I first met Teju Cole under a tree strung with white lights. It was six years ago, at a book party in lower Manhattan, at the apartment of someone fortunate enough to have a backyard. All around us were fancy literary types — people with names like Salman, and Francine, and Jay. Both Teju and I, as I recall it, felt somewhat ill at ease. His first novel, “Open City,” had yet to come out, and he said he felt like a nobody. I had only recently been made an assigning editor at The New York Times Book Review, and I, too, felt like a nobody. Teju told me he had trained as an art historian. We talked about art and books, and agreed we should catch some music together in Brooklyn someday. Several months later, in a lengthy review in The New Yorker, James Wood wrote that “Open City” was a “beautiful, subtle, and, finally, original novel.” Numerous other accolades accrued. Teju and I never connected to go hear music — though I did entice him to write a review for me.
Since then I have traced the progress of his career from afar, from “Open City” to the U.S. publication of a novella, “Every Day Is for the Thief,” to his nonfiction writing for The New Yorker, his “small fates” project on Twitter, and, since February 2015, his tenure as photography critic for The New York Times Magazine (for which he was recently named a National Magazine Award finalist).
In September, his essay “Far Away From Here” served as the prose anchor for the Times Magazine’s “Voyages” issue, which featured “visual journeys” by six prominent photographers. One of the destinations depicted was Nigeria, and although that is where Teju was born and raised, Nigeria was not his subject. Switzerland was — though to say the essay was about Switzerland would be like saying “To the Lighthouse” is about Scotland. In fact, over the course of 4,500 words, Teju narrates a journey through geography, history, fine art and photography, travel and tourism, language and identity, the practice of making art, the experience of discovery. His own photographs illustrate the essay.
Wood wrote that on reading “Open City,” one “has the sense of a productive alienation,” whereby the narrator “is able to see, with an outsider’s eyes, a slightly different, or somewhat transfigured, city.” This narrative style is a signature of Teju’s nonfiction work as well. In “Far Away From Here,” the voice, the breadth of the material, and the intricacy of the essay’s structure all lingered in my head long after I had finished reading.
So I sent an email. We reconnected. We discussed the essay in a two-hour Skype call, and revisited a point or two over email. What follows is an edited and condensed version of those conversations.
Storyboard: The “On Photography” column launched after you took this trip. Did you have it in mind before this that you would write about Switzerland?
Cole: I had been preparing for the piece for a long time without quite preparing to write a piece. I was in Switzerland for six months, and I was there to write about Nigeria, but I was taking notes the whole time because I was interested in what was around me. Then sometime in June, perhaps, my editors asked if I would write the essay for “Voyages,” in September. This was a wonderful opportunity, I was honored by the invitation — and I said no, I had no time.
August comes around and they can’t find anybody, and they’re like, “We really need someone to write this, and it has to be you. We know you’ve got something in there.” And I said, I really don’t have anything. I mean, I have all this material about Switzerland, I have all these thoughts about the history of tourism, all this stuff about photography, but if we did it, it would have to be about me thinking about my photography, and my practice as a photographer, and frankly I feel really uncomfortable doing that, because I’m the photography critic for this magazine. That would be like James Wood running an excerpt of his fiction in The New Yorker.
Both Sasha [Weiss, a story editor at the magazine] and Jake [Silverstein, the editor in chief] said, well, it depends on framing it right; have it be an account of a search. They said, we think people are interested in knowing how a photographer thinks about being in a place. All these other things you said you wanted to bring into it — if you could weave all of that together, you might have an essay.
So you have the blank page. When you have that many moving pieces, do you start thinking about structure early on, or do you just dive in?
For “On Photography,” which is usually about 1,500 words, I cannot start unless I have three things that have not been considered next to each other before. It’s the way I bring the three together that makes it my own. For an essay that’s going to be about 4,500 words, for which I’ll probably write 5,500 and then cut, I need to have five or six things I want to say. In this case, I wanted to talk about the experience of the residency. I wanted to embody the physical practice of making pictures; we all make pictures now, but what about the people who take it super-seriously? What do they do? So I wanted to talk about being out there, on a mountain, with a tripod. I wanted to talk about Switzerland as a place in the imagination — the clichés, the chocolates, the trams, the neutrality, the mountains. From the mountains I wanted to talk about tourism and what it means to be in a place. When I landed on this idea of homesickness, of being far away and that kind of longing, and connecting it to other writers, people like James Salter and Nabokov and the weird role that Switzerland plays in the writerly imagination — once I’d assembled all those things, I realized I had an essay.
I begin by saying I want to make a bunch of notes about these things and montage them. Have a paragraph about this, a paragraph about that, come back to the first thing, come back to the third thing, so it starts out in a jump-cuts kind of way, and then there’s this process of massaging it and working on transitions, but still continuing to give it this sort of radical feeling. Michael Ondaatje is one of my favorite writers, and he’s somebody who is more influenced by film editing than by how other people make novels. That is very important to me. And someone like Chris Marker, who made “Sans Soleil,” his editing excites me: images shot from all over the world, with unconnected things placed side by side with each other. And there’s a rush: ah, now we’re here, now we’re here. I wanted to do that: now we’re inside some kind of historical exegesis, but oh, now we’re here, and the author is in the middle of the street with his camera.
My questions are in red; his responses are in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button below the byline, up and to the right.
Far Away From Here
In travel photography, as in writing, there’s no shortcut to finding your own voice.
