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Book Art Theory

Capitalizing on the interdisciplinary nature of the field, this blog calls attention to criticism and theory about the book as a medium and/or subject in works of art and, more generally, about book art. It seeks to encourage dialogue, solicit comments, and create a generative space for new ideas from critics and theorists of various fields regarding the aesthetic, semiotic, haptic, cognitive, historical, and other features that distinguish these works and their function in ethical, political, and social matters.

To contribute to the list of underrepresented voices in the book arts, see CBAA Book Art + Social Justice Resource List.

  • 01 Sep 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    These posts are an imaginative exercise, coming out of things I’m thinking about in my own work, and in conversations with other artists. (In particular with Bill Hanscom—I owe him a “thank you” for one of the prompts to write these posts.) I want to envision a studio practice, for a book artist, where aesthetic concerns, specific interests in content and concept, ethical/political concerns, and economic concerns can find perhaps not a perfect balance, but at least a stable ground for continued negotiation.

    In 2005, while I was in graduate school, I made a 180 page image/text altered book called Art Into Life. It was very much in the spirit of the ur altered book, A Humumenteach page hand drawn/painted/collaged, plus some digital printing done with a desktop laser printer. As I reflect on the books that I’ve made, there are two that feel like the most significant: that altered book and the ongoing, iterative The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press. One of those exists as editions of 250 over three iterations, and one of those exists as a single copy that has probably been read through by 35 people. Both books exist perpetually as digital facsimiles, and are theoretically available to be read at any time. Digital facsimiles seem like a good compromise between the logistics of keeping a book in (letterpress) print and/or the problems of attempting a straight facsimile of a unique book, but the “out of sight” availability of the digitally archived object remains very different from the availability of having the book in the home. The process of making that altered book, of composing page-by-page (like writing a book?) was extremely satisfying and the results felt quite different from the usual tightly planned and executed book productions that I’ve otherwise done. How can an artist get to that open-ended process without being stuck having to sell unique books to single collectors or institutions, also usually for less money than a single, large painting? Is a digital facsimile, 3-5 readers, and a day job enough?

    It could be useful to think about the relationship(s) between comics and artists’ books. They are essentially the same material: text and image, in relation, in sequence. Yet they seem to exist in (mostly) separate worlds. I think that book artists can learn a great deal from comics—formal/structural things like how to deal with story and structure, timing, rhythm, etc., and also nuts and bolts things like how the work gets made, and how it makes its way out into the world.

    The recent graphic novel, My Favorite Thing is Monsters, by Emil Ferris, is an incredible read, and I highly recommend it. It is also an interesting book to consider in terms of the relationship between artists’ books and comics. One of the conceits of the narrative is that the book itself is the journal/sketchbook of the main character, and as such it reproduces the look of a notebook. There are blue ruled lines on the pages, and the images and text are composed freely—there is little literal use of the panels that usually undergird the language of comics, though the idea of the panel is still very much embedded in the story-telling. It’s an intensely beautiful book—the reader can spend a great deal of time just looking and looking at the incredible drawings. The quality of the reproduction of those drawings is top-notch. It’s a long, dense book too, 386 pages. And it only costs $40.

    Is a $40 copy of My Favorite Thing is Monsters a facsimile of an artist’s book? Or an original artist’s book? Or just a book? Where is the production and where is the reproduction? Does it even matter?

    I am an artist that makes books by hand, I’ve been doing it for 18 years, and yet I’ve read a lot more comics than I have artists’ books. That could just be my reading habits, but it also probably has to do with the availability of comics. They are out there, published on the web, able to be ordered from the web, on the shelves of libraries, and often even in bookstores. (To be clear I’m not talking about standard “superhero comics” from the big publishers of such things. I’m talking about the weird, experimental, personal, literary, poetic, and/or journalistic comics of which there are many incredible examples.) Comics are labor-intensive to produce, and money-and-labor-intensive to reproduce and distribute—yet they are available, and they do make it into people’s homes, and they are read.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 15 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    If we accept the idea that artists’ books are most available to be read when they are in someone’s home, several questions come up immediately: whose home? How did the books get there? And once the books are there, are the people that live in that home comfortable storing, reading, and handling them? These are questions of economics and distribution, of privilege and class, of power, of culture and discursive structures.

    Some of this line of reasoning sounds familiar: are we talking about the artist’s book as “democratic multiple?” Yes, but also no—our inherited idea of the “democratic multiple” might be limiting our possibilities.

