A Ghost Story: Photographs

A Ghost Story: Photographs
Bret Curry
2021
A24 Films
Temper Books

8 × 11.5 in. closed
136 pages
Smythe-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cover
Edition of 500

A Ghost Story: Photographs, front cover. A line drawing of a sheet ghost is foil-stamped on black bookcloth with silver glitter.

We expect ghost stories to scare us. Whether they’re shared on screen or around a campfire, we expect our surroundings to be dark, making the eeriness even creepier. Ghost stories should leave us looking over our shoulder, keeping all the lights on. But not this one. Curry presents a passive, spectating ghost that is the embodiment of the memory of a past life and relationship. As readers, we are invited to reflect on what ghostly memories are following us, and what role we have as spectators.

A Ghost Story: Photographs is a photobook that represents and documents the 2017 feature film A Ghost Story. In it, we get photographs of the set, crew and their equipment, cast both in and out of character, and stills from actual scenes, most of which are close-up or medium shots. The book can stand alone, but reading a short synopsis of the film provides helpful context to the characters. This tangible version of the film is heavy even for its coffee table size, but is relatively short. There is plenty of whitespace to show off the thick, semi-gloss paper. Interspersed are black pages with short quotations from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House. The only other text, besides a short introduction by the film’s director David Lowery, is a few single-page excerpts from the screenplay. The layouts vary, with one or two images per spread; some include a full page of whitespace and others feature images that reach over the gutter onto the second page.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a black and white photo of a man playing dead on the floor, wearing a T-shirt printed with the book's cover image.

Although the black cover is reminiscent of the darkness with which we surround ourselves to make ghost stories scarier, the playful cover image of a sheet ghost by Casey Affleck, who plays the ghost, and the glitter in the bookcloth hint at the tone of the book. Instead of jump scares and a violent backstory, this book reveals as its ghost a past companion that looks in on our protagonist with longing and love. I opened this book expecting a single ghost story. But the further I read, the more I felt myself to be the ghost, invisibly observing the contents of the photographs as if floating through the house myself alongside the protagonist’s deceased husband. Like the viewer, he watches the protagonist without being able to interact with her.

The calm domesticity of these images recalls the opening scenes of many haunted house movies, where the family (or, in this case, a single woman) moves into a perfectly lovely house and everything is going well until it isn’t. But Bret Curry’s photographs stay softly lit, devoid of the shadowy fears we expect from the genre. Even in the darker black-and-white images, the shadows serve more to enhance the lighted subjects. The domesticity of the images is further enhanced by Curry’s use of closeups; the intimate framing puts us right in the house with our protagonist. We become ghosts who watch her. A great haunting movie typically makes me dread all the unexplained sounds in my house, turning them into ghosts and ghouls creeping around the corner. Instead, after reading this book, the ghosts I see in my apartment are the memories I’ve made here. This book is no horror story, after all, but a romance between a ghost and his widow.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a warm-toned close-up photograph of a couple cuddling.

This one-sided relationship between the ghost and the protagonist is as painful as unrequited love, as the ghost is literally invisible to the person he desires. Still, his presence in the house is light and playful. In a typical ghost story, it is often guilt, greed, and abuse that haunt a home, but this ghost is the memory of a loving, gentle husband, a manifestation of a memory wrapped up in the sheets of the former marital bed.

The ghost itself is both serious and silly. The tone of the photographs — depicting closeups of abandoned objects and unsmiling subjects — is often serious. But the somewhat-cartoonish ghost is a fully-grown adult under a sheet with eye holes, much like the Peanuts characters out for Halloween. The death of the character is tragic, as are his forced passivity and disconnection as a ghost, but we can also see him as a person in costume, particularly when we see the film crew adjusting his sheet or otherwise interacting with the actor. Throughout the book, scenes from the movie are interrupted by scenes from its production, where equipment and crew members remind us that what we are seeing is staged.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso and recto show horizontal photographs of broken furniture and demolition detritus in a derelict indoor space, with ample white space above and below.

These crew members haunt the house more as poltergeists than as passive sheet ghosts. The film’s characters are fully unaware of these watchers, but they actually have control over the situation, manipulating not only their equipment, but the characters themselves. We sometimes see the crew, but more often see evidence of their presence: their equipment set up to better see and document the characters they control. The crew members’ invisibility then comes from their control over the situation instead of adding to their powerlessness. Like the sheet ghost, the crew is both serious and silly. The high value of their equipment and the detailed nature of the setup is juxtaposed against someone playing dead in a T-shirt printed with the cover drawing.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a photo taken through a doorway of two crew members adjusting the sheet on a sheet ghost.

As readers, we have only a small bit of control over our experience. We can flip back to various points in the book and decide how long to spend on each spread, but Curry dictates the book’s sequence — and its contents. In fact, we don’t even get page numbers to better orient ourselves within the book, and instead float through the pages almost timelessly.

What we are left with at the end of the book is a glimpse into production as well as a produced work of art in itself. After spending time between these pages, I cannot help but think of the memories in my life that have become ghosts following me around in my apartment, and whose houses the memory of me haunts.

