You could describe them as artworks

W.G. Sebald’s image practice, and an accomplice, emerge from the shadows

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Besprochene Bücher / Literaturhinweise

In an essay intended to mark the centenary of Kafka’s birth, Sebald looked askance at the “great hordes of critics and commentators who have already worked at the exhumation and reconstruction of Kafka’s writing, and nowhere is an end in sight.” Although, as he goes on to stress, with characteristic acidity, “this is not to say that all interpretations can claim the same degree of legitimacy.” Pausing to consider the mountains of Sebald criticism and commentary produced in the generation since his death, it is easy to invest these remarks with a prophetic, self-reflexive character. As for the volume which sits before me, there can be no doubts about its legitimacy. Edited by two of his former colleagues at the University of East Anglia (UEA), Nick Warr and Clive Scott, it makes the remarkable claim to have catalogued “all known negatives relating to Sebald’s published works from the University of East Anglia, the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach, and the Sebald estate”. In many respects, Shadows of Reality is a complement, and occasionally a corrective, to the indispensable Sebald handbook Saturn’s Moons (2011), produced by another pair of Sebald’s UEA contemporaries, Jo Catling and Richard Hibbitt. Like its predecessor, it will henceforth serve as an absolutely necessary source of education, raw material and enjoyment for anyone with a serious interest in Sebald.

Warr and Scott’s volume organises its images chronologically, according to when they were taken—a sensible move, particularly when one remembers that English translations of Sebald’s narratives and poems appeared in a jumbled order in respect to their German models. For example, After Nature, Michael Hamburger’s translation of Nach der Natur (1988), only emerged in 2002. By beginning with the slides Sebald had made of Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, subjects of the first part of that book, we are better able to appreciate Sebald’s longstanding interest in early modern visual art. This prepares us for the closely following negatives of Pisanello’s St. George and the Princess, which play an important part in Sebald’s first major prose narrative, Schwindel. Gefühle. (1990), whose English translation, Vertigo, didn’t appear until 1999. In addition to negatives, Shadows of Reality also comprises prints of all those images which Sebald appears to have considered for inclusion in publications, as well as many of a more general interest, such as photographs taken on research trips. All of these are arranged with great flair by designer and typesetter Emily Benton. Finally, and perhaps most usefully for scholars, the volume concludes with a near-comprehensive inventory of all the images which do appear in Sebald’s published works, listed in order of their appearance. Beside a small reproduction of each image are page numbers corresponding to its positions in both German and English language first editions, a note of Sebald’s source—in some cases, he would dredge numerous images from one volume—and details of where his copy is now held (in Marbach or East Anglia, for the most part).

Sebald spoke and wrote enviously about the painter’s handicraft, lamenting that writing offered fewer opportunities for manipulation. But, of course, he found ways of bringing a peculiar Handwerk to bear upon his images, not to mention their surrounding text. The front cover of Shadows of Reality suggests as much, reproducing part of a photograph familiar to readers of Austerlitz (2001), Sebald’s last major prose work. Taken in Terezín, once the Theresienstadt ghetto, in the centre of the picture is a faux-antique porcelain figure rearing up from behind a row of grubby brass cups. It has been taken through a shop window which registers the faint reflection of the photographer, Sebald himself. On top of the photographic image are black felt-tip pen lines indicating the square section to be excised for publication. This hints at Sebald’s solution to his own visual-artistic limitations, which was to bring another pair of hands into his working process—those of Michael Brandon-Jones, photographer in UEA’s Art History department. From the mid-1980s onwards, the two cemented “an extraordinary but little-known creative partnership”, as Warr puts it in his preface, whereby Brandon-Jones would re-photograph Sebald’s images, including the author’s own photographs, as well as “reproductions from library books, microfilm, postcards, photocopies, 16mm movie film, receipts, children’s drawings and an assortment of found photographs gleaned from anonymous family albums and the shelves of junk shops.”

It was the images in Sebald’s works which first attracted the attention, and very often reverence, of anglophone readers and critics unused to seeing text interrupted in such a way. An extended interview between Warr and Brandon-Jones produced expressly for Shadows of Reality helps to foreground the latter’s decisive contribution to that acclaim. And, for good measure, there is even a self-portrait, dated 1970, of the photographer at work in the UEA dark room. There was nothing autocratic about this partnership, although Sebald did grow more exacting in his specifications with each passing book. At one point, for instance, Brandon-Jones admits to having made his own pencil alterations to one of Sebald’s photocopies before photographing it. “I do not think I told Max,” says the photographer. “You could describe the black-and-white prints as artworks,” concedes Brandon-Jones on Warr’s prompting. Shadows of Reality answers that question, quite definitively, in the affirmative.

Together with the interview, a further six essays precede the images in this volume, each of which has more merits than can be enumerated here. Warr brings his art-historical learning to bear on Sebald’s works, and it is refreshing to see a relatively neglected work like Vertigo discussed in the same breath as the likes of Tina Campt and François Laruelle, rather than the usual names (Barthes, Sontag, et al.). Scott, in his own contribution, has important things to say for differences in “linguistic/photographic distribution” between German and English language editions of Sebald’s works. Gordon Turner, who took up a lectureship in UEA’s German Sector in the same year as Sebald, provides an instructive synthesis of various remarks on photography made by the author in interviews. Then there are refreshing digressions from the academic line by Glen Jamieson, a photographer, and Francisco Cantú, a writer and translator. Worth singling out for special praise is “a portrait of Sebald’s image practice” by Angela Breidbach, an art historian by trade, which is one of the most original and illuminating pieces written on Sebald in recent years. Breidbach makes the case, conclusively, one hopes, that “Sebald’s images in the books do not lack captions, as is often stated,” before launching into a rich, all too brief discussion of the intricate and protean allegorical patterning of Die Ringe des Saturn (1995).

As much as it is a massive and admiring account of Sebald’s image practice, Shadows of Reality is at the same time an effort in de-canonisation. In bringing to light, in vivid detail, the collaborative nature of that practice, Sebald’s part in it comes to seem more workaday. As Warr puts it, “the photographs included here are not special because they were taken by a famous author.” They are significant because “they represent a different genus of thinking” (and doing, I might add). This genus has none of the theoretical coherence, nor the sovereign solitude, ascribed to it by some Sebald critics, and still wants for fuller definition. Shadows of Reality provides an extraordinarily broad and sound basis from which to resume that effort on a different footing.


Clive Scott / Nick Warr (Hg.): Shadows of Reality. A Catalogue of W.G. Sebald’s Photographic Materials.
Boiler House Press, Norwich 2023.
463 Seiten, 53,00 EUR.
ISBN-13: 9781911343660

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