Museum Without Walls
Judith A. Hoffberg
Photographic Book Art in the United States, curated by Susan kae Grant, was shown at the Houston Center for Photography November 6-December 20, 1992.
In this most complicated world of high technology, in the midst of this, our second, industrial revolution, the book—a product of the Renaissance—has been a source of experimentation, a forum for ideas beyond words, which allows writer and artist alike to express themselves in much deeper tones that than by words alone or through single images. The book, a cultural symbol of iconic proportions, has now entered the discourse of the photographic world as a rich source to mine for visual expression, for image transmission, for poetic experimentation, and for political and social discourse. Nor is this a novel gesture, since photographers from the beginning of the art form turned to the book as a natural vehicle for several reasons: first of all, the sequential nature of their work lent itself to visual communication through the book form. As early as William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of the calotype, artists have assembled photographs into book form. Pasting photographs into books was a labor-intensive effort; therefore, artists had to make very small editions. The introduction of photomechanical reproduction and improvements in book production begun in the mid-1850s, some which still exist today, increased photographic book production.
With the inventions of the offset press and the copy machine in the late 1950s, photographers could arrange their photographs in well-edited, tightly knit, organized groups or sets of images in a linear sequence in order to create narratives, events, progressions of things, conditions that flow as experience. As Alex Sweetman has pointed out, serial arrangements of photographs, which have expressive images and information, “can produce series, sequences, juxtapositions, rhythms, and recurring themes.” (Artists’ Books, Layton, Utah, Gibbs Smith, 1985). This trend has continued from the invention of photography but technology has allowed artists to use any and all photographs in any sequence, manipulated or rational, to create a book, either with the Xerox machine or the offset press. The early images were not well resolved conceptually, but as the technology improved, the photographer easily made a museum without walls. Using the best distribution system in the world, the international postal system, the book could be sent to any and all colleagues, friends, and connoisseurs of the art.
In the 1960s, artists such as Ed Ruscha radically changed the whole concept of photography, formerly viewed as the handmaiden of Modernism, but not an art in itself. 26 Gasoline Stations (Los Angeles, 1963) signaled the photographic artist book’s entrance into the museum and the library as an autonomous art, reorienting the whole art world. Responsible for not only a bookwork revolution but also a revision of library cataloguing rules, Ruscha in one fell stroke established it as an art form that had to be specially categorized even in the library world, since for years the Library of Congress catalogued 26 Gasoline Stations under “Transportation” and 34 Parking Lots under “Real Estate.” They were not “miscataloged;” they needed to be recategorized, and it took more than a decade to do it.
In the 1970s, photographers blossomed into bookmakers, using photocopy machines, halftone-printing techniques, silkscreen, photo-transfer, black-and-white Xerox, as well as 3-M and Color Xerox. Becoming their own publishers, photographers also found a burgeoning distribution industry to allow them to reach art collectors, artists, connoisseurs, students, and innocent bystanders who were encouraged to see the “book” as an innovative, energetic, dynamic form of visual expression. Anything was possible, and in the 1970s, artists further challenged the form, structure, and concept of the book. Everything was distributable through the international postal system, and even a few commercial outlets, such as daring museum shops and artists’ bookshops, serviced the public. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, with the invention of the offset press and the copy machine, everybody could become a publisher—and usually did.
In the 1980s, the market changed and so did many artists. Adjusting to the “boom,” book artists decided to make one-of-a-kind books, unique books, imposing a definite “preciousness” upon the bookwork, as well as limiting the audience for their work, and as a result, prices skyrocketed. Even photographers could make limited edition bound books that served as expensive coffee table books or collector’s items. But technology marched on—and with duotone and tritone, with exquisite color laser copies and with computer graphics, laser scanning, and other techniques, artists were equipped with a vast array of choices for creating visual book-works. As a result, serendipity and the fortuitous development of a larger group of collectors have allowed photographers and artists using photographs to create a myriad of diverse works in book format.