Necrology

Necrology
Lawrence Levi
2021
Printed by Conveyor Studio

5 × 7 in. closed
48 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital offset
Edition of 100

Front cover of necrology. The title text is set across the forehead of an older, bespectacled man in a suit. The photo is black and white and framed in a black border. The text is black.

There really isn’t much to say about death. Each metaphor for it feels imprecise; each explanation of its mechanics or significance says too little or too much. Where consciousness ends, so too do art and science or any other way we have of making meaning.

Of course, we can’t stop talking about it anyway. That final experience is perhaps the only one we can truly term “universal,” and the fact none of us among the living can crack the mystery makes it all the more compelling.

Lawrence Levi’s Necrology manages to say a lot about death — and about the variety, beauty, and absurdity of the life that precedes it — by not saying much at all.

The book’s premise is deceptively simple: Levi, an editor at The New York Times as well as a photographer, sequences decades of photographs from that paper’s obituaries, presenting one or two images per page. The pictures themselves are cropped tightly and primarily feature neutral backgrounds and facial expressions, clearly taken for documentary more than sentimental or aesthetic purposes. While they are good photographs, surprisingly if subtly expressive, it is their arrangement rather than their content that makes this an artists’ book.

Necrology inside spread pp. 12-13 with 2 obit photos each on the verso and recto. On the verso are Wallace D. Hayes and Sripati Chandrasekhar; on the recto are Ruth D. Turner and W. Glenn Campbell.

Contextual information for each image consists of its original caption, usually providing only the name of the deceased. The few longer descriptions provoke more questions than they answer: “Walter S. Taylor in 1978, before the accident that crippled him” or “Anthony J. Giacalone, who was said to be in organized crime.”

Nothing further about the subjects is shared until Necrology’s last few pages, allowing (or requiring) the viewer to make their own interpretations regarding meaning and sequencing. The fact that these subjects are all but anonymous, unless the reader happens to recognize a name or two among them, incites a desire to study them more closely.

After spending a bit of time with an image, getting lost in the little idiosyncrasies of a given face, I come to feel as if I know the subject. At first, this sentiment is sweet, a bit of connection between the viewer and the rest of humanity.

Necrology inside spread pp. 24-25. Verso has a clipping of Jacques Fauvet's obit photo; recto has a clipping of Gaetano Badalamenti's obit photo.

However, the knowledge that all these people are dead and the association of their photographs with death adds a different resonance to the images. Every picture of a model on a gallery wall is motionless, but here Levi correlates the stillness of the medium with the stillness of death. The subject I felt I knew intimately becomes alien, separated by an impenetrable barrier.

This is not to say Necrology is solely a dreary, ruminative work. As the crush of images grows, the reader begins to consider the universality of the human face, the amazing similarity of shape between any one and another. Differences of appearance that play outsize and oppressive roles in the land of the living — ethnicity, gender, visible disability[1] — begin to feel less significant. As the faces themselves become generalized, the viewer begins to differentiate individuals by other means: the shape of a tie knot or hairstyle, the thickness of eyeglass frames. This often has a humorous, softening effect: after my first viewing, I couldn’t remember every face in Necrology, but I clearly recalled the two cowboy hats on display.

Necrology inside spread pp. 18-19. Verso has a clipping of Alonso Pettie's obit photo; recto has a clipping of Robert R. Nathan's obit photo.

The text that fills the last few pages of Necrology, while minimal, opens up additional meanings and methods of grappling with the photographs. A short — usually one sentence — biography is provided for each individual pictured. The biographies and the photographs are not presented in the same sequence, making the viewer put in a bit of work to match a name to a face. This almost game-like quality further emphasizes the book’s subtle humor, highlighting the laughter in many of the faces and the absurdity of many of the facts.

Levi further underscores this humor with some of the biographies themselves: “Alan Dugan was a writer of stinging poems who won the National Book Award twice and worked for several years in a plastic-vagina factory”; “Rodman Rockefeller was a Rockefeller.”

The endnotes also provoke consideration of the potential for a disconnect between a face or other aspects of a person’s appearance and the facts of that person’s life, in ways ranging from amusing to upsetting. Theodore McCarty’s mild, aged appearance is a stark contrast to the hard living and frequent early deaths of the blues and metal musicians who made his Flying V and Les Paul guitar designs into icons. The jovial, grandfatherly man smiling broadly on Necrology’s cover was a French politician who came to associate with that country’s far-right National Front.

Necrology inside spread pp. 44-45: verso and recto both feature short obit texts set in 2 columns.

Sometimes, this effect is reversed: Arthur “Spud” Melin, with his broad smile, tanned face, and comparatively long hair, does look the most likely of all these people to have headed up the company that popularized the Frisbee.

Even taken in isolation from the pictures, the simple biographies say something about the universality of death and the near-infinite variety of life. While all of these people were notable in some way, the breadth of that notability is vast. Some were at the center of sweeping changes, such as the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan or a psychiatrist who worked to end the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Most, however, were a bit more ordinary: poets, cowboys, scientists, gangsters, and priests who in one moment or another did something truly wonderful, terrible, or strange.

