Teju Cole is, I think, as close to a Renaissance man as I know. The range of allusions in this large collection of short essays is staggering. Naturally, the range of topics is equally wide, focusing (pun intended) on photography. If you know his novel Open City, it will not surprise you to learn that the essays are lyrical, non-linear, observational and insightful. They are, in far too many cases, too short. I know that at least some were lifted from elsewhere. I wish that he’d chosen fewer to include and expanded those that made the cut. The pieces on photography were challenging for me since I don’t really speak that language, and he is only able to include a few of the images in the book itself. I enjoyed the sense of humor that sneaks into a few of these pieces, and I liked traveling with Cole to the places he visits. He is a master at using words to make pictures.
If you haven’t discovered Mr. Cole through this book, Open City, or his essays on photography in the New York Times, you need to. Here, as in Open City, the text can be kind of meandering, and the line between non-fiction and fiction more than a little blurred, but I think it has been the essays that have helped tie everything together for me. We often speak of lenses these days, and in most cases, we mean pre-loaded filters we use to view and understand the world. But for Cole, the camera lens matters as well. Cole, introduced to me by a great teacher and an overly modest photographer, provides the pictures in this book as well. He, or his persona, has returned to Nigeria after a long absence. That fact distances him from what he sees, both with his eyes and through his lens. And so does hiding behind his camera. He sometimes rejects the safety advice of his family and ventures into areas they deem unsafe in ways they deem unsafe. Still, he is always conscious of seeing and being seen. How should he act in order to appear local so as to not get victimized. What is that woman reading on the bus. And the various screens, such as the front wind shield in a car, are always present.
It is the quality of liminality that pervades this book. Where is home? He lives in a compound and wants to be in and of the world. There is much for him to love about Nigeria and he doesn’t want to return there to live. And this liminality is supported by both the form of the book – not really linear (much like Nigeria, he says at one point), more episodic – and his photographs (see 104-105 for a great example – Cole has framed a photo of a dog by looking through what seems to be the grille work of a fence or railing – in another frame, there is a man we see through his window, also looking at the dog. I’m not explaining this well. Buy the book.)
Yep, there it is. Buy the book.