Jeff Sharlet is a long-form journalist, an author whose work has been adapted in a Netflix documentary series (The Family), and, like nearly every last one of us now, a photographer. Unlike most of us, though, he has used the casual photos that collect in his phone to propel himself into a rarefied group of creators who unify photos with writing to yield an inseparable work. Not photos with explanatory captions or essays alongside photographic decoration that could just as easily have been paintings. I’m talking about a new work that melds the two; I’m talking alloy.
Who says that a “good” photograph should stand on its own? For what reason? What’s the punishment for disobeying this specious demand?
With This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers, Sharlet says: My pictures need the text; my text needs the pictures. He alludes to the comic book form, in which neither illustration nor text stands on its own. “I understand pictures by the stories I want to tell about them,” he writes.
Published over 26 years ago, Victor Burgin’s Some Cities may be the nearest predecessor to Sharlet’s new book of pictures-and-prose. Both books aim at an empathetic regard for the subjects of their photographs by the amplifying text accompanying them; both essentially write memoirs through writing about Otherness. Teju Cole, who also melds pictures and prose, directly considers the acts of seeing and writing and making pictures in his books. His is an overtly aesthetic project.
Sharlet is admittedly not primarily or even secondarily a photographer. But he has a good eye, especially in low-light conditions that produce a lyrical murk. These unsettled photos exemplify a paradox: the less precise the edge, the sharper their sense of time. Time and night together form Sharlet’s central theme: people who inhabit the night, literally and figuratively (graveyard shift workers, those who, like the homeless brother and sister on the streets of Dublin or the emotionally disturbed woman who lives in a Schenectady welfare hotel with her pet plant, inhabit the dark side of society) and the sense of mortality that, like the looming night, descends over our lives. The book’s time-frame is bracketed by his father’s heart attack and then, two years later, his own. The resulting shock and fear hindered his ability to write in any sustained way, and he took solace in confronting the presence of the present through the plane of his phone camera. “I began ignoring deadlines. I needed money, but I started saying no to assignments. I gave up returning calls. Instead, I took pictures.” These ended up on Instagram, along with the captions that are a kind of illustrated flash nonfiction.
Reflecting the reciprocal relationship between smart phones and Instagram, the chapter titles of This Brilliant Darkness are hashtags. These are organized in the table of contents according to time. In fact, much of this work was written in a borrowed office in a clocktower. Time lends its narrative armature to the way we inevitably understand our lives. Time is everything.
The book’s epigraph is thus perfect: Roland Barthes’s great formulation of cameras as “clocks for seeing.” Time is of course the signal subject of photography. Every photograph that’s ever been taken is saturated in melancholy: loss is the camera’s true aperture.
While Cole’s book Blind Spot (2017) was heavy with the absence of the human figure in the midst of human works, Sharlet makes the human figure uncomfortably present in his photographs. He drives around and meets people — the “strangers” of the subtitle — whose lives glance off or inform aspects of his own. A section titled #YouNeedtoBeSoClose (the ominously casual remark of a guy pictured holding a hefty knife) catalogs people with weapons at the same time it winks at the requirements and gift of photograph-taking. You sometimes need to get uncomfortably close to get the picture, and that proximity opens the photographer to the subject. On occasion it inspires a couple of very deep dives, the deepest of which here become extended reportage. The lengthiest relays the tragedy of a Cameroonian immigrant who arrives in LA dreaming of fame, taking acting classes on his way to attaining it. Instead, he ends up on Skid Row, mentally ill and an addict, which is just another way of saying: unarmed Black man gets shot by police.
Journalism meets art in this book; art leaks into journalism, sideways. The approach Sharlet takes with This Brilliant Darkness is a reminder that this vast life is no monolith, only a collection of fragments that are captured but in passing. The effort taken in doing so confers on them the timelessness they would otherwise never have. Numerous as they are, everyone has their own story. That’s the story. Sharlet stopped to listen, to see, to take a remembrance: a shockingly rare act. He observes his own life in its as yet unknown trajectory in an undertaking of generous inclusion, leaving us with a series of personal nightscapes. They are beautiful interruptions in the ceaseless progress of time. They pause for a moment to speak the name of what vanishes, which sounds just like a shutter’s click.
This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers by Jeff Sharlet is published by W. W. Norton.