Lawrence Levi does not tell us what death is in Necrology, nor what to do with our brief lives. What he does is give death a face — or more accurately, forty-six faces — to express just a bit of its mystery, its power, and its grim humor. Even to the last page, Levi invites us to play with and explore death rather than dreading or ignoring it, ending with an author photo formatted identically to the obituary images and a poem excerpt from one of Necrology’s subjects:

as if the mouse’s fingers…
could grasp our grasping lives, and in
their drowning movement pull us under too,
into the common death beyond the mousetrap

Alan Dugan, “Funeral Oration for a Mouse”

[1] Because the individuals pictured are selected from a pool a major US newspaper deemed ‘notable’ upon their deaths, many of them some years ago, white men are quite overrepresented. Perhaps an assemblage featuring the many people eulogized in the Times’ ongoing Overlooked project would broaden this universalizing effect.

Escape Book

Escape Book
Stefania Patrikiou
2021

8.25 × 11.5 in. closed
32 pages
Pamphlet stitch
Screen print
Edition of 20

Front cover of Escape Book. The title is printed in the bottom right corner over an inky abstract background in cool colors.

Completed in 2021, Escape Book is a direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The colophon makes a statement to that effect, but the book is otherwise wordless, which allows Patrikiou to reflect on escapism more broadly. The screen-printed book combines photographic images on thick, toned paper with silhouettes of plants on drafting vellum overlays. Patrikiou describes the book as part childhood photo album and part herbarium. The translucent overlays extend the possibilities of the book’s thirty-two pages; the reader can reveal and conceal elements and play with composition and color as they thumb through the book. This active and immersive reading is the propulsion system on this escape vehicle — but the book is more than a distraction. Escape Book, like the pandemic itself, turns our attention to our relationship with nature, our isolation from one another, the importance of travel and migration, and the power of memory and imagination.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: silhouette of plant specimen printed in a bright-green-to-blue gradient on translucent drafting vellum. Recto: a square-cropped photograph of a beach screen-printed black with a coarse halftone.

Patrikiou gives the sense that she is thinking through these issues alongside the reader — and thinking in her preferred medium of screen print. The cover includes expressive drops and smears of ink, and many of the pages retain a registration mark (though the photographic images are printed only in black). Meanwhile the silhouettes of plants luxuriate in electric colors, often more than one in a smooth gradient. Patrikiou is not just re-presenting photos from her collection, but consciously manipulating them through screen patterns, contrast, and scale. The reading experience recapitulates the artist’s process, experimenting with composition and free associating among juxtaposed images. It is also multisensorial; the rattle of the drafting vellum, the softness of the paper, and the smell of ink all help transport the reader.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: a small photograph of swaying palm trees, screen-printed black, set in the lower right corner of an otherwise blank page. Recto: a silhouette of plant specimen printed in a bright-green-to-blue gradient on translucent drafting vellum.

The material and sensorial presence of the book heightens the contrast between the photo album and the herbarium. Where photographs rely on visual representation, the plant specimens in an herbarium are physically present on the pages. In a sort of compromise, the silhouetted plant forms in Escape Book appear to be printed from plants exposed directly on the screen, like a photogram. This tension runs throughout the book. If the photographs are distant, the plants are close. The photographs are past, the plants present. The photographs are representations, the plants reality. As the reader manipulates the vellum overlay, the past is quite literally viewed through the perspective of the present.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso and recto each have a screen-printed black and white snapshot-style photo. Verso: a traffic circle with signs in Arabic and Roman alphabets. Recto: a deadpan image of a nondescript building. Both pages have registration marks in the outside corners.

This effect is especially striking in the absence of people in most of the images. What were likely attempts to preserve the “natural” beauty of a landscape by excluding fellow tourists from the frame now read as eerily depopulated landscapes, reminiscent of early COVID-19 lockdowns. And it is not only the past that we witness through this fog. Patrikiou works out possible futures as she remixes her collection of photos and flora. Vacation snapshots are as much about imagination as memory, about the construction of an idealized escape. Images of palm trees swaying in the breeze evoke a different sort of nature than the plants printed atop them. The urge to travel somewhere exotic and reconnect with nature is, after all, a projection of the alienation that characterizes culture.

Projection also enables the empathy that Escape Book instills, and Patrikiou cultivates it with various visual strategies. Many of the photographs are presented as snapshots, relatively small objects surrounded by white space on the page. In these, the small size and coarse screen pattern obscure details and allow the reader to imagine their own scene — a beach or street or horizon from their own travels. Presented as objects, these images grant an evidentiary (or perhaps souvenir) quality to whatever remembered or imagined scene the reader projects. The silhouetted plants work similarly. The reader knows that a real plant was there but must imagine its color and scent. At the same time, the vibrant colors no doubt influence the reader’s ruminations. Escape Book is far from a blank slate, and Patrikiou’s own feelings of isolation and disorientation come through clearly.

Escape Book, inside spread. Verso: a point-of-view shot where the photographer walks a dog on a leash. Recto: A railroad track receding into the distance. A vellum overlay obscures the verso. The overlay has a plan silhouette printed in a gold-to-pink gradient.

