Painting with Light and the Metaphysical Reality of Literary Photography

World Unity Still LifeUncle Wiggily & World Unity – copyright 2012 – Paul Vreeland

The members of the Carry On Gang, one of the writers’ groups I participate in, recently put their heads down for an exercise of list-making. One lists of the 12 most terrifying or dangerous words, another of the most beautiful words, and a third of the most annoying words. “Reality” was at the top of my most annoying word list along with “real” and “really”– a list of words that I find so overused as to render them meaningless – a list that includes “nice”, “cute”, and “perfect” (as it is so commonly offered by waiters, waitresses and retailers and nearly everyone who wants to pass judgment on my choices). But now I’ve done it. The word “reality” is up there in the title of this post. Tell me it’s not perfect.

The photo above (Uncle Wiggily & World Unity) was taken in the dark. Inspired by the excellent tutorials by Dave Black offered at Kelby Training (, I set my camera on a tripod, hung a black cloth over the window, and turned out the lights. I opened the shutter for about 30 seconds, and with a small flashlight, I “painted” the objects with light.  Dave made it look so easy, and his sets were much more complicated than mine. I took twenty, thirty shots before I had a glimpse of satisfaction.

For those of you who read my last post, “Listening to the voice that call, “Come back. I’m not finished with you yet,” – those of you who remember that I promised a shot of the Wright’s Creek foliage, it’s coming up. No. This time it’s not a tease. Keep reading.

It didn’t occur to me that “painting with light” was a theme of the past several weeks until I stumbled upon the breathtaking work of Irene Kung (, a Swiss photographer living in Milan, Italy. Check out this short video about her: Irene Kung’s work is a far cry from my still life experiments, and her images will stay with me for some time. They’re worth a study. How I wish that she would offer a tutorial. Sigh.

But what does painting with light have to do with writing and literature?

Enter Mary Ellen. She’s a rather insistent journalism student, a character in my slowly emerging and as yet unfinished novel. Recently she told me to read The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam’s account of reporting from Vietnam in the early 60s. Now Mary Ellen says that I’m to read In Cold Blood. She knows that I’ve seen the movie (1967), but that I haven’t read the book. Truman Capote’s ego hails the book as the first “nonfiction novel”, a literary feat opening up a new genre of literature, better known today as creative nonfiction. Interested in the thin line separating creative nonfiction from journalism, Mary Ellen wonders what would have happened if The New York Times had sent Capote to Vietnam and had asked Halberstam to cover the murder of the Clutter family in the sleepy plains village of Holcomb, Kansas.

Literary photography?

Capote told George Plimpton in a 1966 interview (, that “… journalism is the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums.” Plimpton asked why, and Capote responded:

Because few first-class creative writers have ever bothered with journalism, except as a sideline, “hackwork,” something to be done when the creative spirit is lacking, or as a means of making money quickly. Such writers say in effect: Why should we trouble with factual writing when we’re able to invent our own stories, contrive our own characters and themes?–journalism is only literary photography, and unbecoming to the serious writer’s artistic dignity.

What is remarkable about In Cold Blood is that Capote, who, through his six years of research, developed relationships with many people in Holcomb, and a particularly intimate friendship with murderer Perry Smith, keeps himself out of the narrative. Plimpton asked Capote how he was able to accomplish this semblance of objectivity, a semblance because Capote was able to insert his point of view without inserting himself.  The answer  is “painting with light” as literature would have it. Capote said:

I could have added a lot of other opinions. But that would have confused the issue, and indeed the book. I had to make up my mind and move toward that one view, always. You can say that the reportage is incomplete. But then it has to be. It’s a question of selection, you wouldn’t get anywhere if it wasn’t for that. I’ve often thought of the book as being like something reduced to a seed. Instead of presenting the reader with a full plant, with all the foliage, a seed is planted in the soil of his mind. I’ve often thought of the book in that sense. I make my own comment by what I choose to tell and how I choose to tell it. It is true that an author is more in control of fictional characters because he can do anything he wants with them as long as they stay credible. But in the nonfiction novel one can also manipulate: If I put something in which I don’t agree about I can always set it in a context of qualification without having to step into the story myself to set the reader straight.

Selection is a key, an essential tool for any writer, but it only works if there is amble material to select from. And Capote had material. Plenty of if.  For more than a year he prepared for the writing, giving himself mental exercises to develop his memory. He said that he was satisfied with a recall that was 95% accurate. When he went to Holcomb he conducted countless interviews and never took notes.

Memory is an excellent author, painting with light.

Many authors, if not most, have a tendency to overwrite, and the process of revision finds us cutting, cutting, cutting. Memory is an excellent writer because it also tends to embellish and it excels at deletion.  Like a serious photographer, memory prefers to paint with the rich warm light of the golden hours of dawn and twilight, and abhors the all-spectrum truth of mid-day. Janus-faced, it claims the details it wants to glow, slowly pulling others into the peripheral darkness. And there is no definition without the play of light and darkness.

I’m still slow-reading Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone. (Don’t ask how long it’s going to take me to slow read this book. There’s no hurry, no deadline. See my earlier posts.) In a lengthy flashback from the edenic setting Miller creates in the opening, her protagonist Jo Becker describes a period of her life when she ran away from a ho-hum marriage, moved into a commune in Boston and assumed an another identity as Licia Stead. What we know of that earlier life is what Jo recalls from it. She is recreating it, painting with her light, her point of view. The character of Eli, who lived in the commune when Licia was there, resurfaces. How will he affect the memory?

With my unfinished novel, my intention is fiction and, like Jo Becker, I’m reliving a life that (I think) I remember. I am recreating it as fiction, but what if …?  What if my pen is not painting fiction? What if it is a flashlight of truth poking into the shadows. Wrights Creek foliage-3What if it is revealing what is truly there, what actually happened. An internal critic says, “Your unfinished novel is not fiction.”

“Oh, it is,” I say. “I know it’s fiction because I wasn’t in Hartford then. I wasn’t in that part of the story.”

“Where were you then?”

“Why, I don’t remember.”

In my last posting I promised a photo of the autumnal foliage at Wright’s Creek that had called me back, again and again. There was something I had to find there. On the third day a light rain began to fall. The sprinkling redirected my attention, my focus, and said, “this is the reason you have been called back.”

Rain_at_Wright's Bridge II

Rain at Wright’s Creek – copyright 2012 – Paul Vreeland


5 thoughts on “Painting with Light and the Metaphysical Reality of Literary Photography

  1. Thank you for sharing your creative insights on writing and photography. Your articles are always very informative and philosophical with a good introduction to other artists who have influenced your approach. I look forward to reading future entries.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, Paul. I can understand the word reality being at the top of your list. What people refer to as reality is a matter of perspective. Many people can witness the same event, but each recall or memory is unique. What a person remembers is simply their own witness of the occurrence filtered through such things as their life events, prejudices, values or culture. It may even change over time, as their life experience expands. A person can warp their original memory and create a new one by shifting their view of one aspect of that particular event. So, is there such a thing as truth or is it all just a matter of perspective? Is it even important? The retelling of a story, whether it is fictional or factual, is a pure act of communication. A person’s need to connect with others in a meaningful way is very powerful. Reality becomes irrelevant, in my opinion. Our writing exposes the essence of who we are.

    • Thank you. You’ve condensed several important concepts in one short paragraph. I whole-heartedly agree with what you’ve said. Looking forward to reading your blog. Thanks again.

      • I have just moved to PEI, Paul. My neighbour, Leona Arsenault, suggested I contact you. I’m a poet, writer, artist, photographer. She mentioned that there is a community of poets that meet to share their writing. I was wondering if you could please help me make contact with them? Many thanks! Liana Brittain

  3. Having read this I believed it was really informative. I appreciate you taking the time and effort to put this article
    together. I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and
    posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

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