Originally published by The New York Times Magazine, September 23, 2015
Only a few slender strings were attached: two public readings and a commitment to spend the majority of the six months in the country. Beyond that, I would be left to my own devices. An apartment would be provided, and a stipend. I didn’t think about it for very long. I wrote back: Yes. You start with the camera on yourself. Why this choice as opposed to, say, “Switzerland,” or one of the in-scene snapshots that come later? Was this always the beginning? Yeah. Almost word for word, this is from the first draft. Everything I’ve written where I’m proud of it, the way it turned out, just about every piece, or book, starts in medias res. I like to begin in the middle. “Open City” begins, “And so when I began to go on evening walks…” My Baldwin piece [in The New Yorker], “Black Body,” begins, “Then the bus began driving into clouds, and between one cloud and the next we caught glimpses of the town below” — this feeling that the beginning is always a middle, so the reader knows that there’s no need for throat-clearing, that I trust you, I know you’ll get it, I know you’re with me. So this was clear from the beginning. Usually it takes me longer to get to it. So it was reassuring because, “Ah, I’m learning something. I’m learning what my voice is.”
The invitation had come from the Literaturhaus in Zurich, one of those wonderful arts institutions of which Europe seems to have so many. Every six months they selected one writer, from anywhere in the world, to stay in the apartment they ran with a foundation. When I received the invitation, I felt as though I’d won a raffle I didn’t even know I had a ticket for.
Switzerland: The place comes with an easy set of mental associations. But I suspected there was more to it than its reputation for calendar-pretty landscapes, secretive bankers and regular trains, and here was a chance to see for myself. Besides, I had a manuscript to work on, a nonfictional narrative of Lagos, Nigeria, the city in which I grew up. Where better to write about chaotic, relentless, overpopulated Lagos than in modest, quietly industrious Zurich? There would be so little else to do in Switzerland anyway (according to my less-than-enthusiastic friends) that I would be mainly absorbed in writing during my time there. Perhaps I might even continue my photographic exploration of landscape and memory, a project that comprised images from many countries I had visited over the past few years.
I arrived in June. The apartment was in a peaceful neighborhood of the compact and elegant city. The writing desk faced a row of windows, and there were mountains in the distance. I grew up mountainless, close to the lagoon and the sea, in a city where the only heights were high-rises. I was familiar with the extremes of city life: the crowds, the traffic, the energy, the crime. But nature’s extremes, of violent weather or vertiginous terrain, were unknown to me. Those mountains, visible from my desk, were faint and blue in the distance, not particularly imposing. But already they beckoned.
I had taken a good camera to Zurich with me, a professional-grade Canon. There was a subtle problem with it that I often encounter in digital cameras: They are fine for bright landscapes, but they tend to struggle with highlights and the resulting images sometimes have a plastic sheen. The Canon served me well on a recent trip to Palestine, but it wasn’t working in Switzerland. I had also brought along a film camera, a beautiful Contax G2 rangefinder. But that wasn’t working either: It didn’t give me the focusing control I wanted, and I missed the momentary darkening of the visual field when I pressed the shutter, which is something you get with the flipped mirror of an S.L.R. but not in a rangefinder. The iPhone 5 camera, meanwhile, which I don’t rule out as a tool, wasn’t going to give me the detail I needed for the prints I had in mind.
What I wanted was an S.L.R. film camera. Sure, there was the cluttered cabinet in my New York City apartment with its eight cameras and their various lenses and filters: the Hasselblad, the Nikon, the Leica, a couple of other Canons, some cameras I hadn’t touched in years. Each sat there, the physical evidence of some previous fervor. Nevertheless, the heart wants what it wants, and about a week after arriving in Zurich, I bought an old Yashica and two lenses from a dealer near the Hauptbahnhof, for the very low and un- Swiss price of 25 Swiss francs, just a little over $25. How did you decide how much technical detail to include, and why here? The process of writing these essays is to keep in mind the tremendous affection one’s editor has for the work, the editor who’s always saying, “I trust you, whatever you write is going to be good,” but then also knowing that there’s stuff you can’t get away with. So you anticipate what the objections are going to be. I thought, O.K., I’m going to write all this technical stuff, I’m going to put brand names, model numbers, the prices of things, and this stuff is going to get cut. But I’m writing it down because I want to defend it, so let’s see how that fight goes. I decided to put it early because I thought, I want to give an account of what everybody who does photography knows, but no one ever talks about. Photo critics sometimes act like they’re above it all, and they never attend to the material conditions of the art. It was a little bit of inside baseball, and Sasha thought it was good; she thought it gave a sense of craft. I’m not a gear geek. And yet, it’s part of what we do: developing a relationship with a piece of kit becomes part of the thinking that goes into making an image because you become aware of the limitations and the affordances of that piece of kit. I wanted to foreground that. And this was the right place. The first two paragraphs are a bit biographical. The third was about Switzerland, touching on the question of cliché. At this early stage, I wanted to go into photography and its technicalities, so that by the time you’ve read the first page and a half, many of the major themes have already emerged.
I loved that Yashica. During my six months in Zurich, I wrote a bit about Lagos and did a bit of other writing. But I stumbled into a surprise: The majority of my time went into traveling around Switzerland taking photographs, in all weather and at all elevations, thinking with my eyes about the country around me. The drama in these landscapes was real, and seemed almost to demand a response from the viewer. These are lovely phrases. Can you unpack them a bit? What does “thinking” with your eyes mean to you? And why “demand a response”? I think I’d had that buried farther into the piece. Sasha thought it would be good to bring these sentences up, to add a touch of lyricism about what I was doing in Switzerland. And also to embody it in a way that might be familiar to people who’ve read my other stuff. In almost everything I write there’s some touch of, “And then I went wandering aimlessly…” Actually I remember Sasha’s exact phrase. She said, “People who are reading this, many of them may not be familiar with you as a writer, or they’re like, Why are you taking pictures suddenly? Why is that so important?” So she thought I needed to put this apologia in here, “the drama in these landscapes was real, and seemed almost to demand a response from the viewer.” I saw something I had to respond to photographically.