An entirely different form of projection operates in images that occupy the full page (or in one case, the full spread). These place the reader into the role of the photographer, using one-point linear perspective to exaggerate the effect. In this vein, a sequence of three photographs seems to explore themes of mobility and agency. In each image, the reader (in the place of the photographer) is on a path. The first follows a hiker down a wooded slope. The second places the viewer behind a dog, holding its leash. The third shows a train track underfoot, receding into the distance. Patrikiou offers three ways of moving through the world, with more or less freedom to stray from the path and connect with one’s surroundings.

Thus, escape is never entirely possible. Our attitudes toward nature — whether the fantasy of unspoiled nature projected in travel photography, or the myth of mastery through classification behind the herbarium — have already shaped the world into which we might escape. Notably, the enlightenment (and colonial) ideologies that accompany the herbarium and photo album also drive habitat destruction and globalized trade, which make pandemics like COVID-19 more likely. Escape Book enacts this collision between fantasy and reality, between distant, abstract concepts and individual plants and people. Which is not to say that it offers no escape. It is a truly beautiful book that creates a sense of connection between the reader and the artist. Escapism is not delusion or abdication. We can escape from immediate danger to a place where we can see these, and other connections, more clearly.

How to Draw Tornadoes

How to Draw Tornadoes
Michael Darcy
2021

8.5 × 10.75 × 1 in. closed
116 pages
Case-bound, sewn on tapes
Laser printing

Front cover of How to Draw Tornadoes, with a school portrait inset into a full-bleed photo of a tree

“Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent the tree’s inclined.”

Alexander Pope, Epistles to Several Persons

In How to Draw Tornadoes, Michael Darcy explores his early education through the longstanding analogy between the growth of a tree and the development of a child. All puns intended, the memoir is rooted in two incidents from elementary school and then branches out into a reflection on community, diversity, and epistemology. Education, it seems, has not evolved as much as tree science since the time of Alexander Pope. Darcy wonders what education might look like if it reflected how we now know trees flourish — by cooperating and communicating rather than competing. How to Draw Tornadoes adopts these values in form, content, and structure. It demonstrates how artists’ books can produce knowledge that challenges binaries and embraces diverse perspectives and modes of expression. Perhaps Darcy’s progressive vision is a return to an earlier time, before Alexander Pope and the Enlightenment, when John Heywood first warned us not to miss the forest for the trees.

Darcy begins How to Draw Tornadoes by recounting how an elementary school teacher objected to his scribbling and taught him the “correct” way to draw a tornado. This absurd intolerance for individual expression is, ironically, part of a hyper-competitive, individualistic education system where students compete against one another on daily multiplication quizzes. It is against this competitive, intolerant, shame-based pedagogy — in school but also in family and society more broadly — that Darcy poses his alternative. Now free from narrow-minded schoolteachers, Darcy transgresses all manner of boundaries in How to Draw Tornadoes. The case-bound book’s relatively strait-laced cover gives way to colored papers, fold-outs, hidden flaps, die-cuts, collaged elements, and sewn designs. Most notably, tornadoes are scribbled into pages with a sewing machine.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: sewn, scribbled tornadoes cover a photo of a tree (verso) and a collage of cut-out football players doing push-ups (recto)

Alongside his own stories, Darcy borrows from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass and a Radiolab episode about the ways trees cooperate to benefit the forest. The imagery is also largely appropriated. Family photos accompany Darcy’s opening reflections on his childhood while a variety of found photos of trees illustrate the latter half of the book. Other found visuals, from family trees to diagrams of linear perspective, speak to the long entanglement of education, art, and rationalism. Darcy’s tissue of texts embraces multiple authorship, even as his sewn embellishments assert an expressive individuality. Acknowledging the forest does not mean neglecting the tree.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: botanical illustrations and text printed on goldenrod paper (verso) and violet paper (recto) with die-cuts revealing alternate colored paper below

Recognizing the community around the individual means more than crediting collaborators. Darcy paints a stark picture of the white, religious, masculine milieu in which he was raised. In family photos, men tote guns, wave flags, and play football. Perhaps the family trees, Catholic school ephemera, and handwriting guides call for an in-depth psychoanalytical interpretation, but it seems sufficient to note that Darcy’s chosen medium of the sewing machine is itself a rejection of heteropatriarchal gender norms. He also quotes Sabrina Imbler’s article on “botanical sexism,” which explains how USDA guidance to plant only male trees in cities backfired and worsened allergies since there were no females to absorb the excess pollen — literally toxic masculinity.

Darcy leverages the analogy between people and trees to erode boundaries between nature and culture more broadly: human perspective and bumblebee vision, classroom hierarchies versus rhizomatic root systems. Such connections are more than metaphors, they reveal deep structures that shape how we perceive and understand the world. The book itself is biomorphic. Spreads are composed to highlight its bilateral symmetry, and an image of hexagonal honeycombs echoes the book’s coarse halftone screens. Darcy’s wit emerges in these playful visual sequences and juxtapositions, though there is a hint of humor in his otherwise earnest writing. The point is not to correctly decode every reference but rather to see the interconnectedness of things and the value of multiple perspectives. The written narrative drives the reader forward in a linear manner, but the imagery prompts additional readings in no such order.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: almost life-size pair of hands play cats cradle with string that is sewn loosely through the book, pulled tight by the reader's hands

How to Draw Tornadoes doesn’t just tell the reader to embrace diversity and cooperation, it shows the benefits of doing so. The artists’ book is polyvocal, multi-modal, non-linear, and interactive. Its narrative is personal yet relatable, educational but entertaining. It appeals emotionally and intellectually and engages multiple senses and ways of knowing. This flexibility is not because the book is an empty vessel. It is because Darcy understands how the medium fits into the systems he studies. Books can create and communicate — but also limit — knowledge. Darcy harnesses the affordances of the book, but also works against its conventions to convey his message.

