In an Elegant New Book of Essays, Rebecca Bengal Mines the History—And the Power—Of Photography

In an Elegant New Book of Essays, Rebecca Bengal Mines the History—And the Power—Of Photography


When Kodak opened its doors in 1888, photography was a cumbersome chemical process best left to professionals, a reason George Eastman’s slogan caught on: “You press the Button, We do the Rest.” Now that we’ve switched out cameras for phones and outsourced “the Rest”—managing our stories, storing our memories—to Meta and Apple, we might forget to think about photography at all. We might forget to think not just about what it is but also what it can do, especially since photography is mostly mischaracterized as a means merely to document and underestimated for its ability to explore what oftentimes cannot be easily seen. “Pictures are luckier, they are looser than words,” writes Rebecca Bengal in her just-published collection of essays on photography, Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists. “Words have to fight harder to arrange themselves, to express that which in a photograph might be the mingling of order and accident, a strange convergence, a kind of grace.”

In this collection of thoughtful and elegant essays, Bengal, a former editor at Vogue (where some of these essays first appeared), writes about pictures and picture makers but also about the history of the medium over the course of the last half a century. We meet well-known and not-known-enough photographers, as introduced by a writer whose experience in the world of editorial photography is rooted in time spent at the legendary and now defunct magazine DoubleTake. Published from 1995 to 2004, with fiction, essays, poetry, and reviews, the magazine was “a home where image and word have equal weight,” according to its founders, the doctor, psychiatrist, and author Robert Coles and photographer Alex Harris. Their inspiration was the famed partnership of James Agee and Walker Evans, as well as the collaboration of writers and photographers of the Works Progress Administration. It was a place where what was sometimes described as social realism was worked out with both typewriters and lenses, and Bengal describes her tenure there as (not unlike her book) “a brief but compelling meditation and record of the possibilities and problems and relationships that exist between words and pictures.”

Alec Soth, Near Williston, North Dakota, 2012; from Strange Hours: Photography, Memory, and the Lives of Artists by Rebecca Bengal (Aperture, 2023).

Photo: Courtesy the artist