Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing a person wearing a dark dress and smoking a cigarette outside a building entrance showing a no smoking sign

Richard Kalvar’s irreverent study of language

The photographer’s new book, Selected Writings, uses a generous dose of humour in his appreciation for how words show up in everyday life

“Ever since I began photographing I’ve been drawn to things that are a little off, that are not quite right. In general, it’s been people, often trying to communicate, often failing.  But what if the things are not directly human, what if they’re written words? Why shouldn’t I photograph them, too? And so I did,” says photographer Richard Kalvar.

“I wasn’t trying to make a particular point, but I understood that over the years in addition to my photos of people I had gradually built up quite a collection of writing pictures. A little while ago I started playing with them and lo and behold! They held together pretty well.”

Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing a person with very cropped hair, a short beard and tattoos wearing a t-shirt that reads 'happy'
Top: Yes. Smoking, Madison Avenue, New York, 1998; Above: True bliss, New York, 2012. All images © Richard Kalvar / Magnum Photos
Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing two flat gravestones in the ground inscribed 'husband' and 'wife' separated by grass
Disunited for eternity, Cemetery, Huntsville, Alabama, USA, 2012

That collection became the foundation of his new book, Selected Writings, which brings together photos showing words visible in everyday life. Some phrases seem at odds with their settings, or as he says, “a little off”. But in many cases the joke is so well delivered, or the irony so effective, that oftentimes the language is actually in perfect harmony with its context. One photograph shows a person patting a dog, which is sat in a crate that bears an instruction in Japanese. If you don’t know the language, rest assured it translates to ‘I don’t like to be touched’.

Part of the humour is owed to how Kalvar layers the language. An American photographer who has been based in Paris for most of his career, he includes his own text interventions – something more involved than captions – to introduce each image in both French and English. “Normally I use very minimalist captions with my pictures; just the year and the place, possibly with a couple of extra ambiguous words. I want to engage the viewers’ hearts and imaginations without leading them by the nose. But when I started showing these pictures around it was clear that that wouldn’t work with photographs where the written word was so important,” he says. “If you don’t understand the writing you won’t understand the picture.”

Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing a stop sign next to the roadside with a bra attached across the front
Stop!, Île de Ré. Le Bois-Plage, France, 2000
Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing a labrador looking through a park gate bearing a no dogs sign
Sorry about the sign, Rover, Paris, 1993

The book weaves together images that were shot decades apart, but they sit comfortably together in small thematic passages. One sequence highlights scenes where words are repeated or layered to form unexpected, often striking patterns. Elsewhere, an image of loving messages scrawled on rocks eventually leads to a partially obscured sign that appears to read ‘Eros’, the Greek god of love and sensuality. However, by and large, he wanted to avoid being too explicit in terms of how the book has been arranged.

“I think that effective sequencing involves creating a flow that holds people’s eyes and hearts without their always being aware of it. It’s best if the links are not too obvious,” Kalvar explains. “At one point while working on the dummy I put all the vertical pictures together. That was really not a good idea! You have to keep it subtle.”

Black and white photograph from Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing the artist in 1980 holding an Italian newspaper upside down
Self-portrait, Rome, 1980

Many images are tied to advertising, whether billboards or menus, though Kalvar wasn’t making any particular observations about advertising. Like signage or graffiti, it simply seems to be a byproduct of how language appears in public spaces. “I would say that most of the pictures revolve around communication, about trying to get a message across. Advertising is a subset of that, but I don’t think I’ve gone out of my way to emphasise it; it’s one form of communication among others.”

In Selected Writings, we’re shown how meanings are never fixed but always shifting via the context that contains the message. “The obvious became clear to me: that writing is communication, sometimes clear, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes unconscious. And that while the writer may have had intentions, the reader is free to interpret his or her words differently.”

Cover of the book Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar showing a black and white photograph with a person yawning on a metro and wearing a t-shirt that reads 'loser'

Selected Writings by Richard Kalvar is published by Damiani;