How to Draw Tornadoes, inside spread: a full-bleed black and white photo of a forest with sewn roots embellishing the surface

Fittingly, Darcy’s sewing proves especially challenging to the medium. The book’s sewn binding and expressive stitching erase the boundary between structure and content. So too does it abolish the page as a surface; sewing makes marks in and not on the page. The turn of the page no longer conjures a blank slate but highlights the continuity of the thread, integrating the verso and recto. This emphasis on the material presence of the page sharpens the irony of paper printed with photographs of trees. To celebrate the wisdom of forests, How to Draw Tornadoes has had to kill a few trees. Does this discredit the book? If we take Darcy seriously, it shows how deeply nature and culture are entangled, and how indebted we are to those other beings who make our work possible.

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy
Jeremy Bell
2021

11 × 8.5 in. closed
54 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital printing

Cover of Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy

Hogarth’s Copycats: 300 Years of Artistic Piracy is one of three books about William Hogarth by the independent scholar (and musician) Jeremy Bell. The three books, along with their online paratext, form a fluid ecosystem of interconnected and self-referential scholarship. Taken together, the reading experience reflects research in the age of hyperlinks and Wikipedia rabbit holes. As a guide through this material, Bell is impish yet erudite. Along with Bell’s writing style, the design of Hogarth’s Copycats captures this spirit in printed form.

From the outside, Hogarth’s Copycats could be mistaken for a children’s book. It is a slim, horizontal-format paperback with a glossy, full-color cover. The inside overflows with color illustrations on every page, illustrations which quickly reveal that the book is probably not for children. Nor does it fit comfortably in the genre of children’s books for adults, since its form also draws on and subverts other genres: art historical monographs, museum publications, online research, and even Hogarth’s own satirical art.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 14-15, assortment of contemporary political satires based on “A Rake’s Progress”

Bell’s compendium of artworks that reference, rip off, and appropriate Hogarth is organized by project (Marriage A-la-Mode, A Rake’s Progress, and so on). Headlines announce the project or theme, but there is no table of contents or index for the reader to navigate. Hogarth’s Copycats is an immersive tour led by Bell in first and third person. Bell jumps in without an introduction: “Let’s begin with some humorous face-swaps of Hogarth and his dog named ‘Trump.’” This tour guide tone continues throughout the book. On page forty-five Bell writes, “I hope you are enjoying this collation of artwork that has been inspired by William Hogarth.” Stops on the tour reflect the wide-ranging influence of Hogarth on centuries of art, illustration, and satire. Bell covers piracy by Hogarth’s contemporaries (which led to the Engraving Copyright Act of 1734), twentieth-century film adaptations, public service announcements, contemporary art, and more.

Even as Bell samples the breadth of Hogarth-inspired works, his own research interests emerge. Building on his first book, William Hogarth: A Freemason’s Harlot, Bell examines the role of Masonic imagery in Hogarth’s work. Likewise, Bell revels in Hogarth’s low-brow body humor, continuing lines of inquiry from his second book, The Fine Art of Dick Pics and Selfies. Since the references to Hogarth’s originals are explicit in the works Bell discusses, Hogarth’s Copycats is less speculative than A Freemason’s Harlot. It does, however, rely on the same methods — visual analysis and iconography.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 44-45, visual analysis of a Hogarth painting and its pirated print

Bell’s iconographic approach is almost paranoid, revealing secret Masonic symbols and faces hidden in shrubbery. While some assertions are more convincing than others, Hogarth’s work lends itself to such sleuthing. The artist certainly used symbolism and veiled references in his satire, and Masonic themes have been documented in his work. Hogarth’s visual puns and references to other works likely explain much of the appeal for other artists to riff on his work. Bell is hardly an objective observer himself. He celebrates Hogarth’s ability to hide things, from symbols to entire narratives, in plain sight.

Having abandoned neutrality for something more like fandom, Bell presents himself with a humorous, fitting mix of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation. Bell credits himself with new discoveries hidden in Hogarth’s work, but also thanks his research assistants, “Miss Google” and “young Master Wiki.” He also thanks “The Trustees of the British Museum and other sites that allowed downloads of their artwork.” For Bell, original research requires only access to art and attention to detail. Whether this is read as satire of a certain type of connoisseurship, or a defense of close looking in an age of big data, “distant reading,” and digital distractions, art historians should take note.

