Project B and the Vernacular Photobook: An Interview with Barbara Levine
by Ashlyn Davis
AD: Barbara, tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to work with the found image and the book form.
BL: Like many people, I’ve always loved books and libraries and looking at other people’s pictures. My mother and grandmother went antiquing often (and I went with them) and the shops always had piles of old photos and photograph albums. I was bit by the collecting bug early on! I thought I was building my own little library of beautiful unusual books full of strange places, time and people. Learning about forms and visual language and appreciating photobooks followed, first as a photography student at the San Francisco Art Institute and then when I went to work at SFMOMA. I began to relate to vernacular photograph albums as objects, as visual explorations, as storytelling, and as visual concepts. I explored the idea of the photo album (from time period 1880-1930) as the first generation of photographic storytelling in my first two books, Snapshot Chronicles: Inventing The American Photo Album (2006) and Around The World: The Grand Tour in Photo Albums (2007, both Princeton Architectural Press).
AD: Let’s talk a bit about Camera Era. One of the things I love about Camera Era and many of your publications is that they reference past and future possibilities of the photobook. These vernacular images were once in someone’s personal archive, likely a family album, which is itself an elementary form of a photobook. At the same time, as the images are repurposed and reprinted, you reiterate the photograph’s potential to be endlessly reinterpreted based on context. How does thinking about context, the archive, and interpretation figure into your work?
BL: Yes, I agree with the idea that early family photograph albums were the first generation of photographic storytelling. I work primarily in the artist as editor mode and I am keenly aware most of the single images in my collection have probably been ripped out of photograph albums—they have been ripped from their intended circle—and now in my hands they invite a new appreciation and interpretation.
Because for so many years I was focused on photograph albums and have worked with both formal and personal archives, I am informed by the idea that images seen together constitute something different than those same images seen apart. At their core, archives are an effort to willfully construct a specific context that charges and enhances the meaning of its component parts. In this way, one who assembles a personal archive isn’t merely accumulating but is actually closer to being an author—an author who interleaves new meanings into the relationships between discrete images.
Context in my opinion is key. As is editing. With found images there are infinite combinations and interpretations. When creating the photobook, Camera Era, my co-author Martin Venezky and I wanted to bring together seemingly disparate images and set them in motion with careful editing and design to create a meditation on the camera and its complicated hold on our lives. We considered every aspect of the book an important part of the context including for example, the intimate size of the book and how it would feel when you held it in your hands.
AD: Yes, the tactile nature of the book is so special and creates a viewing and experiential context in and of itself. It’s also one reason, I think why we’re experiencing a surge and renewed critical interest in the photography book during a time when practically every image can be viewed online. So many decisions come into play: paper, binding, typography, layout, rhythm, and sequencing. How do you bring each book you produce a unique voice through the design decisions you have to make?
BL: As a visual artist, I am very conscious that book space is different from experiencing images framed on a wall or viewed on a backlit screen.
When making my book, Snapshot Chronicles in 2005, I wanted to make a book that not only featured the photograph albums and their images but a book that made you feel by way of its design-time, wear and tear, and the edges of the photographs and the album pages and could do so in a way that didn't make the images or the concept of the book feel nostalgic or quaint. In other words, I wanted the book to feel like an immersive experience from the moment you picked it up. I had the good fortune to meet the distinguished designer, Martin Venezky, and we have been collaborating on books and photographic collages ever since.
I am working in the vein of an artist who is also a collector and an archivist who is also a curator and Martin from the point of view of graphic designer—both of us however are interested in how seemingly typical vintage images can be edited, re-purposed, animated or simply reframed to create new associations and narratives. The fact we collaborate in a way that the images and design work so closely together is unique. In 2014, I curated the exhibition Camera Era for Cherryhurst House in Houston. In considering a printed piece, I wanted to produce a piece that would function differently than a general exhibition brochure or catalogue.
