As a visual artist I have had the good fortune to collaborate with the Booker prize winning novelist A. S. Byatt and, at the moment, am working with her on a set of limited edition prints based on her upcoming novel, Ragnarok. I have always resisted examining too deeply my influences and motives, fearing that by bringing what is in the unconscious into the conscious, it will cause my art, like a tightrope walker suddenly becoming aware of what he is doing and the danger he is in, to metaphorically crash to the ground. There is also the danger of diverting my idea from what is essentially visual to the literary. Because of these concerns, in these collaborations I have avoided asking myself the kind of question I am about to ask you: have you found being married to a photographer that Bob’s visual language and subject matter have found their way into your writing, and do you think your writing has fed into his photographs in terms of content or style?
—Jack Milroy, London
I want to give a quick nod to the unconscious here and the work it does in the creative process. I’m not thinking of the Freudian concept so much as the fact that we all have such a vast amount stored in our brains that we use only the tiniest fraction of at a given moment. I’ve always found that some of my best writing ideas arrive unbidden. A line of dialogue or an idea will pop into my head that’s exactly what I need. Whether it comes from an association of things or arrives in an even less organized fashion, I consider it a gift, I guess the thing writers and artists have always called inspiration.
I truly doubt that recognizing influences on work has the power to prevent such moments from occurring. We’re talking about superstition here, right? That’s fine but, Jack, while we all rely on a degree of not trying our luck, I don’t think I share your worry that thinking about influences can be dangerous. It’s just that I don’t do it very often, basically because I think everything is a potential influence.
But now that I am thinking about it, I have to say that I’ve always known that Bob’s being a photographer has had a big influence on how I experience things visually. Sometimes I’ve even felt that I learned how to really see because of the things he showed me with his camera. So in this very large sense, yes, being married to a photographer has influenced me a lot. (It’s also very handy if a person is putting together a website to have access to a photographer’s archives!) I’ve also borrowed some of his knowledge about photography and cameras, particularly in writing Time Stamp since Maddie’s a photographer. But I have a love of photography that I think stands on its own and a certain knowledge base I’ve picked up through osmosis.
It’s a different question, though, whether or not his style or themes have influenced my work. I really don’t think that they have. I can’t remember an example of that happening. If it has, it’s encrypted beneath too many layers of memory for me to find. It’s more as if we’ve been on different tracks. We’ve both always been interested in each other’s work, but they’ve been very separate in emphasis and really in everything. He’s had some practical benefits from my being a writer because he’s often gone with me on research trips and discovered new subject matter as a result, but I seriously doubt either of us could think of a time when my writing had a thematic or stylistic influence on him.
In a theoretical sense, I’m interested in the idea of collaboration and the way one person’s ideas can be stimulated by another person’s work. We’ve probably all had the experience of seeing great art or hearing great music and being stirred in such a way that we almost need to come up with our own imagery in response. So I think the kind of work you’re doing on “Ragnarok” is a terrific idea. The closest I ever came to trying a collaboration with Bob was when I tried to write a series of poems based on some of his Paris pictures (and on his beginning efforts to write companion poems for them). I salvaged a few of those bits for Time Stamp, but they were really only scraps not poems, and I found the whole endeavor frustrating. My friends who are real poets tell me that even a lot of their poems aren’t successful, but this was more than just the random miss. I think I’m probably best as a writer of anything when I’m working from something that has caught me as sort of the first holder of an observed situation or thought or image. The idea has a particular resonance for me then—legs, I suppose—and that gives me the emotional connection that helps me through to finished work.
See Jack’s bio and pictures of his work at artfirst.co.uk.