Photo-based Erasure Texts

Erasure texts—most often made by taking one source page and striking out words to create a new text—are not new. In 1820, Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible by cutting and pasting the teachings he most liked and leaving out references to divine miracles, among other things. A facsimile of The Jefferson Bible, Smithsonian Edition: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth has been published and you can see a digitized version here. Many more erasures have been created since then, from the 1954-55 1977 book, Radi os by Ronald Johnson taken from the first four books of Milton's Paradise Lost, through A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (Fifth Edition) by Tom Phillips (see this post), and the more recent: Jen Bervin's Nets from Shakespeare's Sonnets and poet Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow.

Each of these was created in a different way: some by cutting and pasting, retyping, collaging and painting and drawing over, setting new text in bold and printing it in black while leaving the rest of the type gray, and whiting out. The visual impact of each varies as well. Some are more interesting to look at that others. Others make more literary sense. In some cases the poetry or text is stronger, in some cases the art is. The third component to erasure texts after verbal and visual, is conceptual. What is the relationship between the words and the images? In Ruefle's A Little White Shadow, to describe the most obvious example, the images are just rough whiteout clouds or shadows. 

Lisa Kokin created some wonderful erasures in her 1999 altered book, That Two-Edged Bliss which gave me an idea. One of her pages uses a fragment of the Mona Lisa with holes cut out that highlight certain words beneath ("a sad little smile / would atone for all. / Beauty covereth"). How would this kind of erasure work done in Photoshop, using a photograph I had taken and a portion of the newspaper?

Here is a recreation of what I did (not as tidy, though), step by step.
1. Choose a photo and photograph or scan a text.

2. Keep the original files and label them "photo-source" and "text-source."
3. Make copies of each (both jpg or both png) and resize so they are the same. I was doing a test for web, so I just made it about 8 x 6" at 72ppi, but if you want to print it out, make it higher resolution at 300ppi.
4. Make a new layer. Look through your text copy and see if you can spot a new poem or sentence. Select a bright color and the pencil tool to circle the words.

5. In the photo copy, make the background a layer, then go to the Layers palette and change the opacity to 83-86%; make the opacity closer to 80% if the photo is very dark or if you want to see more of the words showing through.

6. Make a new layer in the working text (copy) file.
7. Drag the photo (copy) over to the text.

8. Use the dotted rectangle box to frame one of the words you want to show through and hit the delete key. You may need to zoom to 150% -200% to see them.

9. Continue creating new rectangles and deleting these to highlight all of the words.

10. Go to the Layers palette and delete the layer with all of your underdrawing, if you like.

11. Use the pencil tool to add lines that link and show the order of the text.

12. For any mistakes, or any places you would like to be more opaque, go back to your photo-source and make a dotted rectangle over the area you want to use. Copy it.

13. Go back to your working text+photo file and paste it there. Arrange it exactly, or collage with it. Cut out any more of the text you want to show from the photo layer.

Well, that was fun. I think the conversation between the words and the image is conceptually just fine. But it has a little bit of the problem that many erasure texts have: it is weak in one area, doesn't completely have a message in the smaller text. A little more time and thought might have got me an actual poem. This text is absurd. But, then again, so is the image.


One of the categories for my magazine *82 Review is Erasure Text. Read some in past issues. Follow the guidelines and submission requirements and send yours for possible consideration to:


india flint said…
I enjoyed that wee journey.