dinsdag 17 januari 2012

The Meta-Experience of Errata Editions “Books on Books” Set One by Luke Strosnider

Last year on a spring day I made my way to the Richard and Ronay Menschel Library at Rochester, New York’s George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. One Friday per month a close friend and I would meet at “old man Eastman’s place,” as we called, it to peruse the most recently acquired photography books. As barely-employed recent MFA graduates, this was a way to get our hands and eyes on lavish volumes of beautiful images at a price we could afford: free.
The Menschel Library’s glass-walled reading room overlooks one of Eastman’s meticulously-kept gardens and green was just beginning to challenge brown’s dominance over the landscape after yet another punishing Western New York winter. As my pal and I grabbed a few books from the Recent Acquisitions shelf, I spotted another friend, immersed in what looked like more than casual research. Her hands were sheathed in white cotton gloves and before her sat a cloth-covered, v-shaped book holder cradling what appeared to be a very old volume.

I made my way over to her table and when I found that she was looking at one of the library’s two original copies of The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846) by William Henry Fox Talbot a bolt of recognition shot through me. She explained her research but I could barely concentrate; before me lay the first photo book, the format’s origin; the second copy (a second copy!) rested on a cart a few inches away. I was rapt and she offered the gloves to me. My fingers approached the paper with tweezer-like precision; it felt like a photohistorical game of Operation™, complete with a virtual zapping vibration when my fingers connected with the page.
I recalled this encounter with The Pencil of Nature upon learning of Errata Edition’s “Books on Books” project. In essence, the project is a series of reprints of highly-influential photobooks. But these are far more peculiar objects than your run-of-the-mill reprints. The publisher calls them “complete studies of [the] originals.” Each “book on book” contains a page-by-page reproduction of the original photobook (images and texts) and adds a contemporary essay exploring the historical and artistic relevance of that particular volume. Also included is a short biography of the artist, a bibliography, and a brief but illuminating essay on the making of the original edition.
The project is the brainchild of Jeffery Ladd, a photographer himself, but perhaps more widely known as the publisher of the photobook-focused blog 5B4 . Thus far, the “Books on Books” series are the only titles from the Errata Editions imprint. As of this writing (March, 2010), there are two “sets” of what Errata calls an on-going publishing project: set one (#’s 1-4) consists of annotated reproductions of Photographe de Paris by Eugene Atget, American Photographs by Walker Evans, Fait by Sophie Ristelhueber, and In Flagrante by Chris Killip; set two (#’s 5-8), released in early 2010, features Life is Good …New York! by William Klein, Toshi-e by Yutaka Takanashi, In Boksburg by David Goldblatt, and Chili September 1973 by Koen Wessing. The series aims to make hard-to-find, expensive, and historically-vital photography books available to people of modest means. As Errata puts it on their website, “the series is dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible to students and photobook enthusiasts.” As such, the books are affordable: the trade editions retail for $39.95, while a limited edition of each “set” (featuring a reproduction tipped into the book’s cloth cover) is available for $200.
I was overcome when encountering Talbot’s seminal work. I’ve always been moved by “aura”, and to lay hands on an original copy of The Pencil of Nature created some sort of thrilling temporal disturbance; it felt like a form of time travel. How would the freshly printed volumes of the “Books on Books” series compare to the experience of the originals? Would these surrogate publications bring me closer to their subjects? Or were they merely less-expensive substitutes for rare objects I would never be able to afford. As I placed my order for the first four titles, my curiosity was piqued: what would be the “Books on Books” experience?
I’m not really sure what I was expecting—shrink-wrapping is a standard aspect of mass-market book packaging these days—but the minor absurdity of the situation made me chuckle. These affordable recreations of rare, highly-sought-after, and powerfully-expensive objects were receiving more protective treatment at the time of their publication than the originals ever did.
Beyond the cellophane barriers were slim, plain volumes with stiff covers of clean black cloth. White ink debossing declared BOOKS ON BOOKS with the volume number in the lower right. A bellyband displayed the book’s title and an image of the original book’s cover. For a book published in 1938, Walker Evans’s American Photographs (Books on Books #2) bears a very minimalist, contemporary cover. Set in Evans’s choice (as I learned from John T. Hill’s essay “American Photographs: Legacy of Seeing,” included in the volume) of Caslon type, the cover plainly proclaims:
Just beneath this image, the title is repeated:
Walker Evans
Looking closely at the typography of both the original cover and the “title” of the Errata Edition furthers my feelings of space-time disruption. Adding to the weirdness is the slight-but-noticeable rise and fall in the hand-set letters of THE MUSUEM OF MODERN ART on the original’s cover, versus the flawless, digitally set straightness of the title lying just below.
Studying the reproduced cover of Atget’s Photographe de Paris (Books on Books #1), my eyes zero in on the slightly rounded and worn lower right-hand corner of the cover. Another realization comes: this is not an old book re-published in 2009. Instead, this is a scan of one specific copy ofPhotographe de Paris, a copy that has survived the long, possibly harrowing, journey from 1930 to today. Overlapping spheres of time, of era, and object create a Venn diagram with this “book on book” at the center.
Moving beyond the reproduced cover, this object’s “objectness” confronts us even more strongly. The page layout of the series is sensible yet jarring: the page spreads of the original books are reproduced smaller than the pages of the book-on-book itself. A white border surrounds the images of the original page spreads. This is eminently practical as the Books on Books are all the same size (7 by 9.5 inches) and the originals they commemorate are not. Thus Killip’s In Flagrante, a more typical photobook size (11 ¾ x 9 ¾ inches) fills most of the spread, while Ristelhueber’s Fait(smaller but taller and narrower at 6 ¾ x 4 ¼ inches) floats in a pool of white with a 2 inch border on the book’s fore-edge. But this is only the case when one opening of the original is reproduced within one opening of the Errata Edition; some openings are reproduced 4-up to an opening (two openings on one page). The visual effect of this layout is not unlike the old schoolboy trick of clandestinely hiding an issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” behind a wider, taller textbook.
The shrinking of these classic photobooks so that they’ll fit the format of this new series isn’t a fatal flaw, but it does deny a pure simulation of the experience of the original volumes. Errata Editions doesn’t seek to give us an exact reprint, and that is not the point of this project. But so much of what gives a photobook its specific character relates to its size and proportions. In my own meager photobook collection many if not most are larger than 7 by 9.5 inches and would need to be shrunk to fit within the confines of a “Book on Book.” Also, the placement and participation of one’s thumbs while reading is another peculiarity of the journey through a “Book on Book.” You see your thumbs holding a book, but they’re not holding the book you’re looking at per se. It’s an odd way to encounter a photobook. Another bit of the uncanny experience of this unique series.
In his essay that accompanies Photographe de Paris, David Campany introduces the concept of a photograph as an “intelligent document,” something which is simultaneously a soulless mechanical record and an intended expression of a creative mind. It is a fitting concept to apply to the entire “Books on Books” idea: accurate reproductions of photobooks, but with nuanced choices and viewpoints intended to inspire contemplation of the role of the book as a capsule for photographs. “Books on Books” go well beyond the muteness of a simple reprint: the annotations (essay, biography, bibliography, etc.) contribute vital information for understanding both a specific volume and the genre in general. Replacements of the originals they are not, but that was never their intent. They are accessible commemorations of the ideas and materials that make up these specific works.

Luke Strosnider is a writer, artist, and educator currently based in Chicago, Illinois. His words, images, and projects explore the photograph as a measure of time, a keeper of memory, and a conveyor of information. For more of his work, please visit www.lukestrosnider.com .

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