Iain Sinclair, London and the Photographic

The Significance of the Visual Medium for the Writer’s Prose

by Dominika Lewandowska-Rodak (Author)
©2018 Monographs 226 Pages


This book explores the significance of photography for Iain Sinclair’s London prose. The visual medium is one of the writer’s most prominent motifs, featuring extensively in his fiction and non-fiction. This study, however, proposes that its role in Sinclair’s work extends beyond that of a literary theme, to an actual literary principle. In its interdisciplinary rereading of his writing, this book uses key notions of photography theory to examine the correlation between the principal ideological aspects of the visual medium and the main characteristics of Sinclair’s unique brand of literature. The analysis reveals that photography may actually serve as a key to understanding the peculiar dynamics and inherent pluralities that define the writer’s literary practice.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One Photography:
  • I A Short History of the Visual Medium
  • II A Critical Look at Photography
  • 1 What the Photograph Is (Not)
  • 2 The Invisible Index
  • 3 Reality and Fiction
  • 4 Objectivity and/or Subjectivity
  • 5 The Past in the Present, the Present as the Future
  • 6 Presence/Absence
  • 7 Life and Death
  • 8 Singularity Reproduced
  • 9 The World of Photographs
  • 10 Photographic (In)Significance
  • 11 Power Relations
  • III Sinclair’s Take on Photography
  • Chapter Two Photographic Aspects of Sinclair’s Prose
  • I Literature and Photography
  • II Sinclair’s “Photographic” Prose
  • 1 Writing Photographically
  • 2 The Book as an (Im)Material Object
  • 2.1 Art as a Commodity
  • 2.2 Literary Democracy
  • 2.3 In Search of Meaning
  • 3 Actuality vs. Imagination
  • 3.1 The Story of Sinclair’s Life
  • 3.2 Indexicality, “the Heat”, and Surreality
  • 3.3 A Scientific Approach
  • 3.4 Subjective Objectivity?
  • 4 The Transformative Power of Literature
  • 4.1 Fiction and History – an Interdisciplinary Multilogue
  • 4.2 Prophetic Literature
  • 4.3 Narrative Alchemy
  • 4.4 The Predicament of the Subject
  • 5 The Return of the Past, and of the Dead
  • 5.1 Temporal Convergence
  • 5.2 The Space of Literature
  • 5.3 Literary Erasure
  • 6 The Role of the Writer
  • 6.1 Inspired Automatism
  • 6.2 The Shamanism of Intent
  • 7 The Advent of Oneself as Other
  • Chapter Three Sinclair’s “Photographic” Perception and Portrayal of London
  • I Photography and the City
  • II Sinclair’s London, Photographically
  • 1 Picturing London: Sinclair’s Urban Prose as a Case of Ekphrasis
  • 2 Histories, and Stories, of London
  • 2.1 Historical Geography of Sinclair’s City
  • 2.2 Fictional Mappings of London
  • 2.3 Rag-Picking through the Capital
  • 3 The City in Time
  • 3.1 Atget’s Vieux Paris, Sinclair’s Old London
  • 3.2 The Necropolis
  • 3.2.1 Death in London
  • 3.2.2 The Postmodern Wasteland
  • 4 The City as a Space for Artistic Intervention – the Art of Walking and Looking
  • 4.1 Sinclair’s Pedestrian Genealogy154
  • 4.2 Sinclair’s Art of Walking
  • 4.3 Sinclair’s Art of Watching
  • 4.4 The Occult Spirit of Place
  • 5 London as a Psychological Space
  • 5.1 The Anthropomorphic City
  • 5.1.1 Portraying the Soul of London
  • 5.2 The City Is in the Eye, and Mind, of the Beholder
  • 5.3 The Uncanny City
  • 6 London as Text
  • Works Cited
  • Index


Iain Sinclair is currently regarded as one of the most prominent contemporary British writers. This recognition, however, is relatively recent, with the first monograph on his work – by Robert Bond – published only in 2005. Sinclair was born in 1943 in Cardiff to a middle-class family and raised in the small Welsh town of Maesteg. Having completed his secondary education at Cheltenham College, a top English public school, Sinclair moved to London, where he took a short course at the London School of Film Technique (now London Film School) in Brixton. Following his subsequent move to Dublin, he read English and Fine Art at Trinity College, where he became editor of Icarus. After graduation, in the 1960s, he returned to London and devoted himself to making films while performing odd jobs to earn a living. He also studied briefly at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Sinclair’s artistic career proper began with the visual and literary documentary accounts of Allen Ginsberg’s 1967 visit to London for the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. The visual record took the form of a short film Ah! Sunflower (1967), and it was accompanied by a non-fiction publication The Kodak Mantra Diaries (1971). Around that time Sinclair became associated with the British Poetry Revival and in 1970, while continuing to work on several documentary film projects, he set up Albion Village Press, where he began to publish his own volumes of poetry in extremely limited editions. Among his last self-published works were Lud Heat (1975) and Suicide Bridge (1979), both a blend of poetry, essay and short prose that laid the foundations of the writer’s unique vision of London, the city that has since – up until now – remained at the centre of his literary practice. In 1987, his first novel, White Chappell, Scarlett Tracings, came out in a limited edition by Goldmark. Then, with the publication of the second novel, Downriver (1991), Sinclair’s work gained wider recognition. The book won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Encore Award. However, true literary fame came only in 1997, brought by his non-fictive Lights Out for the Territory. Since then Sinclair has been continuing to write prolifically; to this day he has published well over thirty titles, including novels, “documentary”1 books, ←9 | 10→volumes of poetry and works combining poetry and prose. He has also authored many shorter pieces (essays, individual chapters excluded from his books), as well as editing poetry and prose anthologies. Thus, at the turn of the century, the writer evolved from an obscure counter-cultural poet to a celebrated author of fiction and non-fiction, and a landmark of contemporary London literature.