August 2014. I’m on the Gemmipass, 2,770 meters above sea level and 670 meters above the town of Leukerbad. James Baldwin wintered in Leukerbad in the 1950s. Later he would write, “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.” The Gemmipass is a high mountain pass that connects mountains in the canton of Valais with those in the canton of Bern. I’m hunched over the tripod, pressing the shutter every few seconds. The weather has suddenly turned. Is this rain? Fog? I wipe the lens clean. Not only am I the only black man on the pass just now, I am the only human being of any kind. It’s just me and the lake, the surrounding mountains, the rocks nearby and some signs on the hiking trail. I have the wrong shoes on, and my jacket is not waterproof. I clamber over some hillocks so that I see the reverse of a yellow trail sign, the side on which there’s no writing. The rocks on the mountain face are a beautiful scatter. The mist goes as it came, without warning. I put another roll of film in the Yashica and keep shooting. These present-tense snapshots occur four times within the piece. At what point did you know you would use them as a structural device? The idea came early. It was there in the first draft, to have four scenes, and to have them scattered through the piece, and to have their placement in the piece weighted in a way that you don’t know when the next one is going to show up. The present tense was also an early decision because I’m a big fan of James Salter, and he has such ease with tenses, my God, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence sometimes. It’s so joyous to me that someone can start in the past and just move into the present tense. And there’s always a reason for it; I feel it in my body. I’m not doing anything quite so radical here. I wanted you to be there for the making of the picture. These “taking the photo” set pieces are among the most mobile pieces inside the Jenga of this essay, because they’re self-contained. So while I was trying to figure out all the history, and the argument about tourism and all of that, these pieces could serve as points of rest. Later, you say you took thousands of pictures. How did you choose the four scenes? I had already made an edit of maybe 120 photographs — that was the work of many months. Making that edit was an exercise in understanding my own visual tendencies. Out of those, when I sat to write, I said, I’m going to select eight to send to my editor and the photo department at the magazine. And I’ll say, “I’m so embarrassed, we’re going to print my pictures, of course I’m excited, but I’m like, oh, God, everyone is going to see how banal and uninteresting my work is.” I tried to pick pictures that were true to the project but that also said something about what I was discovering about what I wanted to do in photography. It was out of these eight pictures that I decided which four also invited some kind of writing that was interesting, that fit into a narrative. In the first draft, the first picture I described was in June 2014, a picture I took in Zurich, but I had to let it go because the first thing I needed was to get onto the mountain right away. Because in the next section, we have “Switzerland is mountains.”
A photo essay on London must have the Houses of Parliament or, at least, a red phone box, and one on Paris must include the Eiffel Tower. Rio de Janeiro is the statue of Christo Redentor. Entire countries are reduced to their metonyms. Kenya is a safari, Norway is fjords. And Switzerland is mountains. This is an exaggeration, but the truth in it is worth thinking about: It is a country built largely in the lee of the Alps, the towns and cities formed from old human migrations that came to rest in valleys, lake shores and, sometimes, higher regions. I had a notion: If I could understand the mountains, I could understand the country. You go into a long passage of exposition here, on art and history. How much of this history was already floating around in your head, and how much was fresh research? I’m going to sound like such a nerd. All of this was already in my head! I had just spent six months in Switzerland, and I was thinking about mountains. I don’t know mountains. You’re probably aware that I have an M.A. in 16th-century Flemish painting, and I’m a Bruegel specialist, so the whole thing about him “swallowing the Alps and bringing them up again” was already in my head as a way of thinking about that space. I had written about Baldwin at length, so that was already in my head. And then, the Alps as this place that British climbers kept going to — I did not know the fine details of people like William England and the first people to climb the Matterhorn, but I knew they were English clergy and adventurers, so it was all sort of there. I had a clue there would be some quote in Ruskin I could use. Knowing these little pieces was part of the pitch. This is why the piece didn’t take three months. This section was kind of unwieldy. I wanted it to be about half the length it is now, but Jake, our editor in chief, read this and said: “No, give us more of it. I think people want to know. You have the lyrical, biographical, memoir-type stuff, but what’s interesting about the writing is that you’re putting it side by side with this allusive, free-associative way of rendering history.” Quite a bit of the editing was bringing in a little more amplitude to those historical sections.
The Alps, Europe’s arching spine, have often been the obstacle to cross between one part of the continent and another. Hannibal’s charge in 218 B.C. from Spain to Italy was celebrated even in antiquity and would later serve as a point of comparison for Charlemagne and Napoleon. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, many Northern European artists went to Venice and Rome, via arduous Alpine crossings, returning home changed by the art they had seen. Dürer was obsessed by the canon of human proportions, Frans Floris took on a Michelangelesque vigor, Rubens imitated Titian and, in the 17th century, the Dutch Caravaggisti plunged their styles into deep shadow and dramatic light.
But for Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who traveled to Italy in the 1550s, the major change in his art — which was unclassical before his trip to Rome and which remained unclassical after — was due to the Alps. He became a virtuoso of vertical landscapes, which were utterly alien to his native Brabant. His biographer, Karel van Mander, wrote, in 1604: “When Bruegel was in the Alps, he swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels.” Bruegel’s work was important for the development of independent landscapes: landscapes that did not need the pretext of a mythological or biblical event.
