The Overcast’s Recommended Read of the Month: Matthew Hollett’s Album Rock

Part travel narrative, part art history, Album Rock combines creative non-fiction, poetry, and photography as it traces Hollett’s attempt to learn as much as possible about a photograph of French sailors playfully painting the word “Album” on a large rock in Ship Cove.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes lays out a theory of photography that differentiates “studium,” the general study of visual images, from “punctum” – an element or detail within a photograph that unexpectedly “pierces” and “bruises” the viewer.

The punctum is that part of the image that “rises from the scene” – “shoots out of it like an arrow,” infusing it with meaning while holding the viewer’s gaze.

Album Rock tells the story of how a photograph made by a French sailor in the mid-1800s so pierced writer and visual artist Matthew Hollett, that he began a years-long research pursuit.

Part travel narrative, part art history, Album Rock combines creative non-fiction, poetry, and photography as it traces Hollett’s attempt to learn as much as possible about Paul-Émile Miot’s “Rocherpeint par les marins français,” or what he calls “Album Rock” – a photograph of French sailors playfully painting the word “Album” in white, five-foot-tall letters on a large rock in Ship Cove somewhere between 1852 and 1859.

Hollett first stumbled across the photo while scrolling through the website of the Corner Brook Museum & Archives. After obtaining a high-resolution scan of the image, he discovered details that had been invisible in the tiny photo he found online. He describes how, in addition to his curiosity about what motivated the event in the photograph, these fine points led to his fascination with it.

Album Rock reveals its artistry in much the same way as the photograph itself. Upon careful reading, details emerge that elicit further inspection. On one of Hollett’s original photographs of a sunset in Shallow Bay, a large dot centred below the overlaid text first appears to be an element of design, but a closer look suggests lens flare. Descriptions of names graffitied across rocky outcrops along the highways between St. John’s and Ship Cove tease out the link between contemporary painters and the 19th-century sailors in “Album Rock.”

In addition to such poetics of word and image, Hollett offers a deft analysis of scale, colour, perspective, and light in the “Album Rock” photograph. Without becoming too self-aware, he explores the photographer’s struggle to capture the natural world, as well as the challenges of historical and artistic research. He writes that “[l]ike the paper fibres that gleam from [his] macro photos,” his “research into ‘Album Rock’ is a mishmash of little loose ends.”

Hollett also problematizes the colonial gaze of Miot’s photography, inextricable from the “Album Rock” image itself. “By inscribing whiteness on the landscape, a whiteness that lingers 160 years later,” Hollett writes, “‘Album Rock’ exemplifies the power of naming, of written language as a means of asserting ownership.”

Album Rock is one of the most piercing local books of the year.

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