With the newly found acclaim and some mainstream success came a wealth of academic criticism, focusing mostly on Sinclair’s role of a London artist.2 Consequently, examinations of the writer’s oeuvre are now commonly featured in scholarly publications on London literature such as The Swarming Streets: Twentieth-Century Literary Representations of London edited by Lawrence Phillips, Sebastian Groes’s The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature or Julian Wolfreys’s Writing London, Volumes 2 and 3, placing him alongside the likes of J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Peter Ackroyd3. Indeed, while the writer has occasionally endeavoured to artistically escape both this tag and the city itself, and now actually claims to be done with London altogether, it cannot be denied that the capital’s landscape has been the focal point of his literary career. Apart from falling within the broad and heterogeneous category of London writers, Sinclair, as already mentioned, has also been associated with the British Poetry Revival and the Cambridge School of poets. However, although this classification accounts for and elucidates many of his underlying formal and theoretical concerns, showing where he comes from artistically and culturally, it does not fully explain his powerful place-specific prose vision. Consequently, the author should probably be viewed as a singular individual who is part of a community of artists sharing a similar perspective on the landscape of the English capital. Although it is an “informal gathering”, the clique is quite united, comprising the writer’s recurrent collaborators and figures of reference, including, among others, artists Brian Catling and Gavin Jones, filmmaker and writer Chris Petit and photographer Marc Atkins.

As a subject for critical analysis, the characteristics of Sinclair’s literary oeuvre make it a bit of a mixed blessing, since it proves both a particularly satisfying ←10 | 11→material, and a particularly frustrating one. The erudite style together with the eclectic and extensive use of literary and cultural references turn his prose into an extremely rich resource for academic investigation, as the author constructs a narrative landscape that is both novel and familiar. Consequently, Sinclair has been ascribed to several, at times contradictory, literary traditions. There are those who view him as a neo-romantic visionary mythologist, much in the vein of William Blake4. Others emphasise his affinity with modernism, as does for instance Robert Bond, the author of the aforementioned first monograph on the writer. Meanwhile, others still associate him with postmodernism, as is the case with Andrzej Gasiorek, who includes Sinclair in his chapter on “Postmodernisms of English Fiction”; Nick Bentley, who sees an affinity between Sinclair’s depiction of London and David Harvey’s critique of postmodern geography; and Julian Wolfreys, writing extensively on Sinclair’s work and consistently proposing Derridean deconstruction as the key to his prose enterprise. Roger Luckhurst, in turn, examines the writer’s oeuvre in his article “The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the ‘Spectral Turn’”, locating his texts within the Gothic tradition. Then there is Sinclair as an avant-garde artist and a representative of the counter-culture, a context most readily embraced by the writer himself. Indeed, viewing his work in counter-cultural terms seems to best account for his use of tropes taken from various traditions and employed in opposition to the mainstream English literary scene. It also allows to critically embrace the fact that while the writer is clearly profoundly conscious of Western cultural history and draws freely and copiously from its different stages, his prose cannot be contained within the framework of any single literary movement or school of thought. After all, if an author can be assigned to several theoretical approaches, in a way they belong to none.

It seems the one thing universally agreed on by critical studies of Sinclair’s work is that it eludes easy categorisation and defies theoretical constraints. This is somewhat curious since it is also deeply self-reflexive and obsessively preoccupied with its status as “writing”. Here, then, critical frustration begins; since Sinclair’s prose abounds in theoretical references, it is difficult to accept that it cannot be confined to one stable theoretical framework. The problem is that the stuff of the writer’s work is his personal perspective based on actual individual experience, which can never be wholly reduced to abstract critical ideas. Thus, ←11 | 12→while there is plenty of theory here, it is theory on Sinclair’s own terms, as the familiar and some less easily recognisable literary and cultural elements are used to build his own unique vision.

