Reading Time: 6 minutes
In the tense weeks leading up to the 2020 US presidential election, Cole photographed his kitchen while reflecting the construct of image-making and sharing today
In September 2020, Teju Cole was making pictures of his kitchen counter in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The US presidential election was six weeks away and he needed something to occupy himself, something to help him endure the anxiety of the interim. “I want a record of this apparently impossible and impassable distance,” he writes in the essay that forms part of the work. These pictures are that record; time happened to him, to all of us; the impassable distance was passed. At 4.02pm on 03 November 2020 – the afternoon of the election – a sliced persimmon glows gold on the chopping board, and after that the pictures stop.
The idea for the project arrived fully formed. “One evening, I realised I wanted to do a work that interweaved photographs of the kitchen with a long essay on a list of interrelated subjects that had been gathering in my mind,” explains Cole. “I began the very next day.” My first encounter with the work that eventually became Golden Apple of the Sun, Cole’s new book with Mack, was on Instagram. Pages from a 1780 cookbook (discovered by Cole in Harvard’s Schlesinger Library during the early research stages for the project) appeared overlaid with inset images of Cole’s kitchen counter. Each image was captioned with a paragraph of text. These fragments were eventually amalgamated to form the essay now found at the end of the book.
Cole, perhaps best known as a writer of novels and essays on photography, often shares his work-in-progress on social media. The process helps him see his output afresh – the knowledge of others’ eyes on it inevitably provides new information. “It was also helpful in the general sense of providing energy,” he says. “I was posting every day for about six weeks, and I was enthusiastic about putting this intense material out into the world, one fragment at a time. For those six weeks, that’s what I was living for. Which I suppose was the point of the project: to divert my attention away from the stupid news and towards something life-giving and lasting.”
“The commitment I have made is that nothing is moved to make a photograph. Nothing will be arranged to create a better picture, though the temptation to arrange things is very strong. What will be of interest is the operation of chance in this small space.”
In the book, Cole’s photographs have been separated from the reproduced pages of a recipe book, and sit cleanly on white pages. A date stamp informs us when each image was taken. Without a knowledge of the context that surrounded them, the images feel calm, full of a commonplace domestic tenderness and consideration. Here is the cheesegrater awaiting its use, the curve of a bowl arcing away from that of a saucepan, and the blank space between them. Here is a sliced lime. “The commitment I have made is that nothing is moved to make a photograph,” Cole writes of his approach in the essay. “Nothing will be arranged to create a better picture, though the temptation to arrange things is very strong. What will be of interest is the operation of chance in this small space.”
The photographs are quiet and still. Posted on Instagram, they make a particular demand on the viewer. At times, it seems as though Instagram is designed to make looking at images as easy and frictionless as possible; we are ‘users’, not ‘viewers’. Cole’s photographs push back against the platform’s algorithmically generated notions of visual appeal. On a later Instagram Story, he wrote: “If I’m choosing between two photographs, I pick the worse one. Intransigence is what interests me.” The still lifes of empty containers on his counter are formally adept. Many are beautiful, but they offer a subtle challenge. There are no eyes, no faces, no decisive moments. The containers pictured on the kitchen counter suggest cooking, but do not show it. These images require the viewer to work, just as reading does: we bring our imaginative effort to the experience, co-constructing the work with Cole as it proceeds.
“‘Openness’ is closer to where I want to go. And that openness has, as part of it, a certain interest in de-skilling, in reducing the assertion of one’s skill. The photos in Golden Apple of the Sun are not the most beautiful or most impressive I have ever made – and that’s very much the point. I feel I had to give up some know-how in order to arrive at a greater openness.”
Cole’s approach appears to be experimental with an intentional uncertainty about what the outcome of a project will be in its emotional content or form. “‘Openness’ is closer to where I want to go,” he says. “And that openness has, as part of it, a certain interest in de-skilling, in reducing the assertion of one’s skill. The photos in Golden Apple of the Sun are not the most beautiful or most impressive I have ever made – and that’s very much the point. I feel I had to give up some know-how in order to arrive at a greater openness.”
Cole’s essay is condensed into a single potent paragraph. He writes, among many other things, about Dutch Golden Age still life paintings; about the violence of salt-harvesting in Bonaire; about Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. He writes about his own experiences of hunger, first at boarding school in Nigeria and then as a college graduate in Massachusetts. About Louise Glück, Jan Groover, Chris Killip; about Yoruba expressions of love. In the essay’s sprawl and density, the seams of its fragmentary construction are occasionally left exposed – the text counters the photographs with their tidy lines and negative space. Much of it is written in the second person, to a “you” whose identity shifts throughout. Cole appears to address his partner, the person with whom he is cooking these meals. Then, the memory of a friend who has died. The reader feels addressed too; inevitably the collective ‘you’ of the crowd of Instagram followers, the work’s first audience, is also invoked. In his acknowledgments he thanks “the many yous”.
What appears while reading the essay and returning to the images is a profound sense of contingency. Objects are not neutral, and the truth of a thing or a person or a period of time is not straightforward. It is not fixed, but continuous. We relate and interrelate indefinitely; our choices rebound on one another. We address ourselves to “many yous”. The pandemic required us all to stay at home, to shop less, to cook our meals for ourselves – not just out of convenience, but to arrest the spread of a virus that might affect our neighbour as soon as ourselves. “I ate with care, care for myself which began to feel like care for the world,” Cole writes of that time.
Everything we encounter, including the sugar bowl on a kitchen counter or its image in a photobook, is complicated by outside contexts, this work suggests. An example: about halfway through the essay is a list of symptoms, followed by a pathology report. While making the work, Cole became ill, and records it here. It reminds us that these words and images come from a mind within a human body, one susceptible to the same illnesses and fears of illness as the person reading; that the essay and the photographs represent not an abstract instant, but an aliveness within a period of time.
How often, when encountering a piece of work, are we put in contact with the physical reality of the person making it? What does it mean to the reader if I tell you that, almost a year to the day after Cole transcribed his symptoms, I am writing this from my sofa, convalescing after a minor surgery, stitches in my leg? Where do you read this essay from – what is the reality of your body now? And when are you reading it – what is the reality of the world today? How do our multiple contexts, personal and social, change our reading of the works we encounter, or indeed the kinds of work we make?
“As I photograph, I’m looking for the moment when one kind of interest becomes something else, where the words I want are neither ‘interesting’ nor ‘boring’.”
During our conversation, Cole speaks about “the grand success of photography”. “There has probably never been a visual art practised by so many people,” he says. “Everyone has a camera, and there are billions of people showing their work on social media – even if they don’t think of it as ‘work’. Most of these are not skilled, but vast numbers of them are. And there are these various forms of ‘good’ photography, rampant and easily findable. I think this puts some new pressures on what we wish to do with the photographic image, and what we can do with it. I find myself more and more interested in the ways a photograph can generate friction. Where it’s not quite as clean or good as an advertising image, where it’s a bit too reticent, or weirdly composed, or lacking obvious content. Not difficulty for its own sake, but difficulty as a way of holding a space.”
What happens to the photograph when it is freed from the imperative to be good, easy, shareable? And what happens to us as we encounter this new kind of image? What do photographs know, suggest and conceal? What do we require from them, and they from us? “As I photograph, I’m looking for the moment when one kind of interest becomes something else, where the words I want are neither ‘interesting’ nor ‘boring’,” Cole’s essay describes. A space is opened on the counter, and questions rush to fill it.