A writer’s encounter with iPhones, Instagram, and all that ‘clatter’ in his head

Photo by John Gregory Brown
Detail of a photograph by John Gregory Brown

“I’m not a photographer,” says John Gregory Brown. And that’s true. He’s a writer. Nonetheless, Sweet Briar’s Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English, whose fourth novel came out last year, is gearing up for a photography exhibition. “Where is the Writer” opens with a gallery talk by the artist at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12, in Benedict Gallery.

“I make manipulated photographs,” Brown explains. “The show will be a selection of those digital images printed on paper.” All of the images were created and edited on an iPhone from digital photographs he has taken.

It all started about five years ago, Brown says, when he purchased his first iPhone. In part, it was curiosity, and a kind of obsession with this pleasantly pocket-sized, multifunctional technology. But it also provided a welcome outlet for his creativity when words failed him — not because they weren’t there.

“I had some serious eye issues that made it difficult for me to read or write for any length of time,” he says. So he began taking pictures and posting them on Instagram.

“After 10,000 of those images, I decided to make 10,000 more. Because I’m an artist, though not in any way a trained visual artist, I wanted those pictures to be about my encounter with the world rather than just images of the world, so they began to acquire more of an individual voice — as a writer would say — or an individual eye — as I guess a visual artist would say.”

Detail of photo by JGB

Making the pictures has been “an immense pleasure,” Brown says. “I’ve never been a person who remembers his dreams, and for me these pictures are sort of a replacement for that. All of the clatter in my head gets its chance to take on a kind of visual life through the images I make, and the surprise and strangeness of them feels deeply comforting and somehow reassuring.

“I don’t know what kind of pleasure, if any, others will take in seeing these images in person, but I’m so grateful they’ll be out there in this small public space for a while.”

Born and raised in New Orleans, Brown came to Sweet Briar in 1994 with his wife, fellow novelist and Margaret Banister Writer-in-Residence Carrie Brown. Both published books in 2016, and both are nominated for a Library of Virginia Literary Award.

Brown’s latest, “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” was preceded by “Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery,” “The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur” and “Audubon’s Watch.” His honors include a Lyndhurst Prize, the Lillian Smith Award, the John Steinbeck Award, a Howard Foundation fellowship and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year Award.

“John Gregory Brown: Where is the Writer” will be on view through Dec. 3. For more information, visit his Tumblr page, email brown@sbc.edu or call 434-381-6547.

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