Saturday 30 July 2022

On photographs of books

Way back when, maybe 20 years ago, I wandered by chance into an exhibition of photographs by Martina Geccelli at the Goethe Institut in London: photographs not of the covers of books and not the spines but the opposite of the spines – the loose page edges, gathered but hanging free. In 2010 I got in touch with Martina and in an act of extraordinary generosity she took photos of the early CBe books and said I could use them for free. The above photograph is from a sequence of 14 (deserving fine-art reproduction, better than this blogpost). Another is on the cover of by the same author.

Martina Geccelli photographs books like Morandi painted jugs. She now runs RAUMX, a project space within her own studio in north London: ‘an open, intimate platform, outside of the commercial setting of a gallery’. Her website (not up to date but still good) has more books and examples of her other photographs (including plastic bags, pallets, and abandoned offices in the World Trade Center in NY, where she had a residency in 2000).

99% of photographs of books are photos of product, commissioned by marketing departments. They show flat fronts and elicit comments on the cover design (though frankly, until you’ve seen the spines and the backs this feels premature). Other than Geccelli, one of the very few photographers I know of who is interested in the physical form of books is the Cuban-born Abelardo Morrell. A link to some of his book photos is here, and below is ‘Dictionary', 1994:

Admittedly, Morrell favours books that are old. Books need wear and tear, or dust and neglect, to take on character. Here’s my own copy of Middlemarch, which I took on holiday and left outside on a damp night:


Photos of books being read are a different thing. Among the most famous are the (posed) photos by Eve Arnold of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. What’s going on here? Even if the official message was She’s not just a ditzy blonde, there was no way through: men of a certain ilk like their ditzy blondes to read posh, it’s cute. Adding a link here to the list of books owned/read by Marilyn Monroe, who was far from dumb, won’t change that.

The best photos of books being read are the 65 (unposed) photos in On Reading by André Kertész. Here’s a photo of a CBe book being not read, and (posed) the aftermath:


A photo I took last week of 15 years of CBe (82 books, 3 pamphlets, 2 issues of a magazine, 1 CD) owes a debt – in concept, not in execution – to Martina Geccelli:

Here's the official version. And then the whole rickety edifice came tumbling down:

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