Doug Spowart, the 2014 Siganto Foundation Research Fellow has written this post to outline his experience as a recipient of a Siganto Foundation Fellowship. Doug’s enthusiasm for photography and artists’ books is evident and we encourage you to join us at the Siganto Artists’ book Seminar in June.
A PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: Looking for photos in the Australian Library of Art
As the inaugural Siganto Artists’ Book Research Fellow I have had an opportunity to access State Library of Queensland’s resources including the significant artists’ book collection held in the Australian Library of Art. During the Fellowship I have engaged in specific research related to my proposal and in doing so it has enabled the creation of a much-needed critique on photography and the artists’ book. It has enhanced my understanding of the photography and artists’ book creative products and has placed me in a position of knowledge of these disciplines, the nature of these creative works, their collection and description.
In this research my particular interest is in the intersection of photography and the artists’ book. Over a four-month period from October to January in 2014-15 I worked in the Neil Roberts Research Lounge and in the Repository at SLQ. During this time I engaged in a variety of activities that related to my proposed research activities. These included:
- A review of artists’ books in the Australian Library of Art collection looking for the presence of photography.
- Creating and using a spreadsheet in which the review was logged.
- Documentation of books containing photography.
- Selected books were considered for critical evaluation.
I was also interested in books that have emerged as being significant in the newly documented history of the photobook and also ALA’s acquisition of contemporary photobooks. I found in the library’s reference collection many key seminal photobooks like Robert Capa’s 1947 Slightly out of focus: the story of a war photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 The decisive moment, and Richard Avedon’s 1976 Portraits. While some of these books are difficult to find, expensive to buy, and have been re-released in modern printings the original book is an important touchstone for those interested in photographic history. The Australian Library of Art collection also revealed surprises with my discovery of a Japanese ‘Provoke era’ book from the 1960s and Broomberg and Chanarin’s ‘Holy Bible’ from 2013 – both books representative of key approaches to the photobook and the use of photographs in creative book publishing.
I attended the library usually 4-5 days per week. After an initial settling-in and establishment of my methodology for work I began near-daily research in the Repository. I usually worked on a 3-hour time limit per session during which I viewed and reviewed as many books as possible. My methodology involved direct contact with the book and an engagement with the physical and the metaphysical. I held each book, I turned each page, I read each word (where text existed), I made my assessment and logged the results of the appraisal on my spreadsheet and photographically documented the book. It was a slow and intense process that has resulted in a significant resource which has the possibility to reveal interesting facts about the photo in the artists’ book.
An integral aspect of the review process was the haptic experience of encountering the book, opening its enclosure, clamshell or paper wrap, and sensing the book’s activation by this act. I found that these books were entities to themselves, containers for sharing the artist’s vision, idea or narrative. Some perhaps were being read for the first time in a while. And in the quietness of the Repository the books revealed themselves to me… At the end of each 3-hour session I was quite exhausted. Although the ALA staff were always interested to hear my report of the favourite ‘book of the day’.
What intrigued me was the diversity of the media and the message that artists place in the creative vessel of the artists’ book. I found myself seduced as much by books of abstract, textural or other non-photo print forms as I was with books with photographs in them.
Working through the library’s catalogue I often found myself looking up obscure books, different editions of books, photographers, topics and references allied to my research interests. I would request these items and they would be delivered to me. I would stack and categorise these books relating to different research interests. Subsequently, as my desk grew with more and more books, I requested a printout of my personal loans. The librarian assisting me looked surprised as the printer spat out around 50 items. One of my life follies is collecting books and there came a time when this personal library-in-the-library would need to be returned, as I was to exceed my loan limit.
During my Fellowship I was able to develop and complete a significant paper outlining a way of categorising the presence of the photograph in the creative book production genres of artists’ books and photobooks. Entitled, A Photo Spectrum: Book genres and photography, it encompasses the limited edition livre d’artiste through artists’ books, zines, self-published photobooks, designer photobooks and limited edition deluxe photobooks. This paper is presently being held by an American publisher to be included in a book on the contemporary photobook. I intend to discuss this outcome in the seminar. Another paper about contemporary photobooks written during the Fellowship entitled, Everyone a publisher, was published in the recent special issue on artists’ books in the State Library of Victoria’s La Trobe Journal. I also coordinated and chaired a forum on The OTHER Photobook – Artists’ books and Zines at the Photobook Melbourne event in February, and in May I will be speaking on Encountering a photobook at the Talking Culture Symposium of the Auckland Photo Festival. The Siganto Fellowship assisted in providing me with time and a place where my activities could be dedicated in the pursuance of my research.
As a result of the Fellowship I am working on projects that include a presentation to SLQ of a strategy for the continuing purchase and collection of contemporary photobooks in the Australian Library of Art. Still in development is the preparation and design of a book of selected works from the Australian Library of Art collection that were fundamental to my research thesis on the photo in the book.
At the Siganto Artists’ Book Seminar I will present a paper outlining the curious and interesting aspects of my ALA review including amazing books that need to be seen, held, and pages turned so that they can share the maker’s communiqué, and stimulate the reader to encounter … the photo in the book.
I hope to see you there.
Dr Doug Spowart
2014 Siganto Artists’ Book Research Fellow