Brooklyn Museum Photography Exhibit Draws From Literary Inspiration


Published: November 18, 2010

One picture may be worth a thousand words, but for the English conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, it takes only 10 pictures to illustrate a literary classic.

“Ghosts,” Taylor-Wood’s photographic exploration of England’s Yorkshire Moors, is one of the many exhibits featured in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. It is short and simple, featuring 10 large photographs along one white wall. Although the photographs beautifully resonate the Moors’ austere landscape, what makes this exhibit particularly interesting is that the works are inspired by Emily Brontë’s tragic romance, “Wuthering Heights.”

The novel’s dismal climate, characterized by themes of isolation, struggle and loss, is echoed in Brontë’s vivid descriptions of the characters’ environment. In fact, as curator Catherine Morris explains in the exhibit’s summary, the setting was such an integral part of the story it became “one of the novel’s major characters.” For viewers who are not familiar with “Wuthering Heights,” Morris carefully places the novel on a bench opposite the exhibit so people may read the text when examining the images, directly illustrating its influence on Taylor-Wood’s haunting photographs.

But the viewer does not have to read “Wuthering Heights” in its entirety to understand the relationship between Brontë’s text and Taylor-Wood’s imagery. Even within the first few sentences in the novel’s introduction, the significance of the author’s environment is made clear: “Emily’s life in Haworth was largely confined to the familial sphere—isolated in a house on the edge of the town, with the church and graveyard as a buffer in front and the moors as an escape behind.” This one excerpt conveys the isolation and emptiness that defines both the novel and the images, while also conveying the lurking presence of death.

With the combined influence of the Moors’ rugged landscape and the novel’s bleak subject matter, Taylor-Wood’s images convey a morbid beauty that is equal parts haunting and ethereal. A few of the image descriptions are excerpts from the novel and are organized chronologically, which heightens their stark characteristics. This is demonstrated with the first image, “Ghost I,” which captures dark, grey skies that sit heavily over boundless fields. The image seamlessly resonates its description, which is taken from the first chapter.

“Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling, ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather,” Brontë wrote. “Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there, at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.” With this description, readers are not only introduced to the exhibit but to the novel as well.

Just as “Ghost I” is a sublime introduction to both works, the last photograph, “Ghosts XI,” is a flawless exit. This image is not as barren as the first, with two bare trees in focus and a crow flying overhead. The landscape is still weathered, and the sky is just as grey. However, as lifeless as this image may seem, it evokes a sense of peace, which its description accents: “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

And with those last few lines of the novel, the exhibit comes to a perfect, haunting close.