A few centuries later, the limitations of the daguerreotype meant that cityscapes and landscapes were among the earliest photographic subjects. In 1849, the great art critic and social reformer John Ruskin made what are believed to be the first photographs of the Alps. This was the age of firsts: The first photograph containing a human being, the first photographic self- portrait, the first aerial photograph, the first news photo (it showed a man being arrested). You couldn’t have your photograph taken in 1825, but by 1845, there were thousands of photos, of people, things and places. Light from the world could be fixed on a surface: It was possible to take the shadow away from the body and show it elsewhere. This is a great description. Can you talk about finding moments like this? You could have stopped after the previous sentence, at “things and places,” but you took it a beat further. I’d had a much more straightforward assertion that early photography and mountain climbing were connected to each other in some way. And my editors wanted me to delve a little more into that period, so I started thinking about the age of firsts: Why are they connected? Well, because it’s a moment at which people and adventurers and inventors are really feeling themselves. These days, in our generation, people want to be the first to leave a comment. In those days, it was the first to climb a mountain, to make a photograph, to make a gramophone. The writers on photography I love are always reminding us of the magic at stake in this art. Just a touch, a little phrase, a sentence shaped in a certain way, to say, “Remember, this is magic.” So I guess I’m always on the search for those lines that are sometimes influenced by poetry but that are saying something true about what it is we’re looking at. I think I do this in all the fiction and nonfiction I write. I try to have an element of freshness and naiveté, to describe what has already technically been solved. In “Open City,” I wanted to evoke someone wandering around New York, like they’d never seen buildings, or the subway. Or Tower Records. Tower Records! Now, people are like, Tower Records, what was that? But back then, in 2006, people were like, “Wow, you described Tower Records — we all know what the inside looks like.” I have to confess, I am fascinated by overdescription — by the slight tension between, “Wait, is he overdescribing, or is he actually creating a space where something else can happen?” Sebald completely overdescribes. But this is a tradition in scholarship, and it’s a tradition in art history. We describe what’s in front of us because we have one image, and as an art historian, I have to spend five pages talking about it. So, there’s a great deal of not taking for granted the evident. We resist self-evidence. We must articulate. That’s where these sentences come from — to try to talk about things everyone can see, but to try to talk about them in a way that, with any luck, renews them.
There had been a powerful tradition of alpine painting, connected both to the Romantic tradition and to scientific study. But photography made the Alps newly portable. For Ruskin, they were such a staggering geological fact that he visited Switzerland repeatedly, describing what he saw with intense drawings, photographs and words: “There is indeed an appearance of action and united movement in these crested masses, nearly resembling that of sea waves; … they seem not to be heaped up, but to leap or toss themselves up; and in doing so, to wreathe and twist their summits into the most fantastic, yet harmonious, curves, governed by some grand under-sweep like that of a tide running through the whole body of the mountain chain.”
Others took their enthusiasm for the Alps in a more athletic direction. Some well-known mountains had already been climbed, but from the 19th century onward, at a greater rate than ever, the first ascents of dozens of major peaks were recorded. The first ascent of the Dufourspitze was in 1855, the Eiger’s in 1858, the Matterhorn’s in 1865. The ascent of the Dom, on Sept. 11, 1858, is typical in its details: The climber was the Rev. John Llewelyn-Davies, a Cambridge- educated classicist and prominent vicar, with the help of three Swiss guides. These were difficult undertakings, and the risk involved was sufficient, in the words of one commentator, to “lend climbing the dignity of danger.”
Between 1863 and 1868, a photographer named William England produced a series of views of Switzerland and Savoy, showing lakes, roads, valleys and mountains, work he carried out under the auspices of the Alpine Club of London. And the Italian photographer and mountaineer Vittorio Sella produced, in the 1880s and ‘90s, some of the most beautiful photographs ever made of the Alps, photos that later inspired in Ansel Adams “a definitely religious awe.” Working near the end of the 19th century, with a heavy glass- plate camera, Sella captured the cold and awesome power of the Alps with an accuracy and descriptive sensitivity that has hardly been improved on.
All the while, leisure travel itself was changing. The publishing house established by Karl Baedeker in Germany issued “The Rhine,” one of its first travel books in 1861. Not long after that came “Switzerland.” Informed about the best rails and trails, the most reliable hotels and information on local customs, an intrepid traveler could experience foreign lands without an entourage or local contacts. The Baedeker guides are tart and direct. Swiss hotels are praised: “Switzerland may be said to have a specialty for hotels; few better are to be met with in any part of the world.” Swiss wine is condemned: “Wine is generally a source of much vexation. The ordinary table wines are often so bad that refuge has to be taken in those of a more expensive class, which is indeed the very aim and object of the landlord.” I have to ask: Is the wine as bad as Baedeker says? I didn’t go to the particular hotel being ranted about, but Swiss wine was perfectly fine. In fact, it was very good. The area around Lake Geneva makes the most amazingly wonderful white wine. But throughout Baedeker’s Switzerland, over the hundreds of pages, what impresses is the attention to detail, the almost microscopic precision with which each itinerary, town, museum, mountain range and hike is described.
Baedeker was already able to state, in that early guide to Switzerland, that places like the Rigi, the Brünig and the Scheideck were on “beaten tracks.” By the 1880s, Switzerland was estimated to be receiving a million visitors a year. Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical. When you do visit Zurich or Cape Town or Bangkok, they are very much alike: The amusement parks have striking similarities, the cafes all play the same Brazilian music, the malls are interchangeable, kids on the school buses resemble one another and the interiors of middle-class homes conform to the same parameters.