    The historical idea of the “democratic multiple” is an artist’s book/publication that is made in a large or unlimited edition, usually with commercial processes and materials and sold at a reasonable price. This approach is often associated with the 1960s and 70s, with the “dematerialized” art practices of Conceptual Art, politically engaged art practices, and/or the desire by artists to circumvent the gallery system and get their work directly to the audience. The democratic multiple is often considered a myth or failure. There are many artists that never got that memo and continue to produce these objects—they might be called zines, comics, poetry, visual books, photo-books, etc. Failures of the historical democratic multiple are usually discussed in terms of three facets: affordability, availability, and accessibility.

    Affordability seems straightforward—if you want a large audience to be able to purchase and read the books at home, then they have to be priced in a way so that individuals can buy them (which also often implies fairly large editions). Affordability goes two ways—as Johanna Drucker points out in The Century of Artists’ Books—the books need to be affordable for the buyer and the artist. Affordability for the artist includes materials, of course, but also time and physical demands. For artists that are committed to making books by hand (such as myself) affordability is a thorny problem.

    The term availability comes from the poet/printer/publisher Simon Cutts: “The act of publishing is one of making available […].” Availability is the ease (or difficulty) of finding and buying the book, of shipping and moving, and then of storage and reading. Availability is different from accessibility (defined below) in that is has to do with the physical life and presence of the object.

    In terms of distribution, the Internet is a huge asset that was not available to the producers of artists’ books in the 1960s and 70s. For an individual artist distribution is so much easier now, at least up to a point. Getting the word out and conducting transactions is easier, but packing and shipping orders is still a considerable amount of labor and expense.

    Accessibility is different from availability in that it relates to content. Of our three terms it has the least to do with the physical object—it is more a quality of the artistic or readerly object. Accessibility is cited as one of the major failures of the historical democratic multiple. In her essay “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” the critic Lucy Lippard reflects on that failure: “[…] despite sincere avowals of populist intent, there was little understanding of the fact that the accessibility of the cheap, portable form did not carry over to that of the contents—a basic problem in all of the avant-garde’s tentative moves towards democratization in the sixties and early seventies. The New York art world was so locked into formal concerns (even those of us who spent a lot of time resisting them) that we failed to realize that, however neat the package, when the book was opened by a potential buyer from the ‘broader audience’ and she or he was baffled, it went back on the rack.”

    It’s a cliché that the “broader audience” is not interested in art that differs from the received expectations of a form, that deals directly with important social/political issues, and/or has an emotional/aesthetic/spiritual depth. It’s important to note that in the quote above Lippard places the fault with the “art world,” which tended at that time to eschew any emotional content. Are things opening up, both for the “art world” and for the culture at large? I’m thinking here of the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel, of the music of Kendrick Lamar, of Sonic Youth, of Twin Peaks (old and new), of the recent film Sorry to Bother You—this list could go on and on. The “broader audience” is fully capable of grasping complicated formal structures and/or nuanced aesthetic experiences. The reader needs—deserves—some sort of relatable entry point, if they are to dwell in/dwell with the work.

    Works Cited

    Simon Cutts, Some Forms of Availability (New York and Derbyshire: Granary Books and Research Group for Artists Publications, 2007), 65.

    Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1994), 72.

    Lucy Lippard, “Conspicuous Consumption: New Artists’ Books,” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, ed. Joan Lyons (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985), 50.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 01 Aug 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    When I was in graduate school, one of my colleagues, the artist and designer Melissa McGurgan, had a brilliant idea to teach critical analysis skills to her students: they would each take a piece by one of their classmates home, hang it up, and live with it for a week or two, writing and reflecting on the experience of viewing a piece through time, in their homes. How does an artwork change if you see it everyday, at multiple times? If you look at it every morning while you eat your cereal, or in the periphery as you do the dishes or glimpse it as you rush out the door to meet a friend?

    “Living with” an art object spreads the experience of a static thing over a discontinuous time, it weaves the object through the life of an individual. The idea of the artwork in the home and life of a person feels very important, and so I want to write a series of posts thinking through various aspects of and questions about this idea of artwork, specifically what we might call readerly artwork, in the home.

    Books and prints are really good at living with people—they are small, light, and can often be very affordable. Living with a book is a bit different than living with a 2D piece that hangs on the wall—viewing tends to be a little less rushed, a little less accidental. The person has to open the book at least. But I know from my experience of reading graphic novels and art books (here I mean books about an artist’s work) that a kind of quick, partially distracted, random reading of books can and does take place. A partially distracted reading is probably easier to fall into with books that rely heavily on visual content, but it can certainly happen with text-based books as well.

