on The Importance of Elsewhere: Philip Larkin’s Photographs, by Richard Bradford (Frances Lincoln Ltd./Quarto Publishing USA)
The most well known photograph of Philip Larkin is a self-portrait he took in 1957 with his new Rolleiflex Automatic twin lens reflex and cable release, the same camera used by Brassai, Bill Brandt, and Lee Miller. Mark Hayworth-Booth, the Victoria and Albert Museum curator who provided the introduction to The Importance of Elsewhere, suggests that Larkin may have taken the shot to test his new equipment. I’m not so sure. As with his many other self-portraits, Larkin has readied himself: the hair neatly combed, the collar starched, the bowtie prim. The stare set with intention. The photo was taken in his bathroom; one can see, in the lower right-hand corner, the caps of two bottles, all that remains from the row of bath items cropped out of the shot.
Ten years ago, Richard Bradford published his Larkin biography First Boredom, Then Fear. He now recasts the key moments and relationships as a photographic narrative. Over 200 images are reproduced spanning Larkin’s life (1922-1985), taken by him, his family, friends, and lovers. The self-portraits alone hint at an accord between his poetry and photography. The text comprises a sturdy biography.
Writing to Robert Conquest in 1955, Larkin referred to his artistic pursuit for a “fuller and more sensitive response to life as it appears from day to day.” His famous ars poetica was “to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever read the poem.” His experience, that is, as if fixed in fixative like a developed negative.
Most professional art photographers disparage the supposed one-to-one correspondence between an image and the thing the light illuminates. But Larkin wasn’t a professional. Still, he was never far from a camera starting in his teens – a gift from his father coincident with the early deterioration of Larkin’s vision. He regarded his photos as “compositions,” and his practice of cropping the Rollei’s large 6x6 cm. negatives, displayed here on contact sheets, pares to the vital. He never worked in a darkroom and sent his negatives to local shops for processing. He never shot with a flash but his competency with the Rollei and Weston light meter allowed him to take long exposures.
Haworth-Booth notes that even as late as 1953, Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, claimed “it is the opinion held by many educated people that photography has nothing to do with art at all.” That same year, Larkin wrote the poem that would open The Less Deceived, “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album.” It begins:
At last you yielded up the album, which
Once open, sent me distracted. All your ages
Matt and glossy on the thick black pages!
Too much confectionery, too rich:
I choke on such nutritious images.
His “swivel eye hungers,” the images “strike at my control.” Then comes a claim and observation:
But o, photography! As no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
And will not censor blemishes …
As no other art is. In the poem, “this one of you bathing” is the photograph of Winifred Arnott found here on page 97. As one reads Bradford’s chapters and peers at the photos, it becomes clear that Larkin was no hobbyist. The Rollei reinforced a philosophical and perceptual bias in Larkin. And so he made intimate, relaxed, slightly suggestive photos of his lovers Maeve Brennan and Monica Jones (shown above left). There are his shots of friend Kingsley Amis and others, and photos taken of him by his friends and lovers. There are pictures of the East Riding countryside and rural churches. Photos taken on holiday. A shot of his mother Eva taken in 1967 (“Sometimes I wonder if I‘m fond of my mother at all”). Larkin used his camera to document the building of the library at Hull University where he worked as librarian for 30 years until his death. His work as an archivist reflected his interest in the popular arts; Haworth-Booth says that Larkin acquired “a complete run of Picture Post (1938-57),” the photo magazine he read as a young man.
The final photo of Larkin in The Importance of Elsewhere was taken by Monica Jones on his fifty-fourth birthday in 1976. “The years between 1974 and 1978 saw the death of Larkin as a poet,” writes Bradford. None of his own photos of this period or his final years are included here, if there were any. Perhaps it is fitting, if not revealing, that his camera was put aside at the same time as his typewriter.
[Published November 5, 2015. 208 pages, $40.00 hardcover]