This doesn’t mean the world is uninteresting. It only means that the world is more uniform than most photo essays acknowledge, and that a lot of travel photography relies on an easy essentialism. I like Italo Calvino’s idea of “continuous cities,” as described in the novel “Invisible Cities.” He suggests that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: “Only the name of the airport changes.” What is then interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less-obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape. This is what outstanding photographers are able to do, and it is the target the rest of us chase. When did you decide to pull in the Calvino reference? It was in the first draft, in a different place. I had read “Invisible Cities” but I had not picked up on that idea. But then Dayanita Singh, the photographer, used it in her book “House of Love,” where she has photos from different cities but she does not indicate which city each comes from, she just had them under the rubric “continuous cities.” So I guess I sort of stole it from her, but she stole it from Calvino. A certain kind of essay can become an opportunity to finally unburden yourself of a thought you’ve been having. So, for example, the thought I’d been having that many cities are essentially the same, in many of the important ways — but those similarities are rarely depicted, because you think you’re going to that other place for what is typical. I needed to get this off my chest. Yes, part of what I enjoy about being in Sao Paulo is the Brazilness of it, but part of what I also enjoy is being in a standard business hotel, which I could do anywhere. How come shopping at a Paul Smith in Berlin is one of the things I enjoy, even though I could shop at Paul Smith in SoHo? I don’t know. It’s because it helps me know that my world is coherent. And that I belong in these networks of places. It’s good to be able to get a good cup of coffee in Nairobi. I don’t give a shit about the safari, to be honest. I like seeing a photography exhibition in Brazzaville done to international curatorial standards — I’m not bored by that, because I know the things I like. Can we talk more about using literary references in narrative? Do you have a collection process? Or do you just have a photographic memory? Ah, allusion. It’s a combination of three things. I take notes. A lot. But those notes, if it’s a quote or an idea I have, something I see on the subway, something I read in a book — that sort of thing is more helpful if I’m writing or structuring fiction, because it gives me the density needed in fiction, things to weave around. For something like this essay, the various things I want to say are suggested to me by the five or six moving pieces, so if I’m going to talk about continuous cities, which I spent three paragraphs on, I already have the continuous cities thing I’ve been worrying about for a while, and all I have to do is go back to “Invisible Cities” and make sure I have the accurate, exact quote. It’s not a photographic memory, but it’s a highly sticky-fingered one. That is true of most of my nonfictional essays. Do you find my writing more allusive than most writers? Not necessarily. But I feel like everyone has his own method — things stick differently to different people. I think people feel like I have a wide range of references, but I feel like I have a fairly small group that I trust, that I know and like. I’m always going back to John Berger, I’m always going back to Anne Carson. You have Elizabeth Bishop later. I’m always going back to Elizabeth Bishop, and that is the easiest of quotations to use by her. I had to use it because it was part of the flow of the thinking. The poem is very well known, but it’s still the right one.
The question I confronted in Switzerland is similar to that confronted by any camera-toting visitor in a great landscape: Can my photograph convey an experience that others have already captured so well? The answer is almost always no, but you try anyway. I might feel myself to be a singular traveler, but I am in fact part of a great endless horde. In the 1870s, Mark Twain was already complaining: “Now everybody goes everywhere; and Switzerland, and many other regions which were unvisited and unknown remotenesses a hundred years ago, are in our days a buzzing hive of restless strangers.”
I went up many mountains in Switzerland, often jettisoning the dignity of danger for the luxury of cable cars, and took many pictures of slopes and summits. I suppose I knew, even then, that those photos would not necessarily play a central role in my project. I considered them, instead, small installments on a debt to beauty, a relief from having to be original. But beyond the mountains (this became gradually clear) lay smaller quarry: ordinary land, cityscapes, interiors. Having opened myself to the sublime experience of the Alps, it was to these I turned as I got deeper into my project. The Alps were the door, but what lay beyond, or below?
Switzerland isn’t a huge country. It is about a third the size of Alabama. I traveled all over it, and I did not tire of it, was not bored even for a moment. I went to the Bernese Oberland and Interlaken, to Graubünden in the east, to Valais in the south, to Ticino in the southeast, to Geneva, Neuchâtel, Basel, Bern, Vals. I took trains, trams, funiculars, ferries, cable cars, buses. I walked and hiked, the camera always around my neck, the tripod on my shoulder. I went to crowded places and bare ones, to night clubs and graveyards. The country is sane, clean, eye-wateringly expensive and saturated with a straightforward, unironic and inexhaustible beauty. A couple of months into the residency, I was in a mesmerized state.
Lake Zurich, bigger than expected and as clean and graceful as the city whose name it shares, is described by Baedeker as follows: “Its scenery, though with slight pretensions to grandeur, is scarcely equaled in beauty by any other lake.” But I found Lake Zurich’s equal at Lake Brienz, which in summer is a turquoise color of hypnotic clarity and is ringed by steep green cliffs that, in winter, threaten the small villages along the shore with avalanches. In fact, the problem I encountered was that each lake in Switzerland was the most beautiful, if it happened to be the one you were on.
Lake Geneva feels fully enfolded into civilization and has the air of the grand hotels from the 1950s. Lake Neuchâtel is compact, with fine vineyards nearby that make you think of France. Lake Lugano is warm and joyful, a page taken from the Mediterranean, and it slyly extends into Italy. Lake St. Moritz, Lake Silvaplana and Lake Sils are pure and clear, the elongated splatter of the three of them visible from the mountains of the Upper Engadine as clearly as on a map. Lake Lucerne — the Vierwaldstättersee, the Four Forested-Cantons Lake — is the most mysterious of them all, a fjordlike lake, full of fog and silhouettes, inlets and outcroppings and an extremely complicated coastline that spreads, as the name says, across four cantons. In the mountains and towns around all these lakes, days pass by like the hours of a dream. Travel, mountains and photography lock together in dream logic.
But ambition always comes to darken your serenity. Technically proficient mountain pictures were good, but I also had to develop my own voice. In photography, as in writing, there’s no shortcut to finding that voice. I could not decide ahead of time that I would take only ugly pictures or only beautiful ones, or that everything would be in focus or blurred, or that I would use only color or only black and white. I had been thinking about landscape, I had been exploring color film for a few years, I was drawn to abstraction, and a certain gentle surrealism to be found in the attitude of objects. But there then followed a situational focus, a sensitivity to what the environment gave me. In this previous section, so many lines stand out — “small installments on a debt to beauty,” “Travel, mountains and photography lock together in dream logic,” “then followed a situational focus, a sensitivity to what the environment gave me” — but I feel like we don’t have time to talk about every single one. Thank you. Well, I do work these lines. I work them myself, I get on the phone with Sasha, we go through every line, and I pay close attention to two things in particular. It’s so simple, sort of like “George Orwell’s rules of writing,” but for me: One is rhythm. Sentence length. Short, short, short. A bit longer. Short, short. Kind of long. That’s what I’m looking for by the sixth or seventh or eighth draft, so that it reads like breathing is involved. We’ll get into a lot of comma work. The Times Magazine drives me crazy because no Oxford commas. Argh! They take out all sorts of commas that The New Yorker would want in. Right! When I was writing more frequently for The New Yorker, I was like, this is a bit excessive, too many commas. And now, I totally miss them. I’m very often restructuring sentences to find a workaround so that my Oxford comma-less sentence is not just there naked. A bunch of commas and no “and.” Then they can’t take it out. The other thing is, the expunging of adverbs. I have to leave some in. I mean, it’s writing, there have to be a few. This is one thing where my editor often says, “Oh, it’s fine, it’s descriptive.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no. Out, out, out.”