    In the famous and still relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes about the “ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” This is toward the end of the essay, section XV, where he is talking about film as an art made for/as “mechanical reproduction”—so in this case something very similar to books or prints. Benjamin writes: “Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. […] In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

    Working from Benjamin’s idea that “distraction and concentration form polar opposites” and from his concept of absorption—perhaps attention is not so much an either/or state (as in you are paying attention or you are not) but a continuum of absorption. At times the reader is absorbed by the art object, at other times they absorb it, and that relationship is changing at different rates throughout the experience. That absorption does not necessarily depend on the reader being in front of the object, actively reading, to take place. The reading (which is also attention) is discontinuous: it starts, stops, picks up again, repeats, skips, is processed from memory, etc., and all along the amount or type or quality of the absorption changes in relation to the reading conditions, to the necessities of the reader and their world. The amount of discontinuity in the reading is also related to the length of the object itself, and/or the reading conditions. Even a short artist’s book that can be read in one sitting (hopefully) continues to be read after the book is put down.

    If reading is always discontinuous (and perhaps benefits from discontinuity?) then having the artwork in the home becomes ideal. Reading in galleries/museums is generally not great—too many other pieces to see, too many people, not enough time, etc. Reading in libraries is much better, but a long-term, discontinuous reading doesn’t really happen unless a reader happens to have convenient and consistent access to a library collection. The artwork is at its most available state when it is in the home, meaning that it is much more likely to be read in/as/through multiple states of attention, to be woven in/as/through the rhythms of a life.

    Work Cited:

    Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 239.

    Aaron Cohick is the Printer of The Press at Colorado College and the proprietor of the NewLights Press. He lives and works in Colorado Springs, CO.

  • 15 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I’ve been thinking about reading through a seasonal lens, and how its meaning, significance, and potential seem to shift — at least for me, as an academic and lifelong resident of the northeast US.

    Fall Reading is studious, serious, or how-to, synonymous with back-to-school. Winter Reading is cozy and provisioned, a warm indoor retreat from the cold. The phrase “Spring Reading” conjures nothing. “Summer Reading” unleashes a torrent of longing for light-filled hours containing nothing but the time and space to read. I think of novels. Loads of them.

    Ah, the “Summer Reading List,” distributed toward the end of the school year by optimistic academic institutions at every grade level. How many of us draft lists of our own, at the beginning of each summer, as we imagine (rightly or not) that we’ll have more time to read? In the summer I like to bond with a single author: last year was Doris Lessing (favorites are The Golden Notebook, the gothic horror The Fifth Child, the timely The Good Terrorist). Currently my summer author is Iris Murdoch (so far my favorites are The Nice and the Good and Under the Net).

    Then the media outlets descend with their own dubious Summer Reading Lists. The NY Times Book Review 2018 Summer Guide suggests titles in the following categories only: Thrillers, Cooking, True Crime, Movies & TV, Romance, Travel, Music, the Great Outdoors, and Sports. Really? No regular fictional novels?

    Is “beach reading” escapist reading, reading that transports? If you are looking for such a book, I recommend Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which time travels you to a terrifyingly not-too-distant future dystopian America, so maybe not so transportive after all. Or is “beach reading” reading for entertainment, lighter fare? Perhaps reading for entertainment is reading texts that don’t make us think. But perhaps that should be worded as texts that don’t insist we think. If we’re not thinking about what we’re reading, that’s on us, isn’t it, not the author or the text? I learned from The Guardian just now that the term “Beach Read” was coined by the publishing industry as recently as 1990, although the casting of novel reading as “sinful” dates back to the mid-19th century (Emma Bovary, anyone?).

    Sinful, sinful reading. Reading all day, outside: in a park, in the garden, at the beach, in the yard, under a tree or an umbrella; reading on a blanket on the ground or on a canvas folding chair or on a chaise or in a field; reading on the slow-to-darken porch after dinner, late into the night. In the summer I give myself permission to read indulgently in ways I don’t (or can’t) the rest of the year. While the occupational and familial demands of the fall, winter, and spring are real, the emotional negotiation with the Yankee Puritan within may be eased over the summer months because summer reading can be folded into another activity: being outside. Reading outside is active recreation because now you are outdoors enjoying the fleeting season. It is practically a sport.

    Endurance reading: book artist Barbara Tetenbaum’s current public art project The Slow Read invites readers to a summer-long reading of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. The project is accessed online at the rate of six pages a day, offering “a piece of culture in the form of a daily ritual, to be experienced slowly over time.” The Slow Read perversely replicates the dominant practice of reading in short spurts on a screen. At the same time, the fact that the narrative is suspended day after day after day expands the novel into something that engulfs your entire summer. There are nuances to the specificity of this reading experience, as after the installment’s sixth page you are brought back to the first page of that day’s selection. Of this uncanniness, artist and reader Linda Hutchins writes: “The feeling is unlike anything I’ve ever gotten from reading before, and even after I repeated the scenario multiple times today, it still catches my breath. It’s almost a feeling of light-headedness” (The Slow Read News).

