Recently, I’ve been struck by the different ways that photobooks are being presented in exhibitions and reading rooms. In the past, it was really simple to distinguish a venue by the manner in which a photobook was encountered. If the books could be picked up and held, then it was a bookshop or library; if the books were behind a plexi-glass partition or in an enclosed display case, then the venue was an exhibition space. However, in the past year things have gotten all mixed up – gallery exhibitions now regularly have contemporary photobooks on display that can be touched and handled. Previously only the privilege of the curator or the lenders, visitors to recent photobook exhibitions are even encouraged to pick up photobooks and turn their pages. This rethinking of how and where photobooks are exhibited is not exclusive to contemporary publications, but is also being addressed in the presentation of rare photobooks that were previously only available by appointment to a museum library or a specialized antiquarian book dealer. In several recent historical exhibitions, rare and important photobooks are now being taken out of libraries and backroom storage facilities to join framed photographs. As fragile objects, they are often not available for handling, but the act of their inclusion indicates a re-evaluation of their role within historical photography exhibitions and incites a further questioning about how these exhibitions can also provide access to the sequencing and physical aspects of rare photobooks. In light of these recent changes, it is of interest to explore in the context of a brief historical overview how several galleries, non-profit organizations and museums are rethinking a new critical dialogue to address the manner in which both contemporary and historical photobooks are presented in exhibitions.
As one of the earlier museum exhibitions devoted exclusively to the emerging field of photobook research, The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book From 1878 to the Present at the International Center of Photography in 2005, provides a good beginning for a discussion about how the presentation of photobooks has changed over the past seven years. Based on the Andrew Roth edited Hasselblad Center publication of the same name, The Open Book was at the forefront of the “books on photobook” movement and helped inspire the growing acceptance of photobooks within museum and gallery exhibitions. “Walking into ICP’s exhibition space for The Open Book show was a bibliophile’s dream. Lining the walls at chest level was a plexi-glass enclosure containing some of the finest examples of photographic books from the history of the medium” (Photo-Eye). The show indeed presented many wonderful examples of hard to find photobooks, but with one drawback in hindsight, which was the installation. Displayed in row upon row of enclosed plexi-display cases, the photobooks were presented either closed with only their cover visible or open to a two-page spread. There was no opportunity to hold or experience a book in its entirety. The physicality, narrative structure and sequencing of a book could not be experienced. Because the books were in an exhibition, they were treated as precious and static art objects, losing the time-based characteristic that comes with turning a book’s pages. It was like giving a kid a toy, but saying that she couldn’t play with it. I don’t dispute that many of the books in The Open Book were quite valuable and would be destroyed by over-handling, but there was no attempt to provide an alternate encounter that allowed the visitor to gain an understanding of a book’s sequence or feel its presence.
As a photobook collector and addict, I find that it is the anticipation of a book’s arrival that fuels this passion — especially if the book has been purchased online and not seen first in person. It is a bit like Christmas when a book arrives. There is a slight nervousness of anticipation as I free a book from its cardboard packaging: what will it feel like and how will it reveal its essence? At the center of this anticipation is the desire to hold the book, turn its pages, and experience its temporality. My sense is that I am not alone in this desire. In fact, I see proof that others share my wishes as a result of several recent re-evaluations of photobook installations at galleries and photography fairs in the last year.
One of the more dramatic re-evaluations of photobook displays was in November at the Paris Photo Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards 2012. As the 2nd year in the presentation of these annual awards, the difference from the 2011 installation to the one found this year in the Grand Palais, highlights many changes – most for the better. In 2011, all the nominated books were shown flat in plexi-vitrines with only their covers or an individual specific spread visible. The books were precious and felt like specimens or artifacts in an historical display. Reflections from the plexi-glass covering only further intensified a sense of mummified lifeless facsimiles presented for the eyes only; never for the hands. So, it came as a wonderful surprise this year when I visited Paris Photo and saw row upon row of high tables with nominated books laid out in the open for touching. In fact, two copies for each nominated book were available – one attached to a wire on the table, while another glued to a vertical shelf at the table’s center. I will concede that this access was possible because all the books were recent publications from the past year and none were rare historical editions. Yet, the result from this simple rethinking was remarkable. Clustered around each book could be found a group of visitors, who were handling, pointing at images, and turning pages while joined in dialogue about the books. As the Aperture text for the awards event proclaimed, “Celebrating the Book’s Contribution to the Evolving Narrative of Photography” – now finally that narrativity could be experienced: sequencing was accessible, printing techniques could be evaluated, and images could be seen without glare. Finally the whole book was revealed!
