginning of art, has found ways to double the visible world. What photography did was to give the world a way to double its own appearance: the photograph results directly from what is, from the light that travels from a body through an aperture onto a surface.
But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.
The elegance of Cole’s writing here is extraordinary: He isolates a single idea with exactitude and precision, and then plays out all its implications and ambiguities. And when he writes about photography, he links the form to fundamental questions about why we need art and how we remember.
That quality is what makes the wide-ranging and erudite Known and Strange Things such a terrific collection of essays from one of our greatest public intellectuals.