Wednesday, 24 June 2015

→ the photo book (part II): between documentation and memory (@ Photographers' gallery, London)

Georges Didi-Huberman has recently been awarded Theodor-W.-Adorno-Preis 2015, which is given for outstanding achievement in philosophy, music, theater or film. Some years ago he wrote Images In Spine of All, in which he discussed four explicit photographs of mass extermination in Nazi camps. Huberman put the voyeur, the history and the art into one line of questioning. Photography, he said, rested between documentation and memory.
A simple piece of film - so small that it can be hidden in a tube of toothpaste - is capable of engendering an unlimited number of prints, of generations and enlargements in every format. Photography works hand in glove with image and memory and therefore possesses their notable epidemic power. (Huberman, p24)
As a Lithuanian, I must start this blog with Moshe Vorobeichic. In 1931 he published Paris (as Moi Ver), one of the very first photo artists' books ever produced. At about the same time, however, he published another photo book Ein Getto im Osten - Wilna (1931), documenting the Jewish quarter in Vilnius, where he himself grew up. Like Paris, Wilna book is equally avant-garde in it's collages and layouts. Yet, it is also a very intimate book: the viewer is brought very close to the faces, the puddles, the baskets of Vilnius Jews. The reader is led though the back streets and the markets; the reader looks at the rooftops and the pavement; the reader meets residents of the Jewish quarter. This book is not a record of a historical point in time, rather it is a personal reference point to somewhere in his childhood, soaked in black-and-white nostalgia.

Photographers' Gallery at the moment is hosting a Chinese photo book exhibition curated by Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren. The exhibition space is tight, but there are large double-page-spread photos, videos of books, books to handle (albeit chained) and books to look at under the glass.


The exhibition does not solely focus on the artists publications, but brings together the whole range of photographic books, pamphlets, promotional material under one umbrella. There is no line between photo books as artists' publications and institutional albums, produced to document an aspect of research, such as tongue conditions or bridges. Does a distinction between photo book as a document and photo book as a creative practice, rest on the maker's intentions only, rather then certain qualities of the outcome? Ed Ruscha recorded gasoline stations, while Chinese government recorded bridges. Both resulted in photo books.

The Hairy People of China

Basics of soccer - a series of techniques

This merging of intentions is what I found so pleasing about the exhibition: there were instructions on the correct ways to play sports and then there were artists' publications, such as the beautifully cinematic  This Face portrait book by Xu Yong.

 Zi U's face was photographed during various times of the day: with make-up and without, tired and refreshed. She is a sex worker. She sees clients from very close and she is used to be seen from close. The sequence of photographs forms an intimate portrait similar to that produced by a film: the trace of the real Zi U is captured in-between the page spreads and the viewer, in-between proximity and truth, in-between memory and document.

Photographers' Gallery also contained an exhibition of Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 (now closed). Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse - the winners - had the work in the first room for their mammoth long term project documenting the fate of Johannesburg's Ponte City. The prize was awarded "for their ambitious publication Ponte City (Steidl, 2014), charting the social and political history of a 54-floor apartment block in Johannesburg", which was built under apartheid rule in 1976 and was originally conceived as a center of aspirational living for a white elite.  A sequence of books follows the temporal line of events, with an introductory pamphlet - containing newspaper headlines - placed at the front. The narrative is built one step at a time by thoughtful sequencing of images and texts. The work balances between the space of historical documentation and artistic interpretation, merging the boundary between the the objective fact and subjective elucidation. 


As a young teenager I collected photo books of my city. They were published once every few years. I did not own a camera - I documented my space and time in another way. Like those Chinese photo books - which show the correct way to play soccer - Kaunas photo books reflected the correct Soviet way to see my town. They are not voyeuristic (like Xu Yong's book), they are not nostalgic (like Moshe Vorobeichic book) and they only have the intimacy of a travel agent's photography. Yet, they stand as a document and they stand in for memory. Because they contain photographs.
Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. (Sontag, On Photography)


1. Susan Sontag also argues against photo books, because they determine the order in which photographs are to be viewed. Like cinema, photo books sequence images as determined by artist's intentions. It is in the nature of the photo book to be sequenced. Yet, it is also in the nature of the book as such to accommodate a random access option for the viewer should one desire to exercise such.


images Egidija's own, except for M. Vorobeichic (Moï Ver), Ein Ghetto im Osten – Wilna, 1931, which were taken from achtung.photgraphy website.

Didi-Huberman, G (2008), Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sontag, Susan, On Photography, June 21, 2015.


Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Books at the 2015 Venice Biennale

Earlier this month I was lucky enough to visit the Venice Biennale and one thing that struck me was the amount of art involving books – clearly Collective Investigations is bang on trend!  I wanted to outline them to briefly document the incredibly diverse ways that books are used within contemporary Fine Art.

Of the Biennale’s two sites, I’ll start with the Giardini. The first work I came across was a humorous, zine-like series of comics presented next to two newspaper kiosks full of fabricated publications by Francesc Ruiz entitled 'Il Fumetto dei Giardini' in the Spanish Pavilion. They contained a story featuring two gay characters (lifted from existing Italian comics) having debates in various parts of the Giardini itself. The work was playful and thoughtful. The most successful element was its site-specific nature, as the locations in the comics were not only places I knew well (from previous visits) but were places that I would be visiting and discussing myself that day.

The second was part of the Dutch Pavilion. herman de vries' meditative 'to be all ways to be' is a layered-multimedia installation featuring a circular carpet of dried flowers, a selection of agricultural tools, watercolour paintings of colours and a video featuring the pages of a book being turned. The video, which was meditative in itself, was like an old agricultural dictionary featuring Latin names of plants. The strength of the work was that it added a time-based element to exhibition, a potential cue to pace the audience, encouraging them to slow down and take their time.

'Latent Images, Diary of a Photographer' by Joana Hadjithomas and  Khalil Joreige linked the two pavilions. In the Giardini this took the form of a public reading. An actor at one desk turned pages of a book and cut open sealed pages to reveal texts (texts which described unseen photographs). These were then read aloud one by one by three actors at another desk. Every day the same performance takes place using a new copy of the same book. In the Arsenale a huge wall housed the books for each day, alongside a desk providing a handling copy for guests to cut open and read. This work was engaging on several levels, not least because viewers could experience the performance in one venue and carry it out for themselves in the other – making for a very different reading.

Other work in the Arsenale included a publication by ('From The Horde To The Bee') by Marco Fusinato about capital. Copies of the book were piled up around the edges of a large table – a table empty except for a large mound of Euro notes. The notes were left by visitors in exchange for a copy of the book – an act that brought the content of the work into focus.


An artwork that I particularly liked was Mariam Suhail's handmade books ('To Propose a Site for a New Capital City') about inhabiting the urban environment as it used the language of books (i.e. what a book should look like and what it should contain) to mix the corporate and the personal. The books were made to look like manufactured, hardback books, but had the warped and less-than-perfect finish that can mark a first attempt at book-making.


The Arsenale also contained three other bookworks including 'The Diaries' by Peter Friedl, the archive-like 'A Morning Breeze' by Petra Bauer and 'Albanian Trilogy: A Series of Devious Stratagems', by Armando Lulaj which had a museological feel. The theme that connected these was that they each used display systems or the language of the archive to give the books they contained a different type of presence.

I hope this has provided an overview of the ways in which books can manifest themselves in different ways in contemporary Fine Art.


Wednesday, 10 June 2015

GUEST POST: Annotated treasures at the Library of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

This months guest post is from Jennifer Evans the Assistant Librarian at the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales. She also keeps a beautiful blog of gems from their collection which is definitely worth looking at:

The Library at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

The Library at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales primarily holds collections that reflect the museum’s curatorial departments; Art, Archaeology & Numismatics, Industry and the Natural Sciences. However, over the years we have been the welcome recipient of several generous loans and donations and have built up a collection of some very unusual and eclectic early books.  

Special Collections in the Library at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

However, today I’d like to share a selection of items we hold that are absolutely unique. These are annotated books, and whereas normally this would fill any decent Librarian with dread, these items were annotated long ago and one always hopes, by the owner. 

Instructions for collecting and preserving insects; particularly moths and butterflies by William Curtis [1771]

This 1771 edition of Instructions for collecting and preserving insects; particularly moths and butterflies by William Curtis [1771] has been annotated with the most exquisite watercolour insects. We do not know who added these drawings but we think we know why; another edition we hold, has a plate of illustrations but this one does not and therefore someone has copied the illustrations [plus many others] into the margins. 

We have a strong collection of early natural history books greatly enhanced by the Willoughby Gardner Donation bequeathed to the museum in 1953. Included in this collection are our only two incunabula [pre-1501 books], as well as writings by Conrad Gesner and other 16th and 17th century writers. Gardner’s interests were varied, but he had a most particular penchant for bees, wasps and butterflies, evident in the exceptional insect and Aurelian works by, among others, Moses Harris, Benjamin Wilkes and Thomas Moffet. 