    Perhaps it is this opportunity for light-headedness, for catching one’s breath, is what summer reading is about.

    Emily Larned won the “Book Worm” trophy from her childhood swim team (her mom made her join). She has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. Since then her work has been exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions. She is co-founder of ILSSA and Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.

  • 01 Jul 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    How would you describe a book without using words?

    In what ways is the meaning and significance of an individual book affected by its provenance?

    What do you learn about someone by looking at their extensive library (besides nearly everything)—and how many of these gleanings are your own false conclusions, connections, assumptions, which say more about you than about anyone else? If a personal library is a portrait of its owner, is the reading of that library a self-portrait of the reader?

    These are some of the questions that come when perusing the evocative work of artist Abra Ancliffe, creator of the Personal Libraries Library (PLL) in Portland, OR. A collection of collections, or a “librarywork,” the Personal Libraries Library (est. 2009) reassembles the libraries of select public figures and circulates these books among the PLL members. The project began with the recreation of the personal library of the nineteenth century astronomer, librarian, educator, suffragist Maria Mitchell; followed by that of the artist, writer, thinker Robert Smithson; and then the libraries of Italian writer Italo Calvino, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and African-American poet, activist, and gardener Anne Spencer. Currently, the PLL “is in the process of collecting the personal libraries of Lucy Lippard, Georges Perec, Buckminster Fuller, Hannah Arendt, Lady Bird Johnson, and Yoko Ono” (in that order). And so the Personal Libraries Library reveals not only the predilections of those individuals included, but when considered together suggests the interests and concerns of its founding librarian. It is temptingly easy to speculate about Ancliffe: a bibliophilic artist with naturalist tendencies, certainly. Definitely a feminist; interested in social justice history; intrigued by new forms, and genre experimentation. But which public figures does she consider, and then exclude? Which collections does she prioritize, and why? (While you will not find the answers to these particular questions, to learn more about PLL’s origin and Ancliffe’s method of collecting, check out (haha, library pun) Vanessa Kauffman Zimmerly’s article on Art Practical).

    In addition to circulating the books of the PLL among its members, Ancliffe activates the collection by publishing via the Personal Libraries Library Press. She describes these publications as “printed matter” that “offers differing investigations of the Collection as well as questions the role of books, libraries, and archives in the production of meaning & understanding.” These equivocal printworks serve as elusive introductions to books; to me, they are enticing invitations to locate and experience the book or collection itself. They offer a portal into how Ancliffe relates to the collection. And as you puzzle over them, you realize they are mirrors that reflect how your own interests intersect with Ancliffe’s, and with those of the books’ famous owners.

    The printed matter varies from letterpress printed single panel cards tucked into folded digital printed folios, to digitally printed color posters that reproduce a single image or an entire spread of a book; or on occasion, several books or images at once. Sometimes the source book or collection is identified; other times, it is not. Examining the ephemera in consultation with Ancliffe’s website is a sort of sleuthing, with aha! moments of discovery as the origin of an individual piece is revealed. This experience, of reconstructing how the book may (or may not!) have been significant to its famous owner, reproduces the process of research: the formulation of questions, the peering for clues, the hypothesis and the corroboration. Of course, as with any interpretation, how much of this activity is in one’s own head? The PLL is far from a didactic collection. It is open, exploratory, its meaning unfixed. In a recent conversation, Ancliffe described many of her formal decisions as “gestural work”;  she says she is interested in “cultivating the page like a garden.”

    And so like a memorial garden it grows. The Personal Libraries Library is both tribute and tool for contemplation. By activating often-forgotten books that are significant in relationship to one another and to our cultural record, the PLL encourages inquiry, discovery, and wonder: an exploratory wandering through the stacks.


    Citations quoted from and

    Emily Larned has been publishing as an artistic practice since 1993, when as a teenager she made her first zine. She is co-founder of Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts (ILSSA). Her work is exhibited and collected by over 70 public institutions, and has been awarded honors by the Type Directors Club (TDC) and the AIGA. She is Chair & Associate Professor of Graphic Design at SASD, University of Bridgeport, CT.

  • 15 Jun 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Here’s the story of how I, a stationer, grew up thinking like a book artist.

    To begin, “stationer” is a trade guild in England dating back to the 1500’s. The stationery trade is at the heart of the history of publishing in general. At its beginning it was akin to fine press printing and to book arts. I make my living as a modern, Americanized version of this.