A similar self-deprecating ambiguity results from the book’s mix of scholarship and crass commercialism. Throughout Hogarth’s Copycats, references to Bell’s other books are delivered like sales pitches as much as scholarly citations — an irreverence that matches that of the copycats he studies. The Chapman Brothers, for example, show a deep understanding of art history, but were criticized for painting directly on works by Goya for their series, Insult to Injury. Hogarth himself blended nuanced political commentary with misogynistic and homophobic tropes and produced grand history paintings alongside bawdy illustrations. He also pilfered from the likes of Albrecht Dürer. Ultimately, Bell’s enthusiasm for many of the contemporary copycats like Cold War Steve and Henry Hudson shows the same reverence for art that led Hogarth to write books about beauty even as he produced grotesque works like The Four Stages of Cruelty.

Hogarth’s Copycats , pages 18-19, “Many forms of ‘the baby drop’”

Bell seems to celebrate the creativity of the uncreative. He also demonstrates that Hogarth’s formulas are endlessly generative, even as politics and aesthetics change over centuries. Bell’s analysis is almost structuralist in its focus on the roles and relationships in Hogarth’s work. The phenomenon of copycats shows that corrupt politicians, sycophants, and hypocrites are a feature of every time and place. Bell highlights this meme-ready modularity but also shows what is lost when copycats (and art historians) miss the details that make Hogarth’s work anything but generic.

In showing that Hogarth still matters today, Bell also shows that the basic tools of art history remain effective. Hogarth’s Copycats has an internet aesthetic in many ways, but at its core it is simply an illustrated art history book full of side-by-side comparisons, details, and diagrams. Bell is well-versed in the life and times of Hogarth, but his own scholarship is primarily a matter of close looking. This method is especially fruitful given Hogarth’s penchant for hidden details and double entendres, but by no means limited to him.

Bell makes art history accessible and entertaining. He even provides intriguing avenues for future research. At the same time, he deploys structural, visual, textual, and paratextual devices to undermine his own methods and message. The book’s self-referentiality and the unreliability of its narration places Hogarth’s Copycats in dialogue with artists’ books as well as the art it discusses. The self-reflexivity of artists’ books often excludes general audiences, but Bell’s humorous handling of the medium will welcome new readers to artists’ books and art history alike.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau
Emmanuelle Waeckerlé
Contributions by Vicky Smith and Michael Hampton
MA Bibliothèque
2021

4.125 × 6.75 in. closed
92 pages
Perfect bound softcover with French flaps
Digital printing

Front cover of A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau; below the title is a close-up photo of a handwritten performance transcript

Emmanuelle Waeckerlé is an interdisciplinary artist who works in sound, performance, and publishing. For over two decades, she has been elaborating the concept of readwalking — the simultaneous practice of reading as walking and walking as reading. The shared essence of these seemingly disparate activities is the embodied, performative inscription and interpretation of space, on and off the page. Waeckerlé’s artists’ books document her performances but also serve as performance scores that encourage readers to become readwalkers. This redefinition of reading alone makes Waeckerlé’s work an important contribution to the field, though readers will also appreciate her ability to revivify literary works, like Thoreau’s essay “Walking” or the erotic novel Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: sparse black words are selected from the grey text of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau exemplifies Waeckerlé’s two-pronged approach to process and product. The publication is primarily a performance score, but also includes a text transcription of one of her own readwalking performances. The reader witnesses her clever engagement with the text, but they are also empowered to try readwalking for themselves. The book also includes two essays that put the project in dialogue with broader currents in art and literature. For all of this, the A Direction Out There is simple and approachable. Its core is the complete text of Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” with most of the words screened back to a light gray. By subtracting from, but not fully redacting, Thoreau’s writing, Waeckerlé creates a poetic text that can be enacted through her readwalking instructions. Four examples of such a performance are features on an accompanying CD, released by Edition Wandelweiser Records.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: performance instructions for readwalkers

The book’s particular mode of redaction is critical — Thoreau’s text is deemphasized but remains visible; a tenuous tissue that connects but also haunts the sparse words Waeckerlé has selected for her new work. An epigraph by Thoreau speaks to the value of subtraction:

“I find it so difficult to dispose of the few facts which to me are significant, that I hesitate to burden my attention with those that are insignificant, which only a divine mind could illustrate.”

It seems Waeckerlé aims to help the reader focus on what is most essential in Thoreau’s essay — a mission the transcendentalist might approve of, though Waeckerlé is more concerned with the material, rather than symbolic, value of his language. The book’s straightforward, minimal presentation contributes to this goal, though the format is actually determined by the publisher, MA Bibliothèque, as part of their series, The Constellations. Waeckerlé encourages readers to follow their own path through the altered landscape of the text, singing, speaking, and “un-speaking” words according to specific parameters. Alternatively, readers with instruments or other noisemakers can respond to punctuation and walking-related words. The instructions are intentionally open-ended (and thus hard to imagine without an example), so the two-page transcription of a readwalking performance by Waeckerlé is a welcome addition to the book. Audio recordings are also available to stream online, which enhance the experience for a first-time readwalker.

