Sea, but no horizon
If you're a bit of a collector – you know, nothing mad or unbalanced, just a bit focussed – you will have a mental list of items you are looking out for; what are known as desiderata. As I indicated in a recent post, I have a thing for photo-books. Not just collections of glossy photographs – you can keep your Charlie Waite and your Steve McCurry books, thanks – but items where a carefully-considered sequence has been collated into a book-object that matches and enhances the photographer's vision. This need not involve a "fine" binding. Some of the most interesting photo-books are mere stapled pamphlets or perfect-bound exhibition catalogues, and many of the least interesting are tacky, OTT items, where the luxurious binding mocks the lack of ambition of the contents.
Unless you're very wealthy, you need to define and develop a personal taste and concentrate on whatever falls within its boundaries. Practically speaking, as with music, this often means following the careers of particular individuals or groups. I will buy anything, sight unseen, published by Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, or Susan Derges, for example. If, like me, you have a parallel interest in the "artist's book", you might even cultivate a relationship with certain artists with a particular interest in the conjunction of photography and "bookwork"; I have several hand-made items produced by American photographer Raymond Meeks, for example.
One of the frustrations of this sort of focussed collecting is missing out on an early work, which has now become more-or-less unobtainable. As I indicated in the earlier post, booksellers who specialise in scarce photo-books generally ask preposterous prices for such books, often in the thousands. That's not a game I am willing or able to play. But the game I do enjoy is keeping an eye out for certain items which are so scarce that sellers may not realise quite what they have. This happens less often, these days, when aggregating online services like Abebooks mean that even the most ignorant book dealer can run a check on the going price for any item that looks like it might have value. But if a book is scarce enough, no copies will be available for sale anywhere in the world, with the result that no "me too" pricing data is available. The dealer must then decide their own fair price*, based on whatever knowledge they can bring to bear.
For many years, high on my desiderata list has been a book I failed to buy at the time, because I was not yet interested in its author. Garry Fabian Miller has since gone on to become reasonably well-known as one of a small group of British "cameraless" photographers, that includes Susan Derges and Adam Fuss. The exhibition "Shadow Catchers" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010 brought their work to a wider public. But Miller's earliest work "Sections of England: the Sea Horizon" – a sequence of 40 views across the Severn Estuary made from the roof of his house in Clevedon, near Bristol – was produced with a Hasselblad camera, and first exhibited in 1977 when he was only nineteen. The work was then shown at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in 1979, and again in 1997 at the Hue-Williams Gallery, accompanied by a large and beautifully-produced catalogue on heavy paper with the images printed separately and tipped-in, titled The Sea Horizon.
That catalogue is scarce. The simple fact is that I have never seen a copy of The Sea Horizon for sale. It is scarcer than scarce. At one point, I actually wrote to Garry Fabian Miller, to ask whether he might still have any copies. He does have a very few. But his reply included this information:
750 copies were printed in 1997 of which probably 150 were sold. Of the remaining 600, most were destroyed in the MOMART warehouse fire. I have a very small number that remain. People occasionally tell me that copies sell for in excess of £2000 on rare book dealers websites. I last sold a copy in November for £1000.That would explain it. Forget about it. Out of my league.
Now, a recent purchase of mine was Brighter Later, by Brian David Stevens. It's a lovely book, and I would venture to suggest that Stevens has seen and been influenced by Miller's Sea Horizon work, as his book consists of pairs of square images looking out to sea, one pair from each of the coastal counties of Britain, with a very similar sense of letting the sea, the light and the weather do the work. At any rate, it put me in mind of Miller's "Sea Horizon" pictures and, just out of curiosity and for old time's sake, I did a quick Google search for "sea horizon".
I couldn't believe my luck. A single copy was for sale – on Amazon of all places – at a very reasonable price. Needless to say, it is now mine, and has taken its rightful place on the Absurdly Big Books shelf, alongside Todd Hido's A Road Divided, Mark Power's Die Mauer ist weg!, and Raymond Meeks' A Clearing.
* Incidentally, has anyone else noticed the hyper-bonkers prices for some items on Amazon, which are not scarce at all, and are offered by dealers with names like "MEGA BOOKS"? Check out this ultra-collectible item, for example. It's very odd, but too frequent to be simple "finger trouble", though I suppose it might be "automatic bulk pricing algorithm trouble". Or maybe there's some scam going on? Money-laundering, perhaps, or maybe a storage unit burns down occasionally, oops, and the insurance value is based on the Amazon inventory?