    This may seem an interesting choice for one who, growing up, was uncomfortable reading. Perhaps this was due to an undiagnosed learning disability. Even still, to this day, I love looking at pictures along with feeling printed materials such as ink, paper, various modes of printing, and the mechanics of bound volumes. For me, reading and writing are disciplines quite apart from how I relate to books.

    Allow me to explain this seemingly contradictory notion.

    My parents’ house had big book shelves in the living room. They were not full but contained several books significant to my book arts development: Imprints from The Heritage Press. These were mass produced, affordable reprints of Limited Editions Club fine illustrated books by the George Macy Companies founded in 1929. They are artfully designed and carefully produced. The typography is classical yet interesting and wonderfully legible. Each is designed in a unique fashion communicating the story the book contains. Many Heritage Press books are illustrated; all are hard cover, most if not all are slip cased. The binding for each is unique as well, and many have faux-tooling and gilding. It was a marvelous experience choosing a Heritage Press book from the shelf, purely by its cover, followed by lifting it off the shelf, sitting (probably on the floor), letting the book out of its decorative sleeve, then flipping through the pages. I learned the names and general stories of many literary classics such as The Wonderful Adventures of Paul Bunyan, Far from the Madding, and The Grapes of Wrath by identifying handsome spines and enjoying looking at well executed pictures.

    It is my guess that experiencing The Heritage Press books—without needing to read them—led me to a curiosity about wanting to make them. Throughout grade school, I was fond of crafting bound-volumes commensurate with my understanding of how books function. Luckily, I have many of them still, and they all seem to follow a similar, yet incomplete, pattern:

    ● A front cover.

    ● Title page.

    Beginning of a narrative, handwritten.

    ● Several blank pages completing a signature.

    ● Back cover.

    ● Some form of binding holding it all together. Often this was staples and scotch tape.

    It appears that making a book was more interesting than caring if it communicated anything or told a story.

    Perhaps a love for understanding book structure is the compelling reason we choose to make books. The experience of grabbing, holding, turning pages, interacting with bookish materials (ink, paper, binding) is what brings book artists back, time and again, to create new ones. So maybe an early inability to read allowed me to develop an understanding and appreciation for the book arts, and The Heritage Press books were serendipitous inspirations for this appreciation.

    Collins is the country’s leading engraved stationery expert working in her eponymous company, Nancy Sharon Collins, Stationer LLC. She authored The Complete Engraver, has written for PRINT and HOW magazines about design and commercial printing and has appeared in popular Town & Country, VOGUE, Veranda, and The New York Times.

  • 01 Jun 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    During my first year as a Book Arts graduate student in 2013/14 I took a course called “The Book as Artifact” and wrote a paper about pop-up, community-focused book programs and ways books can thrive in public space. It was framed as a survey of programs like Little Free Library, Occupy Wall Street Library, The Neighborhood Story Project in New Orleans, etc. Recently uncovering this buried paper, I have been thinking about my tendency to romanticize the book as an object — or as living being(s) for that matter. Do we not form relationships with books? One curious thing about the paper is that I did not include any examples of public artists’ book collections or related programs though I was beginning to self-identify as a book artist. This is not to say such programs did not exist at the time, though I was unaware of those that did, but it seemed reasonable that most artists’ books live behind glass and/or locked doors within private and/or Special Collections. 

    Artists’ books should absolutely be protected, and I am so glad that major institutions collect them, make the books accessible to those who request to handle them, and financially support book artists. (I am now graciously employed by one of these institutions.) However, there’s the romantic in me who wants everyone to be able to stumble upon artists’ books unexpectedly, to revel in the tactile, emotional, and intellectual experiences within their potential. I suppose this explains my deep love for democratic multiples, zines and DIY book fairs in tandem with fine bookbinding and artistry.

    Five years after writing that paper, I find myself luckily working with a team of local artists, nonprofit experts, and librarians to help found an openly accessible artists’ book collection in New Orleans, Louisiana. I live in a complex city with a historically robust literary and visual arts community and strong grassroots organizations that work to improve education and advocacy for diverse communities. All these variables have been at work in the formation of ABC@PM, or the Artist Book Collection at Paper Machine, a new print studio and workshop space in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. 

    ABC was the brainchild of Yuka Petz, a book artist and educator who serves on the board of a local nonprofit arts organization that does amazing work supporting interdisciplinary artists bending towards social justice and community organizing. ABC’s growing collection of approximately 100 artists’ books was made possible through nonprofit sponsorship and generous donations of artists who love the idea of their work made accessible within a public teaching collection. 

