Friday, 12 February 2010

Art of the Book

I don't know whether any of my US readers live anywhere near, but I thought I'd mention that I have a couple of my books in an exhibition at Gallery 210 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The exhibition is called Art of the Book : journals then and now, and runs from February 11th to May 8th 2010.

In case you get the idea that I'm turning into some kind of international superstar, let me disabuse you: the only reason I have any work in the exhibition is that it was co-curated by my colleague Linda Newington of the Winchester School of Art Library, who was kind enough to ask whether I would like to show any work.

I must admit that, these days, I'm quite ambivalent in my view of the "artist's book". For a while, I thought my destiny lay in that direction -- it's an obvious match with my skills and inclinations. It's even in my genes (if you're of a Lamarckian persuasion) -- my paternal grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all bookbinders or "pocket book makers"; Grandad C. ended up working at the famous Temple Press of J.M. Dent & Sons in Letchworth, makers of "Everyman" classics.

Back in ye pre-digital age I taught myself some basic book-binding techniques, and produced some micro-run editions of hand-made books. I was a big fan of the leporello -- the concertina book -- usually bound in hard covers made using rigid foam board covered in cloth or paper. When photo-quality inkjet printing and desktop publishing software arrived, I began a serious bookmaking addiction. And when Blurb and all the other web-based "print on demand" services started up, I was first in the queue. For me, photography and books go together like ... well, think of two things you like that go really well together.

Now, I love the idea of books that exist solely because a creatively-inclined person has willed them into being: there need be no story to tell, no axe to grind, no news to bring. But a key part of the motivation behind many contemporary artist's books is a curious desire to subvert the book form as such. Hence, endless "books" which are all about not being books.

I can see why people can get caught up in this po-mo lite obsession, but, to me, subverting the book form has about as much point and purpose as subverting the functioning of the kidney. The codex book is a thing of functional beauty, refined over 1000 years until, at its best, it is as close as you'll get to a "degree zero" experience: a transparent medium which does its discreet best not to be the message. Frankly, that is precisely the point that the typical "look at me!" artist's book ends up underlining: books are brilliant, until they get in the way. To read a paperback novel which is too thick, too tightly bound, with too narrow gutters, no margins and an unreadable typeface is not a useful and enlightening experience of subversion, it's just bloody annoying.

For that reason, my own books have become purposefully plain and conventional in recent years, to better serve my photography. I suspect they will look a little unambitious in the context of an artist's books exhibition. What, no pop-ups?

But I remember showing one of my more baroque early efforts -- involving transparent and semi-opaque overlay pages with text, adventurous typography, coloured papers and unconventional layouts -- to an admired photographer at a workshop. His face darkened, as he handled this object. "Mike," he said, "You're going to have to make your mind up, whether you're a photographer or a book artist. I don't think you can be both -- the values are too different." It didn't take me very long to make my mind up.

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