Tuesday, September 28, 2010

xTR..., xTR..., read all about it

I feel sheepish admitting this but it's only recently that I've discovered the oversized section at the U of O library. And just in time too. I'd nearly exhausted the regular photobook stacks in both library buildings. My normal process had been to browse these in person, not realizing that this method might not catch everything. It wasn't until a random computer search turned up an xTR... title that I realized that there were hundreds of books I hadn't seen yet secreted away on another floor. Silly me, I know.

Walker Evans' Message: Size Matters

For the past few weeks it's been a feeding frenzy. I've come home with all sorts of large, awkward treasures: Walker Evans' Message From the Interior, Callahan's Water's Edge, Jem Southam's Landscape Stories, Lisette Model's Aperture monograph, Koudelka's Chaos, Susan Lipper's Grapevine, just to name a few. They're all big and gangly. They don't play well with their shelfmates, nor do they fit easily in a pack.

from Grapevine by Susan Lipper

Normally I'd find this annoying. I don't think photographs in a book should fight for attention with the format. It's the same reason very large gallery prints sometimes irk me. But these past few weeks I've learned to love the large books. It turns out that, at least in some cases, size does matter. The images in David Maisel's Library of Dust or Eugene Richard's The Blue Room are almost large enough to fit a gallery wall. A smaller book wouldn't do them justice.

Another book in my oversized pile is Allen Ginsberg Photographs, a collection of portraits of various beat figures with Ginsberg's handwritten captions. I already own a copy of his Snapshot Poetics, which covers some of the same territory but at half the scale.

Comparing the two is interesting. The smaller book is more recent and has better print quality, but I like the bigger, older one better. Its photos are grainier and contrastier, and sort of bleached out, more like Tri-X than offset. They look like a bound sheaf of life-sized prints. The photos in Snapshot Poetics look like what they are: photographs in a book.

Self Portrait of Allen Ginsberg from Photographs
In the published version, the flower is burned in

So which is better? That question gets at the root of what a photobook is. Because at its core, a photobook acts a bit like a photograph. It pretends to contain one thing (photographs) but what it really contains are illusions of literal descriptions of that thing (small half-tone translations of photographs). So the question becomes, Do you look at photographs in a photobook to see what photographs look like in a photobook or do you look at them to see how they look as actual photographs? The first way seems more honest, the second way more true to the artist's vision, at least in the case of the Ginsberg book.

Of course my opinion may be biased by my first experience with the book. About halfway through it this beautiful watercolor sprung out of nowhere. It was so colorful in the midst of the black and white pages that I nearly jumped out of my seat.

A one of a kind painting on nice thick paper, no signature, no warning. It definitely would have overpowered a smaller publication. In the large book it was a silent message from the interior.

Someone had tucked it between portraits of Burroughs and Frank, two seers who helped bring culture out of the grey 50s and into the full rainbow of what followed. I don't know if the placement was intentional but it seemed just right.

It sat there staring out at me like a pressed flower, or, rather, an illusion of a literal description of a pressed flower. Not to be mistaken for the real deal.

Flowers pressed in a book

For that I'd have to turn to one of my alltime favorite small books, Stephen Gill's Hackney Flowers. The plant parts in that book seem so lifelike you can almost smell them. If I ever find a copy in the library (doubtful) I'm leaving an oversized black and white photo inside.

from Hackney Flowers by Stephen Gill


Chris said...

I'm sure you've come across the books with razored pages. My experience is that it happens more in the oversize books than in the rest of the collection. Irritating to no end.

Also, don't forget the special collections area. I know that it doesn't have the convenience of allowing you to check books out, but there are quite a few nice works there.

Droid said...

Another excellent post.

I have to admit that I never thought about there being an oversized book section in my library. I stopped going there since I had looked at everything that I wanted to and since their budget has been slashed they rarely get new acquistions of photobooks which can be quite expensive. I'll have to look in to this further.

Stan B. said...

I enjoy all sizes of books, and large ones can often afford you a better sense of what the actual prints are like, particularly if you haven't seen the exhibit. That said, I haven't seen too many large books that don't also work in a smaller size. I think design and presentation play more of a role in how well it all comes off. I have no idea why Destroy This Memory is so damn huge, other than to prove what 4 megapixels can do.

I remember the very popular Vertical New York coming out in three sizes- large, which almost gave the actual print experience, small, very cute and portable and the best and worst of both worlds medium.