Tag Archives: book art

Looking At Pictures, Looking At Books

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC,  is currently exhibiting ‘Looking In:  Robert Frank’s The Americans‘. (1) The first edition of this book is the title that I have worked on the most over the years, currently five copies.  The reasons are  simple– the original Grove Press edition was perfect bound, so the pages are generally detached, or detaching. (2) When this is coupled with the fact that a first printing in good condition sells for up to $20,000, it becomes economically advantageous for the owner to have the book conserved.  I even had a magnesium die made from the title page for stamping the exterior of the drop spine box, since I tend to see this book every couple of years. Since I have spent many, many hours looking at this book, I was curious to see how I would interpret the images in a museum.  I also think this is the first time I have seen all the images from a book displayed  in a gallery.

americans die

Above is a magnesium die, reproduced photographically from the title page, used for hot stamping.

What follows are some haphazard observations on the differences between interpreting images in books verses looking at photographs in gallery setting, tempered by my experience as a conservator. (3)

Overall, there was more a sense of the similarity of the experience, rather than huge differences, in reading the book or looking at the images in the gallery. Perhaps it is because I’m already used to seeing this book in single sheets, rather than intact.  Perhaps it is because the exhibition follows the exact chronology for the 83 images. Maybe is because there is virtually no text in the book, thus reducing the dichotomy between looking and reading. The sequence of the book has always puzzled me a bit.  They aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically, narratively or even with a clear sense of formal relationships.  In fact, as I have spent many, many hours removing traces of deteriorated adhesive from the spine edges of the pages, they often tend to get out of order.  Viewing the images out of order reinforces the impression that it is not in the sequencing that its power lies, but in the massing of the images coupled with a sense of disorder, that creates this powerful, poignant snapshot of America.

Gallery viewing is public, but viewing books generally takes place in private, with the reader able to choose the pace of their viewing.  Typical of a busy museum, especially when looking at smaller format images, I was forced to stand in a line and everyone tended to move along at the same rate.  If you got tired of looking at the image in front of you, you could look back at the previous one or ahead to the next. The book, however is laid out with one image on the recto, and a simple title, often nothing more than a place name, on the verso of the previous page.  Each image in the book is encountered in isolation, and is related to the previous one only by memory, not active viewing. The layout of the images mirrors the subject of the images as well– the often mentioned pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation that Frank documented.

One aspect of Frank’s work that came through more forcefully in the gallery setting was his use of reflections, shooting through curtains, windows, etc.  The fact that the photos were framed in glass, with its own reflections, and the verticality of the picture plane emphasized this.  I interpreted the photographs more like windows, rather than like portraits in the book, both because of their verticality and large size. Many were much larger  (some impressively large for 35mm)  than the reproductions in the book, and the size varied from image to image.  I suspect each photo was printed as large as he could, and they were printed at various times during the past decades.  The regular size of the images in the book, albeit with some variation in horizontal and vertical orientation, tends to reinforce the homogeneous nature of this tour through America. (4)

I am used to looking at this book through my “conservation eyes”.  When viewing the book during conservation treatment, I generally tend not to “look” at it as a whole, but only look at the small area of damage that I am treating.  Even when I sleep on it, or step back and try to assess the whole, the areas where I have devoted so much attention to continue to beckon. Sometimes, when I’m looking at art,  I catch myself looking at a repaired area of an object, or some damage, or how it is mounted, rather than trying to appreciate it as an artistic experience.  I think it is a bad habit, possibly dangerous, in the sense that it forces my perception onto very small details, possibly at the expense of a more holistic interpretation.    When I look at the book, memories of what I treated, what was repaired, etc. constantly resurface and interfere with the intent of the artist.

But after viewing the exhibition, the book form beckoned– this time a 2008 facsimile for sale in the  museum shop,  with sewn signatures, for only $39.95.

americans sewn

NOTES

1. J. Hoberman has a solid review of the show in The Village Voice which places the book in the context of late 1950′s American culture.

2. Take a close look at open first edition displayed at the beginning of the show, in the middle of the case.  Notice that the top and bottom of the page displayed is detaching. Heads up to whoever is de-installing this case- close this book very, very carefully! The glue is already very brittle.

3.  I’m going to leave aside a discussion of the most obvious difference, the difference in the visual qualities of reproduction.  Gelatin silver photographs and offset printing look quite different!

4. Differences in  various editions of the book also change the reading. Towards the end of the show, there was a case containing three various editions of the book, all open to the same image to allow easy comparison. Needless to say, the print quality varied quite a bit, and these differences influence how the images are interpreted.

Smuggler’s Bible

For reasons unknown to me, there are a number of these late 18th C. French bindings that have been converted into smuggler’s bibles.  The stamping on the front cover was done at a later date, and the inside of the textblock seems to have been edge glued, and the back flyleaf used to line the edges.  The bottom is the back board pastedown.  I always wonder what happened to the bulk of the text– thrown away or burned, most likely.  

