The Colorado Poet, Issue #39, Spring 2024

Black Boxes, Pencils of Light, and A Moon Shell: Kathryn Winograd on writing and photographing her new hybrid book, This Visible Speaking: Catching Light Through The Camera’s Eye (The Humble Essayist Press, March 15, 2024).

Kathryn Winograd is a Colorado poet, essayist, and photographer. Her work includes Air Into Breath, a Colorado Book Award winner and alternate for the Yale Series for Younger Poets, Flying Beneath the Dog Star: Poems from the Pandemic, a semi-finalist for the Finishing Line Press 2020 Open Chapbook Contest, and Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, a Bronze Medalist in Essay for the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her essays have been published in numerous journals including River Teeth and and her poetry in places as diverse as The New Yorker and Cricket Magazine for Children.

BF: One of the reviews of your new hybrid book, This Visible Speaking: Catching Light Through The Camera’s Eye, says that contemporary digital media has made text and image “more immediately interactive.” Can you talk more about this? How does your book accomplish this interactivity?  

KW: Thank you for that question, Beth. There’s a great article in ARTFORUM that asks whether art and the “digital revolution” have really commingled on an authentic artistic level, rather than it just being the use of technology during the production process. But then the author puts forth this thesis:

 that the digital is, on a deep level, the shaping condition—even the structuring paradox—that determines artistic decisions to work with certain formats and media.  

I’m not in the company of the artists this article probes in depth, but the article does reinforce what I’ve been thinking about lately: how the phenomena of the digital camera enable a newcomer like me to both artistically, and mechanically, change my vision of the world around me. And that, in turn, opens for me, internally and textually, associations, memories, and metaphors that might never have manifested themselves.

Francis Frith, a 19th century British photographer, said something I find true:

Every stone, every little perfection, or dilapidation, the most minute detail,
which, in an ordinary drawing would merit no special attention, becomes, on a photograph, worthy of careful study.

Through the technology of digital media— my digital camera and lenses and computer software— I can zoom into the hidden details and patterns of objects. What is ordinary becomes “other” to me, inviting creative textual responses. I am fascinated by the small, the beautiful, the fleeting, the barely visible organic and inorganic objects that exist unnoticed in a landscape until my camera’s eye catches what I have yet to see.  3 a.m. and Taking the Puppy for a Pee Beneath a New Moon is a piece in the book that emerged from a photograph I took of a Cape Cod Moon Shell, a rather stinky bleached casing of a univalve gastropod I carted home with me. I began photographing it for a class and, after a bit, decided to try underexposing the photo a tad and increasing the contrast between shadow and light.  Those tiny manipulations transfigured that casing into a beautiful sea-scratched moon and an apex of swirling brown nipple. I am a lover of the literary surrealists who believed in the beauty of automatism and juxtaposition and I had just spent the last few weeks with the puppy up every early morning for a pee. My husband the day before had also asked me an intriguing question about a cup of tea. I was soon wondrously lost in soda straws and galaxies, priestly sand collars, driveway bachelor buttons, and a sea rain of a thousand tiny moon shells. I would never have had that writing experience if it weren’t for the endless photographs I could experiment with digitally.  Henry Peach Robinson, one of the first 19th century photographers to experiment with photomontage, said, “The grammar and language of art can be taught, but it is quite different with its poetry.” I wanted that kind of poetry for this book.

BF: What was your process of assembling the photographs with the lyrical verses? Did you start with the photographs, for example, or the text? How did the book evolve? What was your process for including the words of other artists?

KW: This book began slowly, by accident, by convergence. A gift of a digital camera right before Covid found me walking out alone with camera in hand as a way to ease the fear and awfulness of that time. I was taking a Zoom class with the Denver Audubon to become a community naturalist during the pandemic. One assignment sent us off to a remote place by ourselves—me the river near our suburban home—with orders to sketch what we saw and to write down our accompanying observations.  That surely was the first kick into writing this book. As I studied the art form, really, of  the naturalist’s journal with its beautiful scrawling chaos and order of observation, sketch, and research, I fell in love with that form. I wanted that gesture of sprawl and creative immediacy.  When I took a zoom class on the photobook from La Luz Workshops, I was blown away by the design, too, of the  artists' books of photos and poetry.