    There are no glass cases at ABC@PM — the books are organized upon shelves on the second floor of the building, open to browsing by all who enter. We are taking great care to thoughtfully catalog the collection, and we trust that our patrons will treat it with respect. (Book cradles and hand wipes are readily available!) ABC@PM hosted its opening reception on May 19th. It is an all volunteer-run budding thing and won’t progress without challenges and occasional hiccups, I am sure, but I am so excited to watch it grow, educate and thrill community members who are unfamiliar with artists’ books.

     Assuming those reading this are book art professionals of some sort, I wonder how you would feel about having your own work in an open, public teaching collection? What concerns would you have? 

    Additionally, I would love to hear more about programs with similar operations. I wonder if many of the “Centers for the Book” around the U.S. have exposed, public book art libraries?  If so, how does the place you live in and its community shape the collection? 


    Sara White is a book artist based in New Orleans, LA. She works as a project assistant in Special Collections & Archives at Loyola University and is a cataloger and founding member of ABC@PM. Her artist’s book Riverine won the 2016 Holle Award for Book Arts. Sara earned an MFA at The University of Alabama in 2016. 

  • 15 May 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    “There is an inherent pleasure in making. We might call this joie de faire… to indicate that there is something important, even urgent, to be said about the sheer enjoyment of making something exist that didn’t exist before, or using one’s on agency, dexterity, feelings and judgment to mold, form, touch, hold and craft physical materials….” (Dissanayake, 1995)

    All photobooks require an active reader who is to make, break, and remake connections between images, text, design, and knowledge. What I am interested in here is how this is exaggerated and extended in a particular style of photobook that has become increasingly popular since the turn of the century. These books and their popularity as well as critical reception are able to tell us something about the broader popularity of photobooks in the post-digital. They demonstrate what we might call a “reader as maker” approach to photobooks.

    While there are a great many books that fall into this category, we will look at two high profile publications that each, in their own way, employ the reader-as-maker: Anouk Kruithof’s A Head with Wings and Christina de Middel’s Afronauts. They offer useful examples for their embodiment of key characteristics of the reader-as-maker and for their critical acclaim and public reception—these are not isolated and unpopular works.

    Kruithof’s A Head with Wings emphasizes the mechanical nature of reader-as-maker. Pages are filled with folded images and pieces of text to corporeally handle, open, outstretch, and refold. In this process the reader is connected not only to the conceptual production of the book but also its relationship to craft and physical production. We might say this is a mere expansion on the everyday act of turning the page but the folding and unfolding presented here is non-linear, sporadic, and revelatory in ways that the regular relationship between verso and recto cannot replicate. In speaking about a previous installation, Kruithof describes her approach as “analogue interactivity” (Moakley and Kruithof, 2012) alluding to the active participation of the viewer with the artwork. This term could well be similarly applied to A Head With Wings; it requires an active and analogue participation of those who engage with it.

    The Afronauts could act as a mascot or exemplar of the photobook in the period of my research (2000-15) due not only to the physicality of the object but also its position as figurehead of “independent” or self-publishing. The Afronauts embraces a craft aesthetic from its exterior beginnings—printing on recycled card stock and featuring a large rubber band to keep the book closed. It taps into the warmth of material spoken of by Jean Baudrillard (2005, 38) and the “honesty” articulated by Richard Sennett (2009, 136-7). It embraces its low-fi credentials. When we enter into the book we are presented with a process and production oriented perspective. The page is ever changing from a rustic paper stock to a lighter variety with slight sheen to translucent sheets of graph paper, typewriter stock, and newspaper cuttings. Even the binding presents itself to the reader and brings to the fore the act of production.

    These books satisfy one of our post-digital desires: to make and to connect with the physicality of creation. This might be received through the purchase of objects that bear their manufacturing provenance on their sleeve or it might be in allowing us to “make” a book. It might seem a stretch to speak so much of the handling of the book-as-object but it is only an extension to the mental amalgamation of images, spaces, and texts to create narratives and experiences. Both a tactic of engagement and a symptom of the post-digital context in which the photobook resides, it is as if the analogue interactivity of the photobook is seeking to justify the medium’s physical existence in the face of the utilitarianism, ubiquity, and convenience of digital (a sentiment echoed in the review of A Head With Wings in which it is noted that the book is “a great example of what electronic photobooks could never hope to achieve” (Colberg, 2011)).

    Strangely, aside from a reactive approach to post-digitality that some of these works exhibit, they also prosper amidst digital networks of makers and readers and furthermore are constructed in such a way that they share a number of similarities with the web. To elaborate: books like those seen above (Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood is another example) offer a cognitive experience closer to that of navigating web pages and their content than the linearity and formal structure of a photobook which “progresses” in the manner of a novel. Redheaded Peckerwood demands of the reader-as-maker a navigation across mediums (photography, text, object-photographs) which are brought together in the space of the photobook in the same manner as a web page is merely the space in which different elements (text, images, video, etc.) are similarly presented to us. It is the job of the reader to investigate (literally so in this example) and contextualize information in hyper textual fashion.

    Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Radical Thinkers 3. London ; New York: Verso, 2005.

    “Conscientious | Review: A Head With Wings by Anouk Kruithof.” Accessed April 16, 2018.

    Dissanayake, Ellen. “THE PLEASURE AND MEANING OF MAKING.” American Craft 55(2): 40-45. Accessed April 16, 2018.

    Moakley, Paul, and Anouk Kruithof. “Analog Interactivity and the Photography of Anouk Kruithof.” Time, 2012.

    Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

    Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.

  • 01 May 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    I have been thinking a great deal about taxonomies, histories and spectrums of the photobook for the last four years — an activity that is essential as part of my PhD investigation into “Connections, made and missed, digital and other, between the contemporary photobook and its reader.” This is in order to define a scope for the research and acts as the pivotal point of a proposal for a new framework of photobook theory. This interrogation of terms, characteristics and exemplars must have real applicability or ‘wield-ability’ for myself and others inside and outside academia.

    There are existing proposals for what constitutes a photobook (Sweetman, 187) (Badger and Parr, 7) (Borda, 55), and some thoughtful considerations of how, within these loose definitions, we can better delineate photobooks in reference to specific categories. Jorg Colberg’s “Taxonomy of the Photobook” (2018), Phillip Zimmermann’s “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” (2016) and Doug Spowart’s “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book” (2018) all present to us clear categories and characteristics (ways to assign photobooks) and all operate well in their respective fields and with respective parameters in mind. But I would suggest even combined they don’t quite reach a holistic view of the photobook (though clearly this is not their remit), and, importantly for my research, they locate categorisation and classification in formalist and structuralist approaches to the book.

    Colberg is primarily concerned with narrative structure — how the work progresses and the various elements it employs to tell a story. It is clear and it is surprisingly easy to assign my own works to this system not to mention that is captures a number of current trends in photobook production. Spowart’s spectrum eschews narrative structure for an emphasis on material structure and publishing choices. This is perhaps unsurprising given Spowart’s interest in the artists’ book’s influence on the photobook — he approaches the task of categorisation pragmatically with the book as art object, and book as mass produced object in mind. Zimmermann’s beautifully constructed “Photo-bookwork Graphic-Continuum Chart” goes on to articulate the significance of intention and the issue of mis-representation (2016).

    Spowart’s interest in the pragmatics of publishing and Zimmermann’s hint at purpose are most interesting to me because building a workable framework for photobook critique is not an archival pursuit but one that seeks to question the photobook and ultimately increase its efficacy. Intention is what offered me a starting point for a new way of considering the photobook, and I began with the interactions of photograph and book. Presented below is my contribution thus far to the discourse. It is a proposal that asks us to think of the purpose of the photograph’s relationship with the book and posits that 4 distinct histories have contributed to the contemporary photobook.

    The Photographic album

a.k.a Family album, Special-interest album

    *Intended for consumption by its own maker and those personally connected

    *Its semi-private life doesn't warrant the same critique of experience and efficacy that the photobook will

    The Photographic book/photobook

    a.k.a Photography book, Book of photography, Photographically illustrated book

    *A book of photographs

    *The photographic book/photobook often appeals to those outside of what we think of  as a photographically inclined audience

    *Often the primary goal of the photography book is to ‘appeal’ and thus sell

    *The photographs have not commonly been made with the intention to be displayed in  a book

    The Artist’s book/photobook

    a.k.a Artist’s photographic book, Photographic artist’s book

    *The work contained in the artist's book/photobook generally falls into two categories

              Desire, the want of the author to express oneself (often abstract, unspecified)

              Curiosity, the personal (author’s) drive to see or explore something

    *Due to the above, the location and experience of the reader is often secondary consideration

    The Photo essay/photobook

    a.k.a Photoessay, Photographically illustrated book

    *The photo essay/photobook is concerned with the world in which its authors and readers are situated

    *These works are not solely personal musings (though they may have personal aspects)

    *The location and experience of the reader is often primary consideration.

    As intent is so key to this proposal it is worth returning to the intent for such a proposal in the first place — if we, as makers, readers and critics have a set of tools which allow for a critique of photobooks in relation to their purpose-lineages then we have tools to shape a more positive, less obsessive and increasingly de-centralised and democratised readership. As is evident, this proposal for a series of lineages for the photobook is in need for refinement and questioning — I hope that this space might be an opportunity for that to happen.