Out of this focus, many pictures emerged, most of which didn’t quite work. But I also started to intuit my ley lines. As I shot more and more, I saw that I was drawn to signs, to mirrors in the landscapes (in Switzerland, there are rectangular mirrors at many street crossings, which frame the landscape behind you above the one you are facing), to maps and globes, to mountains as well as to pictures of the mountains in billboards and posters. I noticed — proof perhaps that we cannot help thinking of mountains photographically, the way we cannot help thinking of explosions cinematically — that some of my photographs of mountains looked like photographs of photographs of mountains. I was drawn to this shimmering partition between things and the images of things.
I became less interested in populating my images and more interested in traces of the human without human presence. I used deep shadows less frequently than I had in the past. I pretty much ceased nocturnal shooting. As the sequence began to take shape, I got a better sense of what belonged and what didn’t. I was studying photographs constantly, but I also immersed myself in the rhythms of certain painters and collagists: Chardin, Matisse, Rauschenberg, Mehretu, Mutu. I let go of some “good” photos, the way you strike out pretty sentences from a draft, and I learned how a number of tightly argued photos should be followed by one or two that are simpler and more ventilated. Authorship, after all, is not only what is created but also what is selected. What do you mean by “immersed” yourself in the rhythms of painters and collagists? Can you talk about the rhythm of the visual? I’m taking photos that mostly don’t have people in them, and so the emotional energy is muted. We’re not getting that strong emotional engagement with a beautiful child’s face, or an old-timer whose face is lined with wrinkles. I’m taking pictures of park benches and wardrobes. How does that get infused with energy? Part of it is the calmness, the presence, the grain of the film, the color. But the people who’ve really dealt with this are painters. Abstraction already happened. People line up around the block to get into a Pollock exhibition. People know there can be energy in something that is not obviously very directly narrative. For artists like Matisse and Wangechi Mutu, it’s about composition that’s really free, and all over the place. I look at painters and collagists for the way they understand that things can be happening all over the visual field. I often say I try to take a picture not of a thing, but of a situation. So what’s happening even at the edge of the frame is part of it. If the essay itself is a situation of six or seven moving parts intricately woven together, a photo should also have four or five or six moving parts, and the photo is those things together. As I say, “Authorship is also what is selected.” What is selected and what is left out. All through this essay is analogizing about writing and photography — all the way through, in as many ways as I can. I should also say it was important, in this paragraph and the one after it, to tell a story about a struggle, someone who has a certain ambition in what he’s doing, but who struggles with the art. Because after my initial, “Oh, God, I’m not so vain that I’m going to publish my pictures,” I said, well, I’ll do it with the proviso that I talk about how I don’t think they’re great. I’m on a journey. So I want to talk about my doubts, my uncertainties. But also the fact that I’m obsessed, and I’m nerdy about it, and I’m interested in, How does it work? How do you get better? How do you become you? Not the picture that people see on Instagram and it’s like, “Oh, 2,000 likes!” But the picture that somebody sees and says, “I know something about your visual language, and this belongs. This is you.”
Along the way, I felt the constant company of doubt: my lack of talent, my impostor’s syndrome, my fear of boring others. Every once in a great while, there was finally a superb picture, but when I looked at it the following week, I would see that it actually wasn’t very good: too obvious, too derivative. Three thousand photographs and three thousand doubts. One of the things that makes you an endearing narrator of your own experience is the sincere doubt, the sincere questioning. I respond to that vulnerability in the writing I like. I think a central part of my writing project is to always be vulnerable without necessarily being confessional. We’ve come through this literary history where people think being confessional is talking about how many pills you take and who you slept with. But there’s a different kind of vulnerability you can have in writing, which is about talking about what you’re really engaged with, your creativity — your doubts about it, your joy. Writing about your joy is a very vulnerable thing. There’s also a little bit of talking to the shrink, here. The shrink who says, “So tell me how these pictures came about. Talk through it.” I’m a photography critic because I feel not enough people talk about how pictures come to be. Don’t just tell me what it ends up meaning. And don’t tell me what other photographs it reminds you of. There are conditions attending its existence.
November 2014. Past the town of Paradiso, I come to Lugano proper and walk along the waterfront for a while. Then I see the cultural center, an angular building with a green wing cantilevered off a pair of red-brick walls. Behind are the windows of an off-white neoclassical building. In the middle distance is some construction material. On the lawn in the foreground are a bronze horse, a red bench and a bush with orange flowers. Certain photographs contain notes that are unexpected but, brought together, poignant. I sense the tension created by the disparate elements of the scene before me. Fitting these unfamiliar notes into a single frame creates a strange new chord. But what does it mean? What it looks like is what it means. When I read this, I heard an echo with what you wrote earlier about Bruegel, where you mention the landscapes that “do not need the pretext of a mythological or biblical event.” Was that intentional? No. Well, I don’t know about intent, but it rings true. The echo is actually to something I don’t cite, one of the most often cited photography quotes, by Garry Winogrand: “I take photographs to see what things look like photographed.” People love to quote that, and I decided not to quote it. But that quote is submerged inside “What does it mean. What it looks like is what it means.” There’s another quote hiding inside that, which I believe was Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.” So this idea of the proof being in the pudding — at some point, exegesis will only do so much, and you just come back to the fact of the thing. This is particularly important for me to understand and assert, because I’m interested in pictures of nothing. And so I’m trying to understand why I’m moved by them. Partly it’s because somebody spent the time to look, to think, to be there with this thing. There’s the hope of epiphany. We’ll get to the end of the essay, but what it’s trying to do is to have the cadence of a modernist short story, where there’s epiphany, and something opens up that’s been there all along, and you realize you achieve some sort of emotional liftoff. But it comes from being with what might not have seemed so promising.
