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.

Homicide In Hardcover

Homicide in Hardcover ” is a new bibliophile murder mystery by Kate Carlisle.  The blurb on the back reads, “Brooklyn Wainwright is a skilled surgeon.  Sure, her patients might smell like mold and have spines made of leather, but no ailing book is going to die on her watch.”  Kate Carlisle has done our profession a huge favor by communicating to the general public some of the exciting things conservators do.  Of course there are many little inaccuracies, but it is a little too easy and unfair to nitpick about things that only those on the inside of conservation know. The most important point is that this book serves to raise our public profile in a reasonably accurate way; it even discusses minimal intervention and the importance of written and photographic documentation.

Amazingly this book also includes a reference to Peachey knives!  The protagonist, Brooklyn, and her arch-enemy, Minka, are sneaking around Abraham’s (a master restorer) studio fighting over who gets these knives, after he was found dead in a pool of blood.

“I’m just looking,” I said, and picked up a polished wood box with the initials “AK” engraved on the top.

Abraham’s personalized set of Peachey knives.

“I have dibs on those, ” she (Minka) said.  “Get your ditry meat hooks off them.”

I shook my head at her.  “You’re a pathetic thief.”

“Those are mine.”

“No, these belong to Abraham.”

She lunged for the box and I whipped my hand away.

“You’re such a bitch!”

“That may be true,” I said.  “But these still don’t belong to you.”

“He can’t use them and I found them first.”

My eyes widened.  I couldn’t help it. Her lack of a moral compass never failed to shock me.  “That dosen’t mean they belong to you..”

“God, I hate you,” she said through clenched teeth.  She swept the rest of her booty to her chest and stomped out. Then she turned back and glared at me. “I hope you die.”

“Back atcha,” I yelled after her.” (pp. 75-76)

I plan to make a set of these knives, in a polished wood box with the initals “AK” engraved on top.  Would this be considered theoretical product placement?  A real knife is the basis for a fictional one,  then the fictional knife is transformed into a real knife? 

This isn’t the kind of book I usually read, but I enjoyed it.  The  descriptions of bookbinders at work were realistic and there are a number of laugh out loud scenes.  And this book seems to resonate with the public:  “I always assumed that book-binding and restoration would be a dull, dry subject but the historical facts and bits of trivia sprinkled throughout this book were so fascinating that instead of being bored I found myself wanting to know more.”  “Who’d have thought book restoration could be so exciting?”   “Who knew leather and vellum could be so captivating?”  

 

Thanks to Marieka Kaye (and her open minded literary taste!) for bringing this to my attention.

Comments on Clarkson, Conservation and Craft

Book conservation, possibly more than any other conservation discipline, consists of a skill set that is closely linked to its craft roots. Conservators must not only be able to intellectually understand the mechanics, chemistry and history of book structure, but also need the hand skills to actually do bookbinding: performing, for example, a full treatment where a text needs to be rebound in a style sensitive and sympathetic to its structural requirements and time period. So what prompted Christopher Clarkson to write,  “European hand bookbinding practice does not form the best foundation on which to build or even graft the principles of book conservation.” (Clarkson, 1978)

 Although written 30 years ago, these words are still extremely provocative. In a very narrow interpretation, the phrase “ European hand bookbinding practice” could mean typical trade bookbinding practice, and the statement is entirely uncontroversial— not every book should be rebound and of course a 10th century manuscript should not be stuffed into a typical late 19th century trade binding! (1) But what if Clarkson is pointing towards a broader reading, establishing a dichotomy between bookbinding and book conservation, potentially even between a craft and a profession?  Given the close relationship of the two, how could they be separated?

 A few clues can be found elsewhere in the same volume of The Paper Conservator.  This issue begins with a policy statement, noting four basic purposes of publication:

“1.  To conserve the traditional crafts of conservation… .  2.  To stimulate the craftsmen to develop a methodology with which to record their techniques and experience… . 3. …extending knowledge about craft techniques in closely related fields… . 4. To assemble a reference source of craft techniques for trainee conservators.” (My italics) (McAusland, 1978)

 These multiple references to craft are perhaps even more shocking that Clarkson’s original quote, and somewhat explain his need to propose a break with the past, at least in a philosophical context.  It appears that in 1978 that book conservation was considered a craft, or at least craft was a large part of it. But professionalism was on the rise at the same time; Paul Banks was elected President of AIC in 1978 (a first for a book conservator) and his The Preservation of Library Materials was published the same year.  Did a rise in professionalism necessitate a break with craft tradition in order to escape habits, both in thought and praxis, built up over centuries?

 I am certain that if I mentioned “the craft of conservation” in 2008, I would be greeted by suspicion, jeers and critical blog posts from my peers. Today, conservators have, to a large degree, distanced themselves from that dirty little word—craft– at least in their own minds.(2)  This distancing seems to be the core message in Clarkson’s statement, as a necessary first step. In order to rationally and objectively approach a conservation treatment, it was necessary to step outside of the preconceptions of a craft tradition, and attempt to examine the book and the goals of the treatment from the outside.  Sometimes a conservation treatment might closely resemble how a bookbinder might repair a volume; sometimes it might be radically different.

 How can the craft of the bookbinding be preserved in a professional context that has struggled to escape its craft based roots? Are there dangers, however, of completely refuting the craft of bookbinding while formulating a new theory of conservation?  Almost 1,700 years of mostly unwritten craft skills have been passed on during the history of bookbinding.  Many structures and techniques have been abbreviated, forgotten and lost. Some have been rediscovered later, existing as primary evidence in book structure, or extrapolated through praxis.  A conservator could start a treatment, with no knowledge of bookbinding technique, but if the treatment was at all complex, it seems the conservator, even if ignorant of craft technique, would end up reinventing it. Maybe this is how the craft will survive.

 As books cease to be viewed as primarily a vehicle for transmitting textual information, and move closer to object-type status, I predict the physical information their materials and construction contain, and their visual appeal will become increasingly valued. (3) Paradoxically, we may have to wait until books no longer fulfill their original function (to be read) before we fully value the craft skills that created them, and then will have to rediscover those skills. 

 In another 30 years, perhaps, the field of book conservation will be mature enough to reexamine its relationship to craft. Hopefully some of the craft skills will still be present or rediscovered, and might be reincorporated into some future conception of conservation.

NOTES:

1.  Ironically, this style of binding, with all of its structural faults, remains the ideal of fine hand bookbinding in most of the public’s imagination. 

2. Most of the public, unfortunately, uses the terms bookbinder, master restorer and conservator interchangeably. A paramount task for conservation is to educate the public on these differences.

3.  In the past year or two, I have noticed more private collectors wanting a cradle for their book so that it can be safely displayed in their home.  

 

REFERENCES

Clarkson, Christopher. “The Conservation of Early Books in Codex From: A Personal Approach: Part 1.” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 49.

McAusland, Jane. “Manual Techniques of Paper Repair” The Paper Conservator Vol. 3 (1978): 3