This rethinking of photobook installations is not exclusive to photography fairs and book awards, but it is also being applied to exhibitions in galleries and non-profit institutions. Two shows in particular stand out for their thoughtful installations. Contemporary Japanese Photobooks at the Photographers’ Gallery in London (summer 2012) and the current The Latin American Photobook at Aperture Gallery in New York (November 29, 2012- January 4, 2013). Organized by photographer Jason Evans and Japanese photobook impresario Ivan Vartanian, the Photographers’ Gallery installation of Contemporary Japanese Photobooks stands in sharp contrast to the vitrine-entombed books shown seven years earlier in ICP’s The Open Book. With not a plexi-case in sight, the gallery was lined on all sides with a waist-height ledge, which contained books laid out for browsing. In the center of the space was a row of simple wooden tables where visitors could sit down and spend time with any of the books they wished to take from the ledge. The walls were empty except for the show’s title, a curatorial statement and signage that proclaimed, “Welcome” and “Do Not Touch.” The changes were so simple, but so fundamentally different from previous photobook installations. All was accessible and all could be handled. The photobooks were freed from a role as precious objects to be viewed from afar, allowing their materiality and temporality to be reinstated. It is too easy to say that this open access was possible because of the contemporary focus of the show, especially since the show included many hard-to-find books no longer available from primary market venues. The decision to present the books in an open space with handling encouraged was a curatorial decision that arose in response to earlier vitrine-based installations.
Similarly, The Latin American Photobook installation is another rethinking of how to provide access to a book’s sequencing within a temporal experience. With many of the photobooks in the show extremely rare and hard to replace, direct handling by gallery visitors could not be accommodated. However, the exhibition’s curator, photo-historian Horacio Fernández did not let this impede his curatorial agenda of providing full access to most of the books in the show. Noteworthy for the inventive ways in which rare photobooks are exhibited, The Latin American Photobook installation is a case-study in a range of solutions that successfully provides access to a photobook’s full essence – thus allowing visitors to appreciate the union of photography, narrative structure and design, all within a time-based experience. Fernández delivers this encounter through a combination of display approaches that use a variety of media. They include: the juxtaposition of plexi-case enclosed rare photobooks with video documentation of the books’ pages being turned along with a selection of framed images from the books; an entire wall devoted to the gridded presentation of sequenced printouts that document every spread in a particularly important photobook; facsimiles; and overhead projections of pages being turned. In addition, partial access to the sequencing of photobooks is provided by several selections of 9 or 10 key spreads removed from books and placed side by side on plexi-protected ledges. The overall effect of the show’s carefully conceived installation is to slow down the looking process while reinstating a time-based experience of the photobook in exhibitions.
Certainly, these recent re-evaluations of how photobooks are encountered in exhibitions are a welcome indication that a larger rethinking of the role and display of photobooks in museums and gallery installations has made great strides in the past seven years. No longer relegated to backroom storage facilities or a single plexi-case in a corner of a museum’s permanent collection, the presentation of photobooks is finally being addressed within a critical context that allows for a full exploration of their temporality, design and photography. Granted there are degrees of restrictions that are unavoidable within historical photobook exhibitions — rare books can often not be handled, while contemporary photobooks are more easily placed on open shelves and tables — but, nonetheless curators are rethinking installations to allow for fuller access. A selection of photobooks available for touching and handling will be included in the forthcoming 2013 ICP Triennial along with the framed photographs and video installations that are the mainstay of the show. During a recent e-mail correspondence with Christopher Phillips, one of the Triennial’s curators, on future installation practices for both contemporary and rare photobooks, he indicated that there is still more that can be done before a really satisfactory experience of photobooks in museum exhibitions can be achieved. Pleased and encouraged by the recent rethinking surrounding the presentation of photobooks, Phillips predicted that perhaps in five years “there will be inexpensive page-turning software and iPad-like display devices that will allow complete pdfs of photobooks (historic and contemporary) to be explored by individual visitors. When paired with print copies in cases (for rare and historic books), this should provide a pretty satisfactory means of experiencing photobooks in an exhibition space.” For photobook addicts like myself, my wish is that these future enhancements within exhibitions will also provide the same level of anticipation that I now feel when I first turn the pages of a newly acquired photobook — that sense of wonder as a photobook’s narrative structure is revealed through the balance of its union with design and photography.
Open Book: International Center of Photography.
Paris Photo Aperture Photobook Award 2011/2012: Jeff Gutterman.
Contemporary Japanese Photobooks: Jason Evans and Kate Elliot (Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery).
The Latin American Photobook: Jeff Gutterman.