The German word for homesickness is heimweh. I love this transition. A new door has opened. We’re entering new space. Did you always know you’d be writing about homesickness? And did you know it would come toward the end? Some people would start with this. But to me, this jump-cut really made the essay — it took it to a new level. I love the feeling, in a piece of writing, of things locking into place. So we have these distant Swiss troops, and their peculiar homesickness, and the word heimweh that comes to be attached to that. Someone told me that story within maybe two weeks of my arriving in Switzerland, on my very first trip out to the mountains, to the Bernese Oberland. I was with a couple that had lived overseas, and I asked them why they’d returned to Switzerland, and the whole heimweh thing came out. So that knowledge was hanging out at the back of my head. Much later, I find that there’s a less commonly used term, fernweh, which is the opposite in meaning. When I began to organize my photographs in early 2015, I kind of seized on fernweh as an accurate description of my feelings toward Switzerland. And when I began to write the essay a few months later, I found the writerly sleight of hand I could use: heimweh is a Swiss word, described by a Swiss physician. Fernweh is a German word. But through description, I can create the illusion that fernweh is somehow itself native to the Swiss experience. So that’s what I did. The rest was writing, finding the right phrases. Legend has it that Swiss mercenaries from the 15th century onward, dispersed throughout Europe to fight foreign wars, were hardy soldiers susceptible to few weaknesses. But they missed home with a deranging intensity, longing for the high elevation of their cantons, their clear lakes, their protective peaks. This feeling they called, in their Swiss German, heimweh. The intense psychosomatic disorder was first treated in 1688 by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who also gave it the Greek name “nostalgia.” It entered the English language in the late 18th century as “homesickness.”
Heimweh, having been absorbed into standard German, acquired an antonym, fernweh. Fernweh is a longing to be away from home, a desire to be in faraway places. Fernweh is similar to wanderlust but, like heimweh, has a sickish, melancholy tinge. Wanderlust is rooted in the German Romantic tradition and is strongly tied to walking out in nature. Think of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings of a lone hiker in spectacular landscapes, communing with the overwhelming greatness and intricacy of nature. Fernweh is a bit more imprecise. One simply wishes to be far away. Fernweh: the syllables sigh. I adore this line. “The syllables sigh” came very late in the piece, at a point where I had relaxed properly into what I was writing, and was no longer afraid of having a little bit of fun. I find it’s often good to stray a little bit from what a word strictly means and to go into how it sounds. It gives the reader something to do. The reader repeats after you. You’re voicing the text together, like you do in the opening section of “Lolita.”
“Think of the long trip home./Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” I’ve always loved Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel.” With plain description, she presents the traveler’s predicament. The poem continues: “What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/in our bodies, we are determined to rush/to see the sun the other way around?”
I recognize myself in the childish rush that Bishop describes. It is connected to a willingness to reconsider what counts as home. The term “at home” describes both a location and a state of being. You can stay at home or feel at home, and often those two notions coincide. But what about when they don’t?
I never felt Swiss. I never felt like moving to Switzerland. The appeal was all in the awayness of it, the estrangement that one could count on. And that’s just the thing with fernweh: The cure and the disease are one and the same. Fernweh is the silver lining of melancholia around the cloud of happiness about being far from home. I wasn’t homesick for Switzerland; I was homesick for the feeling of being far away that Switzerland elicited in me. While I was there, I didn’t follow Swiss politics closely. I read some history but not a whole lot. My German remained poor, as did my French. My Italian was worse than poor, and I was not tempted to learn Romansch, Switzerland’s fourth official language. Had I got into any trouble with the law, I wouldn’t have known what to do. I was most at home in Switzerland precisely because I wasn’t. It made me happy because it couldn’t.
I remembered that James Salter, who was fond of Switzerland and its hotels, went to interview Vladimir Nabokov in 1975. Nabokov had by then been living for many years at the Montreux Palace Hotel, on the shores of Lake Geneva. I cherish both of these writers. One thing they have in common is a mastery in describing light in particular and optical phenomena in general; another is their inclination to evoke in-between states: drowsing, dreams, epiphanies, hallucinations. Both qualities, I think now, must be connected in some way with their appreciation of the in-betweenness of Switzerland. They loved this landlocked country of valleys and slopes, with its proliferation of odd hotels, its biggest languages shared with bigger neighbors, its neutral and independent international politics, its utopian but insular domestic politics, its extraordinary architects, its love of luxury and careful finishing. Switzerland is in-between but not average, a periphery in a central location, in this world but not of it. When did you arrive at your hypothesis about Salter’s and Nabokov’s connections to Switzerland? Salter died last summer and I had him very much in mind when I wrote this, because I was thinking about him a lot the entire time I was in Switzerland. Salter and Nabokov are important to me. Virginia Woolf is important to me, when she’s writing about that moth hitting the window — the ability to see what can happen when you write about a room, that form of privacy in writing, the intimacy that comes from close description. Of course Sebald is very important to me — being embodied and disembodied at the same time. In fact, the first draft of the essay contained the following lines, just before this section, in which I recall something Sebald said in one of his last interviews, in September 2001: “He did not feel at home in the U.K. after decades of living there. And he felt just as distant from his native Germany. His ideal station, he told the interviewer, was ‘possibly a hotel in Switzerland.’” Why did that get cut? Right? That’s the money quote! Then I built the whole Nabokov and Salter on top of that, because these are three people who influence my thinking about place. It was a “kill your darlings” moment. It was too perfect. Already, people think Sebald’s influence on me is massive. So I had to remove it. And Sasha thought I should remove it. I’m conscious of how deep my love for Sebald is, and how that love is misunderstood by people who have a shallow understanding of his work and of mine, to the point where they don’t see my other influences and then they don’t see my own independence. The idea of not being at home in Switzerland and therefore liking it for that reason was something I developed while I was in Switzerland. I did not go there because Sebald had lived there. I went because I got an invitation out of the blue, and it felt like a good fit.
