Before he became known as a photographer, Teju Cole made his name as a novelist. For a writer, the “singing line” is narrative. In many ways, it’s no surprise that Cole was drawn to pick up a camera. “Photography seems to be the most literary of the graphic arts,” Walker Evans once wrote; a sentiment shared by the photographer William Gedney, who claimed to be “attempting a literary form in visual terms.”
Cole’s widely acclaimed debut novel, Open City, is driven not by plot but by the act of walking and accidental physical encounters with place: The story stumbles upon itself. As the protagonist Julius, a Nigerian medical student, wanders Manhattan and Belgium on foot, the narrative seeks to get under the surface of the city, to scrape away at the past collected in its buildings and below its streets. Open City invited comparisons to Michael Ondaatje, whose novel In the Skin of a Lion imagines the building of Toronto, and to W.G. Sebald’s melancholic, peripatetic novels The Rings of Saturn, The Emigrants, and Austerlitz.