One way of escaping this conundrum is to move altogether away from such systematisation, a shift effected by some academics who instead focus on different extra-literary elements from Sinclair’s vast repertoire of consistently and insistently recurrent themes. The writer’s fascination with London’s history, for example, has caused Alex Murray to proclaim previous interpretative efforts insufficient and propose that Sinclair’s work be primarily viewed from a historiographic perspective. Another signature theme, namely walking, which is part of the writer’s artistic method as well as a crucial narrative motif, has in turn inspired several analyses based on the extremely popular notions of flânerie and, even more so, psychogeography. This, however, seems to have become more a matter of certain critical fashion, as the writer himself openly rejects the tag of the flâneur and distances himself from the contemporary re-invention of Situationist psychogeographical practices, an issue addressed in Chapter Three.

It the face of such theoretical elusiveness as is displayed by Sinclair’s prose it appears easier to approach his work in short critical forms, which are by necessity limited in their scope and thus allow us to focus on one of the many aspects characterising the writer’s work without feeling that the topic has not been exhausted. Perhaps that is the reason why there are numerous articles on Sinclair but very few extensive monographs. My exploration of Sinclair’s work started off as such a short form but quickly expanded, growing into an attempt at a far more comprehensive study. And it, too, settled on a non-literary point of reference, in fact one that is a wholly different medium, namely photography.

The visual medium certainly counts among principal Sinclairian motifs, and is in fact directly related to both history and walking. Yet, curiously, it has so far gone mostly unexplored. Although photographs and photographers feature in all of Sinclair’s prose works, this aspect of his project remains largely overlooked. A major exception here is John Sears’s 2007 article “‘Ghosts and Texts and Photographs’: Sinclair’s Overwritings of the Dead”, which is insightful, but – being a short form – naturally limited in its scope. The theme has also been addressed in Kirsten Seale’s essay “Eye-swiping London: Iain Sinclair, photography and the flâneur”, where the discussion focuses mainly on the notions of flânerie and the photographic in the writings of Charles Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag. Finally, the link between Sinclair’s work and photography has occasionally been referenced in Julian Wolfreys’s examinations of the writer’s oeuvre. Then again, Chapter Five in Brian Baker’s 2007 monograph, which is wholly devoted to the visuality of Sinclair’s texts, mentions photography ←12 | 13→only in passing. This is all the more surprising since, I would like to argue, the importance of the photographic for the author’s prose extends far beyond the function of a literary theme. As with the other components partaking in the construction of the Sinclairian landscape – reading, writing, walking – the visual medium’s role is not restricted to a mere point of interest; instead, it becomes more of an underlying principle, crucially informing and shaping the writer’s texts. My argument is that Sinclair’s prose can be described as “photographic”, by which I mean the kind of literary practice that engages formally and ideologically with the issues inherent in photographic representation. I therefore propose that photography theory may be used as a critical basis for an examination of Sinclair’s prose oeuvre.

This does not mean, however, that – as is now increasingly fashionable – this study seeks to equate photography with literature using the example of this particular writer’s work.5 The two are autonomous media, although they do undeniably impact each other. Thus, whilst the aim here is to posit and subsequently prove that photographic theory corresponds to and informs Sinclair’s personal artistic theory and practice, my discussion of this textual photographic-ness still relies extensively on various literary and cultural traditions. Indeed, I employ and examine several contexts proposed by the above-mentioned scholars, but they are reconstituted into a new framework as a result of being shown from a photographic perspective, which – hopefully – helps to shed new light on the writer’s literary aims and choices. The introduction of photography as an overarching principle therefore produces a critical effect that is somewhat analogous to the vision emerging from Sinclair’s writing – it is both familiar and novel. Moreover, such a photographic re-reading accounts for and embraces the plurality, the fragmentariness and the insistence on personal perspective found in the author’s work, as these properties are also the primary characteristics defining the visual medium.

One problem with an analysis of such liminal interdisciplinary nature is that with it occupying a certain middle ground, it provides neither a comprehensive examination of the photographic medium nor a truly exhaustive study of Sinclair’s writing. The exploration of the former is naturally incomplete, as photography is not the main focus of this book. Meanwhile, the latter can also appear somewhat depleted due to the attention given to the extra-literary interpretative ←13 | 14→framework. The objective here, however, is to explore this space where the two forms meet in order to gain a new universal insight into the character of the writer’s work, rather than account for all its possible readings.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (July)
Fiction and non-fiction Contemporary literature Photography theory Interdisciplinary analysis Literature and the Visual Arts London literature
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 226 pp., 20 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Dominika Lewandowska-Rodak (Author)

Dominika Lewandowska-Rodak holds a PhD in English Literature and teaches at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. Her main research interests include contemporary English and Scottish urban prose, as well as translation studies. She also works as a literary translator.


Title: Iain Sinclair, London and the Photographic
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