Books, Libraries, and Photography

The following post was started quite some time ago, but sat waiting to be finished as life intervened and my focus shifted from talking about and making art to paying my rent. Now that I’ve regained a semblance of normalcy, it’s time to return to my much neglected blog.

A while back a writer friend of mine suggested I should read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman, a book about the experiences in reading and, by extension books. It had come up as part of a discussion of our mutual, if slightly differing, love of books. To use Fadiman’s terms my friend’s love of books tends towards the carnal, consuming both their soul (the words and ideas) and their body (annotating pages, breaking spines) while mine tends toward a courtly love where, in addition to appreciating the words, the book as an object is something to be venerated. As with most things, the middle ground is more populous than either extreme and though I may choose to copy passages of interest into a notebook rather than marking the original text I’m sure Ms. Fadiman would be pleased to know that a copy of her book lies spine up, pages splayed on my desk, paused in the reading, rather than stopped.

Candida Höfer: Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid
Biblioteca de la Real Academia de la Lengua Madrid, Candida Höfer

The point I am gradually coming to is that there is something about the book as an object that appeals to me. So much so that I have tried to capture, with limited success, this fascination on film (see group 04 in the photography section of the main website). Many of the photos were shot at the Prelinger Library in San Francisco, a place created in defense of the activity of browsing. For those interested, an article on the library appeared in the May 2007 issue of Harper’s and was accompanied by images by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin. If you appreciate a good library, you should also check out the series of library photographs by Candida Höfer (though her images tend to be more about the spaces than the books).

Abelardo Morell: Thought Book, 2001
Thought Book, 2001, Abelardo Morell

When considering books as a subject for photography many people reference Abelardo Morell. I have to admit I also associated Morell with his Book of Books (which I finally picked up at Green Apple Books recently) and his camera obscura work. I also thought of him as working exclusively in black and white. In January, however, I saw him speak and was surprised to see a range of work from early street photography to his most recent experiments with making camera-less images and even shooting in color.

Thomas M. Allen: Upshot, 2003
Upshot, 2003, Thomas M. Allen

One of the reasons people probably photograph books is that they are so convenient, they’re everywhere. It was probably a rainy day and Thomas M. Allen first started cutting up and photographing the pulp novels that ended up in his book Uncovered. There is also something romantic about books, the accumulation of knowledge they symbolizes or the possible worlds and stories they hold between their covers. Their influence reaches beyond their pages, shaping the way people see the world. Interacting with books from an early age can leave a lasting impression as I imagine it did with Marc Joseph. His series New and Used, a series of used book and record shops, shows a love for these objects, the search for and collection of them, and the life they lead when their original owners have given them up.

Something caused all these artists to consider either the book itself or the life of books. So, though many have proclaimed the death of print, books still seem to hold some cultural resonance. Will there ever be a time when people will look at these varied portrayals and not recognize books? It seems more likely that images of books will become quaint, like pictures of rotary phones, but I doubt they will ever be unreadable.

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