Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey

Reviewed by Paul Pescador



“I want to make some photographs, but I want them to take seed in words.”
—Moyra Davey, “Photograph and Accident”

I sit down and reread Moyra Davey’s Long Life Cool White.


I have been reading it for the past few weeks on my lunch breaks in a small park a few blocks from my office. I go there everyday and sit on the bleachers, scanning through the text, watching kids play baseball. I have been thinking about the relationship between artists’ writings and photography. I work with both and am always interested when a book thickens the coupling of the two.


Published in 2008 as a catalogue for Davey’s exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museum, this book publishes three essays and a set of photographs. The curator, Helen Molesworth, pens the introduction and the other two, “Photography and Accident” and “50 minutes” are both personal writing by Davey. In the first, the artist keeps a travel journal that discusses the photographic accident as a means to understand mortality and her own failing vision. And “50 minutes” is a transcript from her film of the same name, an examination of the artist’s seven-year relationship with her analyst.


Personal, intimate, diaristic. This catalogue behaves distinctly uncatalogue like. Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and Walter Benjamin help Davey navigate through writing, texts by these guys standing-in for her own experiences.  In her photographs, we see empty stacks of coffee cups, dust under a bed, piles of records. Language links to image and a visual world forms. I imagine Davey’s maundering through her Brooklyn apartment, sifting through books with a pencil in hand. She picks up her camera, lured by the way the light from the kitchen window hits the table. Click. With the same pencil, she scribbles down a few notes. She moves shifts between reading, writing, and documenting. Each step informing another.


Sifting through this book, I wonder why as photographers do we obsess over language? Both mediums attempt to provide legible information. Despite the fact that photography has changed through the digitization, photoshop, etc, as Barthes postulates in Camera Lucida we still see photographs as a physical recording of the past. Similar to photography, writing has the ability to activate a pre-existing moment, it holds potential information and through vessel of the reader it is activated. Through Davey’s artwork, visual and cognitive information blur.  We maneuver through her photographs as if they were notes, small moments that are then pieced together. Often times actual text is splatters throughout these images, from handwritten street signs to words on refrigerator magnets.


Her images are writerly, her writing is imagistic. Her words drape over scenes and surroundings. This relationship between photography and writing  is most evident in her videos, where we watch her on-screen reciting text from a script not as an omniscient voice over, but as a character, sharing history, struggling over words, and presenting herself as subject.


Throughout this book, sight becomes subject. Most importantly the loss of sight. Can words stand in for images? References to not only vision but mortality is discussed multiples times. Barthes remembering his deceased mother and photographer  Annie Leibovitz photographing her partner Susan Sontag on her deathbed.  Through these references Davey attempts to come to terms with her own mortality. We feel this through the banality of her photographs, the memento mori from her objects. The passing of time. One’s mortality, recorded through small quiet moments.


As I write this essay, I’m sick at home with a terrible cold. Trapped in my house with her book as company. I look at her photographs and think about my own space, stuff, mess, and how I navigate through it.  The wadded tissues across the floor, the stacks of dishes in the sink. A few summer ago, I injured my arm and lost, for a time, my ability to operate a camera. Now, I sit in bed with a stack of books and notebooks trying to figure out how record information: How can I translate experience through writing differently than I had with a camera? Finishing this essay, I perhaps have less answers than when I started.  Davey’s book currently sits on the side table on a turquoise navajo rug next to large globe lamp on the side of my bed. I spend a moment contemplate photographing it, but instead get up and make lunch.


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Moyra Davey, Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey, (Harvard Art Museum, 2008) 
Images: Cover and interior of Long Life Cool White: Photographs and Essays by Moyra Davey