And now on the cusp of the millennium, the photographic book-work has reached an apex: variety in form, function, and concept through the melding of technology and aesthetics giving rise to a body of work that has far exceeded anything dreamed of in the 1850s. Artists always have been adventurous, and this has allowed the form of book to be cut, pasted, constructed, and deconstructed. And the adventure continues as seen in the comprehensive—nay encyclopedic—exhibition, “Photographic Book Art in the United States,” curated by Susan kae Grant. Stopping in Houston at the Houston Center for Photography on its two-year tour, the exhibition contains a wide range of bookworks using photography, text, and statements. From the physical photographic bookwork to the electronic media sweeping across the whole spectrum of our contemporary experience, the exhibition bridges book artists and photographers (82 of them), techniques of production as well as techniques of binding styles, aesthetic movements and political, social, and cultural issues.
Some of the books are tiny, fitting neatly into the palm, making an intimate page-by-page experience. Yet other books, such as Douglas Beube’s Aloe Vera, a virtual tapestry of photographs neatly joined to create a “hanging garden” in the literal sense, are wall-size and spectacular. The exhibition is a Herculean exploration of book as handmade, one-of-a-kind, sculptural book object and installation. But no bookshelves can old all the ideas, issues, concerns, and structures that are included in this mammoth survey. Categories include the autobiographical journal, the book as object, handmade paper books, pop-up books, appropriated (recycled) books, and thematic works dealing with gender and sexuality, politics, and war.
The transformation made by the artist using appropriated page, images and texts, as well as a reworking previously printed materials, creates a totally unique visual statement, one that has resonance beyond the materials used. Take, for instance, Page Moran’s The Homeless Address Book, which includes hardware found on the streets. It is a book that has irony and sarcasm built into its title, a book that screams out “danger,” recycling the very materials the homeless find in their “neighborhoods.” Death and Life by Terry Braunstein is an altered book, in which one explores the theme through incised pages, some of which have been glued together. The book is almost like a 3-D theater in which pages become stage sets using photomontage to develop the theme. Several of the books resulted from artists’ grants funded by major book arts centers such as the Visual Studies Workshop Press in Rochester; Nexus in Atlanta; the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York; SUNY at Purchase; Pyramid Atlantic in Maryland; and Mills College in Oakland, California, among others. Carol Barton’s Loom, created at Pyramid Atlantic, takes an old Victorian tunnel form with a peephole and creates a skein of the universe, simulating fabric. The sides of the tunnel have photographs of a total landscape with plants.
Several of the books deal with travel both in a literal and figurative sense. Amanda Degener and Barbara Schubring’s Land(scaped) shows photographs taken along the road, but the documentation of the road and the people involved in the railroads, shows ways in and out of the memory tracks of a person’s life. Both the real and the imaginary, together with a hint of poetry, are combined in the powerful sociological/anthropological tome. In contrast, Laurie Sieverts Snyder documents a trip to Colorado with photographs, decals, cyanotypes, stitching, handmade paper, collage, and painted papers. It is a stunning record of a visit to a state full of history, natural wonders and the strikingly beautiful colors of the Rockies.
Humor also is a theme within the bookworks in the exhibition. Artists, in fact, have found that the book is a facile vehicle for the comical themes of everyday life. Jim Pomeroy’s Apollo Jest: An American Mythology in Depth is a brilliant example. Pomeroy combined a provocative text with images that are so unrelated that the whole piece becomes a humorous commentary on the relationship of word and image as they appear in our everyday communications. Obviously, the concept of illustrated text is scrutinized with this example, as newspeak revisited.
The book, in its reverence for memory and information, through the efforts of artist-photographers, has developed into a genre unto itself. Beyond the pages, binding, and structures that make a book, there is also the book as artifact, stretched by artists’ imaginations, innovations, and creative intentions beyond any definition in Webster’s. No longer is the book a mere container for ideas; in this increasingly complex period of humanity, it is also a fertile laboratory for experimentation. The book serves not only as a means of transferring information, but also as a transformational vehicle for ideas and feelings, for constructs and concerns, for meaning and metaphor.
Judith A. Hoffberg is editor and publisher of Umbrella, a newsletter about artists’ publications, including periodicals, artists’ books, and audio and videotapes created by artists. She also is a publisher of several catalogues and books.