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: a typeset transcription of a readwalking performance of Thoreau's essay, "Walking"

Essays by Michael Hampton and Vicky Smith also help the reader without foreclosing other interpretations. Both writers address the persistence of Thoreau’s ghostly text, which exerts its will on the readwalker even as it relies on them for renewed life. (For example, can one really rescue the text’s anticapitalist environmentalism from its imperialist manifest destiny?) Hampton also speaks to the contemporary politics of mobility, of readwalking in a time of Covid-19 travel restrictions and refugee crises. Smith calls on media theorist Craig Dworkin to demonstrate the socially constructed nature of a text, and reads Waeckerlé’s work from a feminist perspective invested in the “speech of blanks and hiatus that Kristeva has identified as the language of the negated.”

A Direction Out There: Readwalking (With) Thoreau, inside spread: Michael Hampton's essay is typeset unconventionally to posit ideas simultaneously

Just as Waeckerlé enlivens Thoreau’s essay and shows how many possible interpretations are available, Hampton and Smith show that A Direction Out There should be seen as a method as much as a finished work. Reading the book is a dynamic process. Thoreau’s elegant writing pulls the reader back into the original essay and Waeckerlé’s own selection can divert the readwalker from their chosen instructions. This is not a failure, but rather the very essence of readwalking. The text is like a trail, something to follow but also to add to, stray from, or otherwise alter. Waeckerlé refers to the book as a “prepared text,” recalling John Cage’s “prepared pianos,” which guided but did not fully determine his performances.

This is ultimately what any artists’ book hopes to do — guide the reader but remain open to interpretation. In theorizing readwalking, Waeckerlé centers the embodied and performative aspects of reading. A Direction Out There reminds us that every book is a performance score, and that reading is always also writing, and that writing, like walking, is an intervention in space, with ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions.

Public Collectors Police Scanner

Public Collectors Police Scanner
Marc Fischer
Public Collectors
2021

8.5 × 11 in. closed
90 pages
Side stitch and fabric tape binding
Risograph and digital printing

Front cover of "Public Collectors Police Scanner" featuring blue title text on a black background. A reproduction of an inside page is printed in gray behind the title.

Proponents of the “thin blue line” assert that the police are the only thing preventing society from descending into violent chaos. A coyote in an alley, a bank robbery, missing children, and reckless driving: chaos abounds in Public Collectors Police Scanner. Chicago artist Marc Fischer comes to a different conclusion, however, about root causes and possible solutions. Fischer’s initiative, Public Collectors, is dedicated to making important but obscure(d) cultural artifacts public. To that end, Fischer listened to and transcribed the police scanner in Chicago for seventy-five days straight and compiled his hand-written notes into this often-overwhelming book.

The bulk of Police Scanner is scanned and Risograph printed directly from Fischer’s original, letter-sized notes. The format served as a creative constraint for each listening session: one page per day for an average of about forty-five minutes. Fischer details his methodology in the book’s introduction, including ethical decisions around excluding race, last names, VIN numbers and other identifying information. The end sheets, photographs of Fischer’s desk, document the chaos of the process itself. The side-stapled, taped binding further lends an air of low-fi urgency. Fischer’s handwriting powerfully attests to the challenge, speeding up and struggling to organize fragments of narrative as they are relayed among callers, dispatchers, and officers.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso is an endsheet with a photo of Fischer's desk during the project. The recto is plain text, the first page of the book's introduction.

Events unfold relentlessly with no regard for conventional storytelling, nearly numbing the reader with uniform intensity, whether funny or tragic. Nevertheless, certain moments do break through the noise. Some are chilling: “Female keeps whispering the address and hanging up.” Others are absurd. A personal favorite of mine: “When you finish with lunch can you head over to the Department of Finance on Pulaski? They’ve got a dispute with an employee over money.” Fischer himself mines the potential for poignant humor in a related publication, Chest Wound to the Chest, which arranges excerpts from Police Scanner into a single long poem. (As a separate pamphlet, this poetic intervention allows Fischer to explore the fascinating rhetorical aspects of the project without departing from his documentary approach in Police Scanner.)

Since the book’s content reflects the vagaries of reality, the only narrative development is the book’s own layout, which conveys Fischer’s growing facility at following and organizing events as they occur. Police Scanner straddles documentation and performance, a choreography of disconnected chance operations that accumulate to reveal structural societal problems. Fischer tries columns, rows, even numbering events as they unfold wherever there is room on the page. On September 15, text funneled into a narrow column chronicles a suicidal man on a ledge. The empty white margins perhaps also indicate the emotional toll those seventeen minutes took on Fischer. On November 2, he writes: “I refuse to listen to the police scanner on my birthday.”

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso has a narrow column of text in the center of the page, describing a suicidal-then-agitated man. The recto is a busy page with boxes, lines and bubbles separating text.

Birthdays aside, Fischer reflects in his introduction that the situation on the streets changes very little from day to day, even with major events like the 2020 election. Ongoing catastrophes, however, like the opioid crisis and Covid-19 pandemic loom in the background of many pages. Teachers witness child abuse during online classes or call for wellness checks on missing students. Fischer reminds the reader that then-mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of Chicago’s mental health clinics in 2012, the impact of which cannot be overstated.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso uses arrows and lines to divide and connect blocks of text. The recto stacks bubbles and boxes of more contained text.