I found the final ingredient to my book when I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucidain which he explores the essence of photography. That book led me to a whole other world of writing by the pioneers and witnesses of those early photographs, such as William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Daguerre, and Julia Margaret Cameron, Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire.  There was no “technical” disembodying language for photography yet and, hence, the writing is magically poetic. Light is the “pencil of nature;” photographs are “sun paintings.” Edward Weston speaks of the “magic silver.” It was hard not to get drawn into this fevered dialogue about early photography and the marvel and the dread so many felt of how photography might disrupt the understanding of “true” art, painting.

BF: Do you have any advice for poets who want to begin working with art? How to start? Which artists and poets helped you develop your process and your work?

KW: Plutarch the philosopher said, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” I will argue that the word “painting” can be replaced by “photography. And, as with any art, learning it is about experimentation and study— ad infinitum. As a poet, I already knew about ekphrastic poetry, but I wanted to do something beyond the basics of ekphrasis and Homer’s utpictura poesis, “as is painting so is poetry.” As I said, I like the surrealists. Joan Miro said, the painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later.” That was the beautiful journey I wanted in this book.

Of course, it’s good to know, just a bit, what the hell you are doing. The first thing I did was to learn how to use my “black box,” as Julia Margaret Cameron called it. Hers didn’t have, of course, the thousand buttons, digital settings, and doo-hickeys that mine has. And don’t even ask me about the software I learned to make what the camera shoots, as the late John Fielder said (I took class from him, too), look like what the heart sees. I took a day class from the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver just on the basics of my camera. That was the beginning of many classes, because, apparently, this retired teacher loves nothing more than to take classes, especially Zoom classes, while sipping tea.
Once the restrictions of Covid passed, my friend, poet Carol Guerrero-Murphy, and I took a book making class at the Denver Art Museum, Book Making: One Page Books. I created a one-page folded collage book of my own poems and photographs that I actually cherish for how tactile, rather than digital, it is. That book helped me learn the endless possibilities of book-making. And then I took a book class from the Center for Book Arts called, Typologies: Activating the Personal Archive. The artist/instructor suggested the format of having a “fake” artist statement next to each of my photographs for that series and doing whatever poetic thing I wanted to do in that statement. I carried that idea forward: originally, I was just going to use some early 19th and 20th century quotes about art and photograph, but I found the thrill and trepidation of these “witnesses” to the birth of photograph too interesting and enticing not to explore further in short prose sections. I owe much to the poet Jonah Bornstein, who worked in university publishing for a big part of his career. He suggested that each section photo stand by itself on a page with a blank facing page and then to create that feel of that naturalist journal of sketches, observations and meditations and research on the following two pages of each section. And, of course, through all of this, I kept clicking pictures and experimenting with settings and the endless number of photography software because the physical act of putting together a hybrid book of photography, of poetry and proses pieces, quotes and dialogue is not for the daunted. My advice in a nutshell: do, experiment, study, do . . . and repeat.  

BF: Your 8th book, “retirement” after a long career of teaching, writing awards, continuing publications in poetry, the ekphrastic, in nature and place journals ,in  children’s poetry, even a photograph in a photography exhibition . . .what is next for you?

KW: What’s nice about retirement is that I can say, “Whatever I damn well want.” A collection of place essays on bliss and the “invisible” woman. A series of macro photos of bugs. Events for and around the release of This Visible Speaking, including a zoom reading of my book with the Colorado Poets Center on April 4th at 6:00 p.m.; a reading for the Loveland’s Artists for the Art Advocacy Project on Saturday, March 30th; a workshop on photography and writing for the DWPC on April 27; a visit with Wendy Videlock, poet laureate of Western Colorado, at the Bluecorn in Montrose, May 30th;  fall literary festival with Trinidad; and a panel, The Land: Through a Woman’s Eyes, with Page Lambertat this year’sWomen Writing the West Conference. Every exciting whatever I want!