Martin and I embarked on the idea that we could create something that would be a standalone photobook as well as an object in the exhibition (in a perfect world the exhibition would have also had a small screen device so the visitor could view the found images in all three formats to experience how space and its design affects our experience of photographs). We considered every aspect of the book design part of the authorial and artistic intention to ensure the voice of the book and the vintage images in the book would feel unique, engaging and relevant to our contemporary lives.
AD: It seems that many of your projects, in design, subject matter, and concept are self-referential, like the way the images in Camera Era point back to the camera itself or demonstrate modes of seeing and not seeing. How does the book form allow you to conceptually explore the more meta inquiries into the medium?
BL: I work primarily with found and vernacular materials and the book form is ideal for conveying the visual, narrative and tactile qualities of vintage material. All my books start from my emotional response to the image(s). As a collector, I curate pictures in my collection. I work with them as raw material, almost like a photographer without a camera—and a book format is ideal for giving voice to details that for me are a part of the mystery and aura of the material Details such as the imperfections, edges, the wear and tear from handling- etc.
As soon you pick up a book, open its cover and turn a page, you are activating a story. That physicality is specific to books. With photographs there is a sense of exchange that is different from other mediums; in the early days of photography, photographs were meant to be handled- carefully slipped into ornate albums or stereviewers, or pasted on an album page, real photo postcards were sent through the mail, gorgeous albumen views of far away places and peoples were tipped on to book pages, snapshots were passed around or written or doodled upon, sometimes they were hand tinted. The keeping, looking and sharing of photographs included an interaction. Though our experience of looking at photographs has changed and broadened there is still in my opinion, an inherent exchange between maker and viewer specific to photography and photobooks elegantly and inventively capture that spirit.
AD: Since you are dealing with found photographs, how do you grapple with the intent of the original photographer? Most of these photographs, I would assume, were made strictly for private enjoyment. What does it mean to you to then re-situate them in a public domain?
BL: Early on in my collecting of vernacular photo albums and snapshots people would ask, "do you know the people in the albums?" “Have you contacted their families?" There is a prevailing sense that family photographs always stay within the family and that it is sad or an unspoken violation when old photos land in a stranger's hands.
Naturally, I don't feel this way.
The irony is not lost on me that despite the cliché of images staying within a family, now more than ever there are endless discarded and dislocated images and photograph albums (not to mention that most people's family photographs now reside on devices or in the cloud both of which will become obsolete in their own lifetime). I get many calls to please help people sort out what to do with their old family photos because they don't have space for them or the children don't know the people in the photos and they just can't bring themselves to throw them away. It is a complicated relationship and the vocabulary of photography is evolving as we speak.
There is a sea of anonymous photographs around us—vintage snapshots and the like that can be found at flea markets, in giveaway piles, on eBay etc. Most people consider them worthless but for me, if I can read the image, if there is anything distinguishing about it historically or the composition or emotion, then it is not a throwaway image. So I pull images out of the stream and examine the layers and bring seemingly disparate images together, bring them to light and hopefully in doing so come to understand the artifact nature of found images and their ripples and in doing so reveal something not seen at first glance—and the idea that my contemporary curatorial sensibility can coexist with these original expressions—sometimes in harmony with them, sometimes at a curious distance¬¬—is one of the principal pleasures of collecting and working with found photographs
I use the found photographs as raw material and think of it as a wonderful recycling, a re purposing. Snapshot collecting is personal and private collections are subjective. In my exhibitions and books, I am creating a unique interpretative dimension and I'm appreciating these once cast off images and going one step further in putting a language to that appreciation.
AD: What are you working on now? Do you have a new book coming out soon?
BL: Yes! People Knitting: A Century of Photographs published by Princeton Architectural Press comes out this Fall. I am excited about this book because I have a special fascination for the intersection of knitting and photography. Knitting has been around for centuries, but only in the last 150 years have we been able to actually photograph someone in the meditative act of knitting. And of course, I am drawn to offbeat and unlikely subjects!
AD: What photobooks are you currently reading?
BL: So many! First ones that come to mind right now are Andy Warhol's Index Book (1967); Paul Kooiker's Nude Animal Cigar ; Michael Abrams' Welcome To Springfield and Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive.