Among the archives: Hands on with pictures by Liz Jobey
A detail of a photograph from Stephen Gill's Buried
One of the obvious drawbacks of online archives is that you can't handle the material. Seeing an image on the screen is one thing, but putting on a pair of white gloves and being allowed to pore over an original print, or turn through the pages of a rare book, is fundamental to understanding what makes them outstanding objects in themselves.
I remember seeing a vintage print of Edward Weston's portrait of the photographer and revolutionary Tina Modotti (Tina Reciting Poetry, 1924), up close for the first time: the velvety richness in its dark tones made it seem almost three-dimensional, the weight and tension of the paper as integral to the experience of looking at it as the image it held. And there is always a special thrill that comes from seeing a favourite image in the flesh. In the Prints and Drawings Study room at the V&A, I watched as a vintage print of Walker Evans's Main Street, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1931 (a favourite, which always reminds me in turn of Monet's Boulevard des Capucines (1873) emerged from its tissue paper. With no glass between it and me, it was surprising how much concentration the close contact with the surface of the print encouraged; the fascination as much with the way the image was printed, as the image itself. In the prints of 19th-century photographers, for whom photography was an unreliable and potentially toxic series of chemical procedures, the uneven tones and slips and splashes are textural evidence of the "making" of the picture. Take Julia Margaret Cameron: the gruelling physical labour of coating, exposing, washing and fixing an image on a large but fragile glass plate, often in the cold outdoors, is palpable in the patina of her finished prints.
(It's hard to romance about the impassive surface of contemporary photographs. Any digital manipulations are meant to be invisible, and only the impossibility of what is conveyed sometimes signals the artist's mediation.)
The same tactile experience goes for photographic books. It was with this in mind that I went to see two exhibitions currently at the V&A, both of them drawing on material from its own archive, the National Art Library. One is the exhibition of rare artists' books, Blood on Paper (see Blake Morrison in the Guardian, April 19 2008); the other a small, complementary exhibition of photographic books installed at the back of the Photography room, 38A.
The history of photography lies in its books. This has been, for over a century and a half, one of the principal ways photographers have presented their own work: edited, sequenced, printed to exacting standards, contextualized by captions and essays which situate them in their own place and time. Because of a combination of expensive printing processes and a relatively limited market, there was, usually, only one edition. It is only recently that reprints of classic titles are being more common. This has meant that, as photography has become more valued and collected, photography books have become collectors' items in their own right. Last month, a sale of rare photo books at Christie's in New York made a total of over $2.6 million. And, despite the popularity of exhibitions, books are often still the best way to see many photographers' works. One of the main drawbacks, particularly for students, is that photography books are expensive, both new and second-hand, and though there is a growing number of reprints, the only place you might find some titles is in a specialist photographic library.
For all the work their curators have put into them, the two shows at the V&A exhibit the fundamental flaw in trying to show off rare and often fragile books to the general public. The very fact of exhibiting them denies us the intended experience of looking though a book. It's not possible to hold it, weigh it in the hand, turn through the pages, follow the narrative as it unfolds; appreciate the cumulative effect of the individual images. Instead, the books are pinned open under glass, like butterflies, with only a single spread to give any sense of what lies inside. Some of the exhibits in Blood on Paper are books more in concept than practice, such as Anselm Kiefer's free-standing lead book (The Secret Life of Plants, 2008), or Damien Hirst's elaborate cabinets (New Religion, 2005). But the books in show in the Photography gallery were intended by their makers to be held in the hand.
This tiny show is carefully chosen and clearly annotated, moving from Ana Atkins's British Ferns, made around 1852, to recent works such as Stephen Gill's Buried and Nigel Shafran's RuthBook - a photograph from which, London W10, February 1994, from RuthBook, 1995, Nigel Shafran, is pictured on this blog - both examples of small, self-published editions by British photographers. In some cases, a print by the same photographer is hung above the corresponding book in its glass case. But the invitation to "consider the difference between experiencing photographs as framed objects and on the pages of books" is somewhat disingenuous, since, exhibited this way, the book is pretty much forced into the same inertia as the print.
At a time when photography books are being, rightly, recognised for their importance, there is interest in photography books from all directions: the student, the public, the collector, the dealer, the publisher, the photographer. What a great exhibition could have been had here. And the V&A wouldn't have to go far for its contents. The National Art Library, one of the glories of the museum, holds at least one copy of almost every photographic book ever published. With more imagination and more space, the museum could have had a spectacular show of what it already has in its stacks.
The growing interest in photographic books was signalled in 2001 with the publication of Andrew Roth's The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. In 2004 and 2006, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger's two volumes of The Photo Book: A History followed. The V&A might have exhibited its own top 100, and demonstrated its ingenuity by showing them in different ways. Now that digital scanning has made it possible for whole books to be made available online - such as Paul Fusco's Robert Kennedy Funeral Train (you can watch a film here) - some pages, particularly of the very valuable or fragile books, could have been shown electronically. And with many contemporary photography books still affordable, and in print, the gallery could have made a number of copies available so that visitors could have looked through them for themselves - or the publishers would surely have supplied them. They could even have built a library of selected books, where visitors could browse, as they are doing at Site, part of the John Moores University School of Art and Design in Liverpool, where the American artist Martha Rosler's personal library is installed until June as part of its international tour. Visitors can pull out the books and photocopy any of their pages for reference.
Instead, this small show is to stay up for a whole year, and visitors are directed to the National Art Library and the Prints and Drawings Study room, to request any books they would like to look at. The National Art Library is invaluable for anybody who wants to know more about photographic books. The NAL catalogue is now available online, and you can search and order up to six titles 48 hours in advance of your visit. But if you make your request in person, prepare to wait. You will possibly need a reader's ticket, which means authorisation and a delay of several days. The book might be out already. But the surroundings are gracious, and once delivered, the chance to spend a long time studying a book you've always wanted to look at, but which has become too rare or too expensive to acquire, is very satisfying.
When it comes to other specialist photographic libraries, there isn't much choice. The Photographers' Gallery Library was closed years ago. The Insight research room at the Media Museum in Bradford has a very limited number of general photographic books on display. London would benefit hugely from the kind of photographic library found in Paris, at the Maison Européene de la Photographie, where, if you simply leave some form of ID at the desk, you can call up one of their collection of around 21,000 photographic and photography-related books, or find back issues of photographic magazines, and spend the afternoon in comfort, looking through them. It was here that I first laid hands on some of the rare photography books that it was (and still is) impossible either to find or to buy.
The history of photography lies in its books. There is no better resource for understanding it. And despite the advantages brought by online databases and the invitation to "Search Inside!" there is no substitute for turning the pages of the real thing.
For information about access to the National Art Library and the Prints and Drawings Study Room go to vam.ac.uk
One of the very best photoblogs, particularly for lovers of photography books, is the 5B4 Photography and Books blog regularly posted by the mysterious Mr Whiskets. I say mysterious, but some time ago, the America photographer Alec Soth, another of Mr Whiskets's admirers, decided to track him down, and eventually identified him as the Brooklyn-based photographer Jeffrey Ladd. Apart from writing a really excellent, balanced commentary on current photography shows, books, trends, the market, and attendant matters, he also recommends and sources books. Now, he has added a new strand to his blog, the 5B4 Photobook Exchange, which is, as he explains, "created to match up neglected photo and art books with new and loving owners." He posts a list of available books, some of which come from his own collection, which include signed copies, rare collectors' items, or books he thinks deserve renewed attention, and readers can email him with an offer on the price.
Photograph above: A detail from Nigel Shafran's London W10, February 1994, from RuthBook, 1995