“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” But to have merely thought of here would not have revealed its subtle peculiarities, the peculiarities that are not written in guidebooks. Only direct observation can reveal those. The way streetlights and traffic signs vary, the most common fonts, the slight variations in building codes, the fleeting culture of ads (different in each place, even when the company is a multinational), the noticeable shift in the range of hues that people wear in a given city, the visual melody of infrastructure as it interacts with terrain.
November 2014. The balletic glide of trams up and down Bahnhofstrasse, which connects the central train station with Paradeplatz, the elegant center of the Swiss banking industry. What terrible things are the bankers up to today? Don’t ask, and no one will tell. At street level on Paradeplatz are fashion boutiques, luxury-watch dealers and famous chocolatiers. I disembark from a tram. There is construction on a shop front. There is a man on a ladder and another holding it steady at the base. I’m taking pictures but I know I’m getting nothing. Then I turn around: the tram, the cutout ads for pralines and truffles along its top and behind them, the rows of windows set into the pale-colored stone of what is probably a bank’s building. Why do I like this picture? In part because of what it means, the way it compresses into one image three Swiss clichés: a bank, chocolates and an efficient tram. But also because of how it looks: like a language that I simply don’t know yet, a new cuneiform of the street. From this snapshot on, you stay in the present tense. In part because we’ve gone on this journey. The descriptions of photos are in the present tense, but we end up with where I am now. Again, I’m not quite bold enough with the tense thing, but I’m working toward it, where you can make the use of tense a structural device.
By the time I leave at the end of November, I have shot and developed more than 80 rolls of film. Back in New York, I examine what I have: almost enough for a book, but not quite. I begin to plan a trip back to Switzerland: I want to revisit Basel and Zurich. And how can I leave out St. Moritz or Sils Maria? I long for these places as though I were a doppelgänger of those long- ago mercenaries. Just a few more days, a few hundred more photographs and out of the whole pile of thousands, I’ll be able to select the 80 that will go in my book. Fernweh: a sickness, a longing to swallow up the Alps or to be swallowed by them.
July 2015. Late afternoon. A hotel room in Zurich. I’ve been out shooting all day and have made no good pictures. I remove my lens cap. I’m shooting with a Canon Elan 7 now, a lovely lightweight film S.L.R. from around 2000. I pivot the camera on its tripod. Covering the front of the free-standing wardrobe in the room is a picture of a ship on a lake, beyond which are mountains. You could wake up suddenly at night in this room and, seeing that lake dimly lit by a streetlight, imagine yourself afloat: the slightly vertiginous thrill of being nobody, poised in perfect balance with the satisfaction of having, for that moment, a room of your own.
I face the wardrobe. I open the windows behind me and increase the camera’s exposure setting slightly. A black lamp, gray striped wallpaper, the wardrobe, a foldable luggage rack, black light switches, a brazen handle on a black door. Talk about the “brazen” handle — it’s a terrific adjective. The first time I wrote it, I wrote a “brass” handle. Then I realized there’s a beautiful and tactile word that means the same thing, but that also gives it a slightly old-fashioned touch. After all, you’re in a hotel room that has wallpaper and a luggage rack. There was also the alliteration: the black lamp, the black light switches, the brazen handle, the black door. There was something with the rhythm, but also the b’s. Arrayed like that, they look like an illustration in a child’s encyclopedia. This is a door. This is a ship. This is a lake. This is a mountain. This is a room to which you long to be away, a room redolent of fernweh. This is a man in a room, crouched behind the camera, readying his shot, far away from home, not completely happy, but happier perhaps than he would be elsewhere. The final paragraph contains so many interesting shifts: from first person to third person, from observed detail to something more abstract. You talked about working, working, working the rhythm. How long did you work this last paragraph? I had maybe ten versions. But they were small changes. “This is a room to which you long to be away” is an obvious echo of your definition of “fernweh” — as opposed to, “This is a room to which you long to travel.” You could say there are three “ends” to this essay, and what makes them endings is that each is full of the energy and quite a bit of the language that we saw in the course of the essay. I’m saying, “Thank you for being with me over 4,500 words, I don’t forget the things we’ve talked about, here they are.” I’m going to talk about the mountains, the mercenaries, the pile of thousands of pictures. I’m going to talk about fernweh, the Alps. In the penultimate paragraph, I go back into the technical aspects of the cameras. And then at the end, once I arrived at the idea of the child’s encyclopedia — that just clicked. That came in the writing, in looking at the photo, not when I took or developed the photo, but in writing about it. I made the decision to describe the photo. I realized I had to make a list. I made a list, and then I realized everything was so distinct, even more so than in the other photos. It’s clean, almost like an illustration of a hotel room. But that particular line, “an illustration in a child’s encyclopedia”: Again, there are many things we do not only to endear ourselves to the reader, but to underscore our own vulnerability and softness. There’s something about this line where I’m saying, “Yes, there’s all this sophisticated stuff, but really, this is very simple. This is about loving what you see. Like a kid.” I’m that child, by implication. From there, the rest is rhythm: short, short, short, short, long, very long. It sounds like a children’s song, or a nursery rhyme: “This is the house that Jack built.” This is a mountain. This is a room to which you long to be away. I think mentioning the child’s encyclopedia led to that sing-songy rhythm. The essay begins in a kind of full maturity: “I’m the kind of person who gets invited to places. Very few strings attached. A man of a certain eminence.” And then it ends with something very simple, very personal — this idea that when you’re making art, you have to have a beginner’s mind. You cannot approach it from a know-it-all perspective. If you’re not opening yourself to the possibility of radical simplicity, then you’re going to miss it. You’re going to think there’s no there there. But you have to give it the chance.
Jennifer B. McDonald, NF ’13, is a freelance editor and writer based in Chicago.