    Badger, Gerry, and Martin Parr. The Photobook: A History Volume I. Book, Whole. London: Phaidon, 2004.

    Border, Sylvia Grace. “The Artist’s Photographic Book: Towards a Definition” in Photography and the Artist’s Book. Edited by Theresa Wilkie, Jonathan Carson and Rosie Miller, 28-61. Book, Section. Edinburgh, UK Museums Etc, 2012.

    Colberg, Jörg. “Towards a Photobook Taxonomy.” Conscientious Photography Magazine. Accessed April 2, 2018.

    Spowart, Doug. “A Spectrum: Photobook to Artists’ Book.” Wotwedid. Accessed April 14, 2018.

    Sweetman, Alex. “Photobookworks: The Critical Realist Tradition.” In Artists’ Books : A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, 187–207. Book, Section. Rochester, NY: The Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985.

    Zimmermann, Philip. “College Book Art Association - PHOTOBOOK TO PHOTO-BOOKWORK, A SPECTRUM” Accessed April 13, 2018.

    Matt Johnston is based in the UK where he leads the Photography BA programme at Coventry University. He is the co-founder and editor of The Photobook Club, a global community of photobook readers and is a PhD student at UCA Farnham where he is part of bookRoom research cluster.

  • 15 Apr 2018 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

    Books are often created to accompany live performances and exhibitions - these often take the form of book art. How does context and knowledge of these performances affect the understanding of these pieces?

    A recent visit to the library by a group of sculpture students had me pull a few books meant to accompany or document performance pieces: Margot Lovejoy’s Labyrinth, Alison Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch, and Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea.* The three books represent three different approaches to the relationship between performance and books which shade the understanding of each piece as a stand-alone object.

    Lovejoy’s Labyrinth recreates an immersive experience. Lovejoy presents a series of spreads with flaps and gatefolds which slow the pace of reading. The book is composed entirely of collaged images, text only appearing on the title and table of contents pages. In the original live installation, Lovejoy had attendees wear masks and follow a rope through a labyrinth to arrive at multiple screens of projected images. Though the book is inspired by and a continuation of the installation by Lovejoy, Labyrinth is able to convey a complete message on its own. The understanding of the book is enhanced by knowledge of a previous event but it is not dependent on that knowledge.

    Margot Lovejoy’s Labyrinth

    Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch presents documentation of a series of events enacted under the umbrella of one piece — eating (and having others eat) a lunch of a cup of soup, a tunafish [sic] sandwich, and a glass of buttermilk. The spreads present receipts, textual documentation, and other correspondence and ephemera related to the enactment of ordering and eating the identical lunch. While knowledge of the performance is required to understand the book, the book itself provides the context for understanding the performance.

    Alison Knowles’ Journal of the Identical Lunch

    Broodthaers, in A Voyage on the North Sea book, presents one-half of a whole piece. Originally created as a film and book duo, the book relies on two images (one painted, one a photograph) of ships, presumably in the North Sea. The book features a repetition of blown-up shots focusing on particular parts of the painting. I cannot present an overview of the film as the collection I work with only has the book. The film and book were meant to be experienced as one and it’s impossible to imagine what this experience or reading of the work would have been without the full piece. And yet, here the book exists, actively being presented without its other half. In this case, the meaning of the book is completely lost without the understanding of the performance.

    Marcel Broodthaers’ A Voyage on the North Sea

    As the students spent time with each piece and began asking questions, I started to doubt my decision to include the Broodthaers book in class. I began to question my responsibilities as a librarian and as an artist — is it irresponsible to share works in a way so far removed from the artists’ original intent, so out of context? Or, as artists do we accept that works continue as living documents beyond our control, themselves enacting a different performativity in reading and reception? Can works which were inspired by or rely on performance and events ever truly stand alone, or should that specific context always be provided?

    * All three books are discussed in Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists' Books but this was coincidental.


    Broodthaers, M. (1974). A Voyage on the North Sea. London: Petersburg Press.

    Doǧu, H. (1992). Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 11(3), 158-159. Retrieved from

    Drucker, J., & Granary Books. (1995). The century of artists' books. New York City: Granary Books.

    Knowles, A. (1971). Journal of the Identical Lunch. San Francisco: Nova Broadcast Press.

    Lovejoy, M. (1991). Labyrinth : A montage book. United States]: M. Lovejoy.

    Andrea Kohashi is a book artist and librarian residing in Richmond, Virginia. She is the Teaching and Learning Librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Special Collections and Archives. Kohashi received her MFA in Book Arts and MA in Library and Information Science from the University of Iowa.

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