The writer Rebecca Bengal has one of the coolest beats around, though I couldn’t precisely define what it is. She writes fiction and non-fiction, with reporting on everything from Standing Rock protests and Tove Jansson to Rihanna and Graceland. More than once, though, I’ve clicked on a headline about poetry or photography or some forgotten country music singer and intuited her byline before spotting it. Moreso than a single genre, her writing feels distinctive for its continued considerations of time and the way it shapes and reshapes our relationship to art.
In Strange Hours, Bengal’s capacious new essay collection out last month from Aperture, time acts as a framing device for 17 pieces—mostly essays, though it also includes an interview and short story—about the lives of some of the past century’s most iconic photographers.
A photograph “lives in multiple eras at once,” Bengal writes, as she interviews Nan Goldin, travels to Minneapolis with Alec Soth to find and photograph the past homes of Prince, and invokes title cards (“past tense,” “time out of time”) in an essay about documentary photography and the slipperiness of the pandemic clock. The result, in this slim purple volume—a fitting, Prince-haunted color—is a new classic that can help us to better engage with both visual culture and the world around us.
Ahead of a reading at Letters Bookshop in downtown Durham, Bengal, a native of Western North Carolina, hopped on a video call to talk about how the Center for Documentary Studies, kismet, and making sense of time during the pandemic.
How did you first come to write about photography?
There’s probably something to the fact that I grew up in a bilingual house—English and ASL and other forms of sign language since I have a hearing mother and a Deaf father. They encouraged me and my sister to be creative weirdos. She (Joanna Welborn, who also lives in Durham) is a photographer. As a writer I instinctively am interested in all pulling in all forms of language, to the point where (and I talk about this some in the essay “Slowly and with Much Expression”) I sometimes am speaking/writing/signing somewhere in between language. I’m perhaps conditioned by growing up with closed captioning to also instinctively be compelled to pair words with pictures. Pictures don’t always need words, words don’t always need pictures. But they can speak to each other or run parallel or strike an odd harmony.
I’m interested in mystery and ambiguity and in places where there’s room to tell a story. Photographs can often be those places. But so can short stories and novels and poems and film and music and I float between all in subject and form. My foundation is in writing fiction, but because of working as a freelance writer, I publish far more nonfiction, and also work that falls somewhere in between fiction and nonfiction.
I’m curious what your time as an intern at DoubleTake was like—what was that era like?
It’s hard to say, because a lot of my insights related to the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) have to do with being friends with people like Alexa [Dilworth] who have done so much for that place over the years. My sister Joanna worked with SAF [Student Action for Farmworkers] for many years and we both did stuff with literacy through photography. I was so young, so it was also just my window to, ‘what is working like a magazine like?’ And I was a little bit wide-eyed and sometimes there were glamorous people coming in and out. No big names, but editors and writers. I was struck by how exciting it was to be part of these amazing projects and, even though I was not technically working with them, to be among them. Up until things changed so drastically recently, I would come to see the exhibits [curated by Courtney Reid-Eaton] and there was incredible work, always.
It seemed like there was a vibrant era at that time. Do you feel like there’s support for the documentary arts right now?
One other thing about DoubleTake that I was just thinking is the main thing I took away—and I talk about it a lot in some of these essays—the whole relationship between words and image and how exciting it was to be at a place where photographs didn’t have to directly illustrate stories but can tell more expansive, nuanced, interesting stories that only a viewer or reader can pick out. I liked that.
The documentary arts are in an interesting time because people are questioning them more than ever before. With CDS—people are always talking about how DoubleTake should be revived. No matter what happens, it would be a shame for CDS not to be around because it is such a potentially necessary thing, especially for a place of education where there should be open dialogue about, ‘What is our role? What are we doing?’ in all these active ways. I hate coming back to Durham and seeing that the walls [of CDS] are empty. It’s a missed opportunity and there are people doing amazing things in that field right now.
One of the longer pieces is on this exhibit that Paul Graham curated at the International Museum of Photography, which was supposed to open during COVID. It springs from a documentary impulse but isn’t necessarily there. I always think of RaMell Ross, who made Hale County This Morning, This Evening. He’s someone who is doing such radical thinking around documentary and freeing it from all these things.
There’s a quote from RaMell Ross in the book—“I’m here to participate, not capture.”
That word “capture” is tricky in so many ways—there’s this dispassionate sense of participating and going into things and seeing with our own expectations and anxieties.
I have a fiction writing background, and that’s the way I try to think about stories—I don’t like to know the end, because I think you close yourself off.
Wait, so when you write fiction, you never start from the end and go backward? Is it always open-ended?
Sometimes I do write backward so that what might seem like the end might end up being the middle of the story. I do like to play with structure a lot. But at a certain point, you think you know the end and start to head there, but you have to stay open to the point of being led elsewhere. I love a tangent.
I was going to ask about time and structure, because also in that essay [about Paul Graham’s exhibit, But Still, It Turns] things are structured in a non-linear way. How did you arrive at that structure?
That came out of a lot of things—in a practical sense, there’s the problem of trying to write about different writers and artists and disparate bodies of work but trying to make this cohesive thing. I knew I was going to have to find a form for that.
I had an initial deadline for this [the essay “And the Clock Waits So Patiently”]—I started writing it at the beginning of 2020, as things kept getting pushed back. Time is something I’ve always been interested in—time and structure and voice and there was this feeling then of time just really exploding.
I was not in New York, then, I was at a teaching fellowship at an MFA writing program in Norfolk. I was alone in this place where I only knew a few people and I had a lot of time to get weird and that was feeding into it. I had this sense of, what was it like during Spanish Flu times? That was around when a lot of my favorite early discoveries happened in writing with the modernists. That was a time, not just around the flu, of course, but WWI, when reality was completely upended. It did such exciting things to language.
Around that time I also did a newsletter for [the photographer] Alec Soth—I like to call it a Zine, it felt like one—and some of those thoughts ended up bleeding into the essay, which ultimately became a kind of container for thinking about [But Still, It Turns] and these artists who were encountering things in real time. And not often imposing, though I mean, whenever there’s a camera or pen in your hands, you’re always imposing. But they felt connected, both in the time I was experiencing them and with their own times and I couldn’t help but think how [these works] would be received once people finally got to see them. It made me think about time traveling and wandering, if that makes sense.
It does make sense! And I wish I had a more specific part of the book to point to, but I was struck by the way you look at each artist’s relationship to vision as well as alchemy, kismet, accident—how those things can coexist, even though we don’t necessarily think of them going together.
This goes back to your first question, but arriving at art or music or film—any artist or writer is trying to figure out how other people are trying to do this thing.
There are great moments when these two things converge. Part of it is being open to receiving alchemy, being in that state of mind—but one huge problem is finding that focus and being able to exist that way.
The first question was discussed over email and the rest of the interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Comment on this story at email@example.com.
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