Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Bingo!


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".

Bingo!

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?

9 comments:

Thomas Rink said...

Hi Mike,

well, congratulations to your find! By the way, the same price rally seems to take place for out-of-print CD's (for example, Steve Tibbetts' earlier ECM albums). Luckily, one can purchase a lot of them as MP3 downloads on Amazon, at reasonable prices. As I am not a CD collector in the narrower sense, but just enjoy listening to the music, I consider this as a good alternative for me. Couldn't this be done for out-of-print photography books, too? I mean PDF files with good digital reproductions keeping the original layout, available as digital downloads? Or even printed on demand? Granted, this is not the real thing when it comes to haptics, but it would be better than nothing. Probably a copyright issue prohibits this ...

Best, Thomas

PS: Just took delivery of my copy of Landscape Stories, purchased for 100€. It is in a pitiable state, though; the cover looks like it's been driven over by a truck. I wonder who treats a beautiful book like this. At least the pages are clean. Given the state of the book, I'd rate it closer to 5€. Talk inflated prices ...

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

That's disgraceful, you should send it back (I'm assuming the description gave no indication of its state, though "good" in bookseller's terms does mean "pretty crappy", only one up from "ex-library copy" or "reading copy only" -- "near fine" is what you want).

I take your point about downloads, but half the fun is in the hunting! If it became a simple matter of downloading a PDF or e-book, where would the fun be? Curiously, there is now a massive market in "on demand" reprints of out-of-copyright books, sourced, I suspect, from Google's digitisation project. One of my distant 19th century relatives was a "peasant poet" in the Scottish Borders, whose work was published posthumously in a very small edition. It can now be bought, in theory, from dozens of firms advertising in Abebooks, which confused me mightily when I first started looking for a copy. But I actually found a *real* one last year -- another Bingo! moment...

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Hi Mike,

I just had a look: The book was advertised as "Used - Good". I didn't know about the bookseller's jargon, but I should have become wary as the price was less than half of the price they normally ask for this book. I think I'll keep the book anyway since I'm very fond of Jem Southam's work.

As regards the out-of-copyright books - I've only noticed so far that a lot of them can be obtained as Kindle downloads for next to nothing. For example, I was able to buy the works of Henry David Thoreau for 99ct. For text only books I prefer ebooks anyway; my wife and my older son are voracious readers, too, so we are constantly fighting storage limits.

Truly antiquarian books (like your relative's book) are a different matter, however. Just to hold them in your hands and imagine who's hold and read them before ... Must visit our local antiquarian book store more frequently, I suppose.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Meant to say: if you're an ECM fan, you'll forgive me for mentioning yet another Bingo! moment, when I found a copy of "Sleeves of Desire" (the first ECM covers collection) STILL IN ITS SHRINKWRAP for £25...

I know, I know... It's a dull life that can be enlivened by such things... ;)

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Ah, OK, this is a compilation of their covers - I didn't know about this book. It's a pity, since these covers are something special, right from the early days with Barbara Wojirsch and later Dieter Rehm. Now the book is 150€ used :-(. For 25 pounds, I'd have picked it up, too. I'll keep it on the radar.

I'm not a dedicated ECM fan, I just happen to like a lot of their older releases (for example, by Eberhard Weber, Ralph Towner, Oregon, Terje Rypdal, Steve Tibbetts et al.). Some of their newer productions are not quite my cup of tea. My impression is that they've become more conservative over the years ...

No, it's not a dull life - a book is like a garden you can keep in your pocket, or so the ancient arabs said.

Best, Thomas

amolitor said...

I can recommend the hobby of book restoration. As with auto restoration you may, I suppose, destroy value in the collectible sense but it is often relatively easy to bring a book back to a high degree of both beauty and usability.

Artemis BonaDea's conservation manual seems to me a good place to start, if you chose to try your hand.

Mike C. said...

I imagine you've tried your hand, but in my experience book restoration and repair is a highly-skilled business -- I had to try to recruit a restorer a few year ago, and failed, mainly because the salary on offer didn't match the skill and experience needed (a common experience in the UK public sector, unfortunately). Even simple repairs require more dexterity and patience than I possess!

One of the best bits in my professional training was watching a guy from the British Library tear an 18th century book apart, in order to show how it was put together... Now that I could manage. Modern "perfect bound" paperbacks, of course, resist any attempt at repair, once they start to fall apart.

Mike

amolitor said...

I am the only person I know of who repairs paperback books, because it's such a manifestly stupid act, economically.

Once the paper starts to go, well, it's going, isn't it? You could stabilize it at immense expense but it would still be brittle.

But redoing a perfect binding is surprisingly simple. Grind off the old one, fan and glue!

I am terrible at the fiddly repairs where you're trying to glue inside the bowels of a mostly intact book. I am only modestly competent at a final glue-up of block into case, usually something isn't quite aligned as it ought to be but the book is sturdy and usable when I am done.

I restore half a dozen books a year of one sort out another. None of them looks new, but they all look better than when I started! I have small children, so there's a lot of destruction in my life...

I have a depressing habit of gluing blocks in to covers upside down, which I am furiously trying to break.

Book repair is one of those jobs that probably makes no sense. What is to me 1 to 6 hours of pleasurable hobby is, to an institution, 50 to 300 dollars/euros, fully loaded cost. It's a rare book that's worth even the low end there.

Much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that, to the uninitiated, it is essentially a magic trick.



Mike C. said...

You should clearly retrain as a craft bookbinder! The book-world needs you!

Mind you, we had binderies at the libraries in both Bristol and Southampton, and several of the older staff in each had missing fingers... One of the younger ones was a Hell's Angel, the first guy I ever knew with "sleeves" of tattoos, who was amazingly clever and gentle with damaged books, like a nurse... It' a calling!

Mike