Cambria Depicta by William Pugh [1816] is an observant and amusing account of a walking tour of North Wales

We also have a strong collection of Welsh topographical books; these late 18th and early 19th century tours of Wales are mostly accounts written by well-to-do early tourists, mainly from England, and together with some very interesting illustrations, they provide an invaluable picture of the country at this time. And within this collection is a copy of Cambria Depicta [1816] by Edward Pugh.

This is an observant and amusing account of a walking tour of North Wales; the book contains 68 various engravings, and gives very detailed descriptions of a journey that took the author almost 10 years to complete. It offers a unique insight to the history and poetry of the time, and is therefore considered to be a true representation of North Wales two hundred years ago.

Before this book ever came to us, someone had written extensive notes and sketched exquisite drawings in the margins. These are no random doodles, all drawings and written notes relate specifically to the text itself.

This two volumed work, Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke  by George Wingrove Cooke [1836]  is an example of fore-edge painting

This last example of annotated books concerns fore-edge paintings; images painted onto either of the three fore-edges of a book.

This two volume work, Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke, by George Wingrove Cooke, [1836] is an example of “single disappearing fore-edge painting”. Single, because the painting appears only on one edge of the book. Disappearing, because the painting was done when the pages of the books were slightly bent over, thereby allowing the image to be painted along the very edge of the pages. When the image dries the book is allowed back into its original state and the image effectively disappears.

Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke  by George Wingrove Cooke [1836] Volume I showing fore-edge painting of Caernarfon Castle

Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke  by George Wingrove Cooke [1836] Volume II showing fore-edge painting of Conwy Castle

The earliest fore-edge paintings date as far back as the 10th century and were mostly symbolic designs. Early English examples, believed to date from the 14th century, presented heraldic designs in gold and other colors. The first known example of a disappearing fore-edge painting like these, where the painting is not visible when the book is closed, dates from around 1649. The earliest signed and dated example is from 1653. These books were purchased specifically because of their fore-edge paintings, the two volumes have watercolour images depicting Caernarfon Castle and Conwy Castle

To conclude, and still on the subject of unique books, the following photographs show some surprising items we have found nestled between the pages: 

Hayward's Botanist's pocket book by W.R. Hayward [this edition 1930]

Insectorum sive minimorum animalium theatrum [Theatre of Insects] by Thomas Moffet [this edition 1634]

The Fern Paradise by Francis George Heath [1876]

We are resigned to the fact that we will probably never know who painted the marginalia and fore-edge images and most certainly will never know who placed the butterfly wings, scorpion sketch and ferns between the pages of these books. But, this very fact makes these mysterious and wonderful additions to our special collections.

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Jennifer Evans
Assitant Librarian
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

All photographs taken by the author
Copyright Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

(begin and end)

‘Were it not for the endpapers, a hardcover book would literally fall apart. Adhered to the inside of the front and back covers, the endpapers are then glued to the first and last pages within the book working almost as a pair of hinges allowing a reader to open and close their murder mystery, trendy novel or children's picture book -- over and over again.’ Bob Staake talking about his book - The Art of The End - A Visual Celebration of the Book Endpaper. 1.

This post is about the beginning and end of the book. Not the beginning and end of the story that’s inside, but the beginning and end of the structure, once you get past the covers of course. 

Marlene Dumas - don't talk to strangers - 1977 A.

What got me thinking about endpapers is a piece of work by Marlene Dumas in a recent exhibition at the Tate Modern, London. Though it is not about endpapers, or even contains them there are some interesting parallels. The mixed media piece is called ‘don’t talk to strangers’ and contained torn fragments of the beginning and end of letters pasted on either side of the paper. Nothing is in the middle apart from washy lines that draw your eye across. One side might have a fragment that reads ‘Dear ….’ and the other side ‘Best wishes…’ The body of the letters removed and held in limbo. An imagined expanse of communication. I was thinking about how this might relate to a book, what is inside the book that acts as brackets to the main body. The endpaper has a unique position, in that it’s inside the book but is supplementary to the content. It acts as a space that can enrich the content but also break away stylistically to what might be a very structured and formal content.

Hopefully these thoughts will lead me to some interesting experiments using the endpapers. I think there is some potential for them to be explored in a compelling and artistic way. Also how they might relate to the rest of the book and how they might effect the pace, structure and space within the book. 

I have collected together some interesting endpapers below to round off my post and spark some interesting thoughts in design.

The Eccentric Teapot, by Garth Clark B.



Endpapers designed by Wilfred Jones in The Crock of Gold E.

The Scallop ed. Ian CoxPublished in London by the 'Shell' Transport & Trading Company, Ltd. F.

To here Marlene Dumas talking about 'don't talk to strangers' click here: