A lot of books cross my desk, at work and at home, and wind up in piles before they can find their way to shelves. Some are given to me by photographers, for which I am grateful and often touched by the individual’s generosity–or, rarely, concerned that they’ve over-committed themselves by sending out expensive materials without properly having vetted their targets. Some are sent by publishers, for which I am sometimes grateful, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes inspired to write. Some are sent expressly for reviewing, in photo-eye and elsewhere, and for these, well, I am thankful that I got to know Darius Himes a number of years ago, for he (and Joel Eisinger, when he was editing Exposure for SPE) got me on the path of reviewing photography books. Larry Frascella, at Photo/Design way back in the eighties, and Christian Peterson, who hooked me up with the Washington Post to review Penelope Niven’s biography of Steichen, are also due a credit or two for looping me into the photobook opinion mill.
But there was a time before I went pro, when I bought books, a lot, too often, to my financial detriment and esthetic enrichment. Starting circa 1981, I guess, when I bought a Stieglitz monograph (from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, no less) for Alan Trachtenberg’s “Photographer in American Culture” seminar. During that class, researching my paper on Group f.64, I discovered a gorgeous, oversize Weston book in the art library. Gazing into its quarto-scale reproductions, I began to appreciate that the distance between a fine photographic print and a meticulous reproduction was relatively small, a displacement that is far less fictionalizing than that undergone by a painting, drawing, print, or other two-dimensional work (no need to talk about sculpture or cinema) in the translation from real to represented. The Weston reproductions, in fact, had a beauty all their own; since I’d never held a Weston print, or seen one unglazed, the book held me in thrall. Not better than the real thing, but a lot realer than the projected images I’d seen on screen.
I still seek this kind of unique experience in books. Quality standards have risen significantly in most books, and prices haven’t risen too terribly much over the past five to ten years due to excellent, affordable printing in China and elsewhere. I am under some severe restrictions these days, in terms of disposable income available for purchases, but I do still acquire books (more than I ought to) and find my appetite getting just a bit pickier. At the same time, of course, the number of new publications has skyrocketed. I didn’t know photobooks in the 1960s and 1970s, where one could fairly easily acquire all newly released, serious photography publications. When I went to A Photographer’s Place bookstore in Soho, I had to be careful and selective. I’m glad I didn’t know how much more I could, and perhaps should, have bought there in the 1980s. But my library grew like topsy anyway. Now and then I wished I’d written little capsule reviews of every book I brought into the collection; that would probably qualify me as a bibliomane, or at least kind of a nut.
Today, with a limited acquisition budget, I must be more thoughtful. Which is a good exercise. It means that every book I buy has something special to recommend it, something that causes its punctum to trump its studium (apologies to Roland Barthes). Here’s a list of publications, in no particular order, that I’ve acquired with my own money, not on behalf of any organization other than my own, in the last couple of months:
- Candida Hofer, Hamburg Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, Koln 2002 – I couldn’t resist this tiny (about the size of my hand) book when I saw it, particularly since Hofer and her Dusseldorf colleagues so often go for the grandly oversized when it comes to scale, in print or on the wall.
- Peter Fraser, Material Steidl, Gottingen 2002 – Like the Hofer, purchased at Ars Libri in Boston, where I had to resist a half dozen other books on the shelves. This one is about color and stuff, strange inexplicable things, run almost full bleed with minimal text. As the back cover states, “Here are outstanding objects and objects left outstanding.” Outstandingly weird.
- The Spectacular of Vernacular exh cat org by Darsie Alexander, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2011 – Acquired this one after a too-hurried viewing of the show, which contains Walker Evans, Marina Abramovic’s 2005 video Balkan Erotic Epic: Exterior Part 1 (B) (which transfixed 5-year-old Milan), Lorna Simpson, a Christenberry sculpture and Eggleston dye transfers, and Shannon Ebner, among others less notably photographic. The catalogue, only about twice as big as the Hofer noted above, with fewer pages, has an essay by the late J. B. Jackson. How could I resist (though the title really rubs me the wrong way)?
- Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century exh cat org by Peter Galassi Museum of Modern Art, New York 2010 – Though the show opened last year in Manhattan, it took me until this month to see it in Atlanta, at the High Museum. One can not have too much Cartier-Bresson; though I thought the show could have been edited, I wanted to have the catalogue to learn why I still gain so much looking at HC-B’s work.
- Whiteout: Poems by Marvin Bell, Photographs by Nathan Lyons Lodima Press, Revere, Pennsylvania 2011 and Balanced Equation: Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Lodima Press Portfolio Book no. 14 2010 – Also in Atlanta during the SPE conference, with Arno and Nathan sitting at the Lodima Press booth ready to sign, there’s no saying no (for me, at least). These two modest volumes together with all the material I picked up during portfolio reviews during the conference don’t equal the Cartier-Bresson catalogue in weight.
- Eirik Johnson, Sawdust Mountain Aperture, New York and Henry Art Gallery, Seattle 2009 – How can this book have been around since 2009? Anyway, it’s a lovely and subtle accumulation of evidence, topographical, socio-economic, and environmental, to describe a certain angle of light and life in the Pacific Northwest.
- Jesus and the Cherries Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2005 – Almost bought this one when I was at Ars Libri a couple of weeks ago (see Hofer and Fraser above), and glad I didn’t; it was nearly half their price at the Museum of Fine Arts store yesterday, when I picked it up with Eirik’s. The plastic cover gives Jessica Backhaus’ early publication an odd feel and smell, but the sequence and the images have a beguiling intimacy and mystery.
Well, if I don’t spend money on books, I can still spend time.