So if I am “reading” this book correctly, with little or no text, it is the materials and the structure of the binding that give it meaning.  In a way, this book is a eloquent example of how a conservator approaches a book.   Firstly, through the lens of the history of technology, it is the physical substrates that support and protect the text that are documented, analyzed and conserved.   Secondly, we have not time, interest  or are unable to read the language of most of the books we work on.  Do we even need the text?

But this book also demonstrates how the brutal alteration of an artifact can distort our understanding of history.   I’m very interested in late 18th C. French bookbinding, and even though there are many extant examples, each one that is lost  distorts our understanding of the total production and subtle workshop variations. It is that it is very difficult to determine when this book was altered, so it gives the unscrupulous an easy excuse of saying they bought the book in this condition.  The market currently values destroyed or altered books such as this more than an intact volume. 

There is even a company called “Secret Storage Books” that currently makes new versions.  If I were being more stringent with my own ethics, I guess I shouldn’t have purchased this book, since it encourages more of them to be made.  

Octave Uzanne, writing in 1904, in The French Bookbinders of the Eighteenth Century writes: “‘Sham books’, simple wooden boxes, and sometimes mere mouldings, covered with gauffered and gold-tool leathers, with which they filled the empty shelves of a pretentious library, or with which they garnished the doors.”  The books below, however are real books that have been made to resemble the sham books he talks about.

 

18th-french-cover                  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

french-safe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jane Eagan kindly sent this image of a similar book she owns.

eagan2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
eagen-book2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the 24th of March, 2009 I was watching Looney Tunes historic Chuck Jones animation, and from 1939 an 8 minute short titled “Sniffles and the Bookworm” featured a smuggler’s bible.  Watch the book on the bottom right.  I barely had time to grab my camera, so I missed a better shot earlier in the movie.

jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

jones2

The Most Endangered Book Species

Jessica Helfand was interviewed on the Leonard Lopate show , WNYC. She recently wrote, “Scrapbooks: An American History”  An art critic and graphic designer, she investigates scrapbooks through the lenses of social history, graphic design, folk art, personal narrative and assemblage.  She explores the  public/ private nature of scrapbooks as well as the big questions– why are scrapbooks so important to their maker, how do these “countless pieces of ephemera … collectively frame a life?” (xvi) In the 19th C. men as well as women were avid  scrapbookers and in  1873, Mark Twain patented a “self-pasting” scrapbook (#140,245) that became very popular and profitable since it dispensed with the need for glue.  Helfand’s book includes many gorgeous photos of scrapbooks from famous and unknown people, presented straightforwardly in all their acid burned glory.   It is also an impressive example of bookmaking– many of the images of scrapbook pages are laid out on the recto and verso pages, requiring very careful registration when printing and binding. The blurb reads:

“Combining pictures, words, and a wealth of personal ephemera, scrapbook makers preserve on the pages of their books a moment, a day, or a lifetime. Highly subjective and rich in emotional content, the scrapbook is a unique and often quirky form of expression in which a person gathers and arranges meaningful materials to create a personal narrative. This lavishly illustrated book is the first to focus attention on the history of American scrapbooks—their origins, their makers, their diverse forms, the reasons for their popularity, and their place in American culture.”

Scrapbooks are perhaps the most endangered of all book species.  Even today, they are routinely dismantled, mainly because of the serious challenges for conservators (and the costs that these entail) because of the wide variety of media, adhesives and ephemera contained in them.  This book will help conservators convince clients of the importance of preserving scrapbooks in their entirety, that they are more than the individual items contained within them.  It is precisely because of the wide variety of materials that scrapbooks contain that give us a unique insight into the mind and time period of the maker. Vernacular culture rules!

She relates the scrapbook to current digital technologies, “The scrapbook was the original open-source technology, a unique form of self expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.” (xvii)  and is exploring the idea in a blog post called “Facebook:  The Global Scrapbook”  Her insightful, critical blog post about the current scrapbooking movement, is well worth reading, as well as the comments, some of which verge on the hostile.

Below are two images from the book.

scrapbook

 

scrapbook2

“novel idea”

I saw this book vending machine in Gatwick Airport in 2008.  The company is called “Novel Idea” and won a 2007 BAA Gatwick sparkle award.  Most of the books were paperbacks selling for 4-8 pounds.  I recall some book artists at University of Iowa Center for the Book doing something similar a number of years ago. Looks like lots of “art-o-mat” machines are dispensing art, and their web site states Clark Whittington invented the first in 1997.

Book Benches

Along one of the main streets in Istanbul, Divan Yolu Cad, I noticed an interesting book related public art project.  There were at least 12 of these open book benches, each with a different page open. I couldn’t read it, but from the layout it looked like a poem.  The benches were quite comfortable, so I had to wait quite a while until they were unoccupied to take these photos.