From the relentless repetition, the reader gets the impression that these systemic problems actually reflect the system working as intended. On November 6, police are sent to Home Depot to “see Brian about the day laborers and ask them to move off the property.” The same day, police are told to disregard a call because “it’s just the usual alley drinkers.” Systems like health care and labor markets are ultimately managed by the police. Since calls often come from businesses, this whole process plays out on a strange verbal map of brand names and private property. The resulting juxtapositions are often striking: “Bucket boys in front of Tiffany’s on Michigan.” One realizes just how little public space there is, usually an alley or a street. The gulf between the city’s aspirational street names and the events that play out on them is equally wide: domestic violence on King, a robbery at Jefferson and Madison.

Police Scanner Inside spread. The verso and recto are both full but orderly arrangements of text divided into a loose grid.

Policing itself is, of course, one of the pervasive systems behind each individual event. Its rhetoric reveals its values and assumptions, and ultimately the inadequacy of policing to solve the problems it confronts. “Resources” refer to attack dogs, not to social programs. Victims are characterized as insensitively as perpetrators. Racialized and gendered descriptions are so habitual that a dispatcher alerts police to a “female pit bull” as if that would help identify the dog or explain its behavior. Amid the jargon and acronyms, a dispatcher might throw in a “bon appetit” or “okey dokey artichokee,” reminding the reader of the human subjectivity – for better or worse – behind each voice on the scanner.

In these unguarded moments lies the value of a project like Public Collectors Police Scanner. Fischer bears witness to the system of policing that is ostensibly for, and funded by, ordinary citizens like himself. Everyone shares this responsibility. Fischer is also quick to say that the police scanner doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, not every crisis leads (or should lead) to a 911 call, as police reformers and abolitionists are quick to point out. But it does paint a more complete picture of policing than most citizens receive from news and entertainment media. Fischer encourages his readers to listen to their local police scanner for themselves, and the insights gleaned from Police Scanner demonstrate the value of doing so.

Witness 001

Witness 001
Parker Bolin, Armando Diaz, Zachary Estes, Mmuso Matsapola
Witness Studios
2021

8.5 × 5.5 in. closed
40 pages
Perfect binding
Offset printing

Front cover of Witness 001

The inaugural issue of artists’ publication Witness invites readers to do just that: to not only look at Louisville’s racial justice movement in the summer of 2020, but to experience it more intimately. The photographs, from multiple artists and in a variety of styles, are presented in black and white with minimal commentary, the design around them unobtrusive; the aesthetic is most concerned with allowing the photos to speak for themselves.

Many readers will find the content familiar from newspapers and their own neighborhoods: most of the pieces depict racial justice protests, specifically Louisiville activists’ response to the murder of Breonna Taylor. In Witness, however, the composition and context of these pictures are quite different.

The perspectives tend to be more communal and personal than photographs of similar subject matter in news media: shots are taken from within the crowd of activists rather than an external point of view, or focus on individuals and moments of surprising quiet rather than the broad sweep of a protest or solely its most dramatic events.

Witness 001 inside spread 35-36 with photo by Joshua Jean-Marie

Witness shines in its presentation of the ordinary. The events depicted have national and international repercussions and reflect the response not only to one murder in one city but to the entire history of the United States, yet the focus of the photographs is often refreshingly small: the design on the back of a hoodie, a young person carrying a box of candy bars, the windblown hair of someone whose face is mostly obscured by a mask.

It is not only the contributors’ photographs that separate Witness from much coverage of racial justice protests, but also the aesthetic and informational context in which they are presented. Unlike the editorializing or reportage paired with such photographs in the news or on social media, the text here is simple and unobtrusive: only an attribution for each piece, giving the artist’s name and city. Instead of the crowded layout of newspapers and websites, desperate to capture viewers’ attention, the space around the photographs is left empty in Witness.

Conventional journalism remains important, but there is something to be said for allowing the photographs, and by extension their subjects and creators, to speak for themselves. In images focused on individuals, we see more nuance and detail in facial expression and body language than we’re used to, hinting at each subject’s inner life and their specific, personal reasons for being involved. The same is true of photographs of activists’ signs: while the slogans are familiar, extreme close-ups of handmade signs show the unique penmanship and tiny flaws that make each sign stand out as an individual artwork and tool, reflective of its creator-user.

Witness 001 Inside spread 7-8: Mmuso Matsapola’s poem verso, Zachary Estes photo recto

Beyond the simple captions, Witness sometimes presents poetry. Mmuso Matsapola, one of the publication’s curators, contributes a simultaneously snappy and brutal poem next to a stark portrait of an activist with a raised fist; the publication opens with the second stanza of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Knights of the White Camellia and Deacons of Defense” (itself a reference to a little-talked-about fascinating and inspiring bit of racial justice history).

These poems, though distinct in style and the specific events they depict and draw upon, work together toward the same goal as Witness’ unobtrusive design philosophy: not to provide situational context, but to contextualize and resonate with the emotional impact and deeper meanings of these photographs. They also speak to the journal’s mission and the idea of witness in general: an emphasis on personal, lived experience, serving as a counterpoint to the minimization or total erasure of the self in traditional journalism and academic writing. Rather than the typical outside-looking-in approach, the use of poetry in Witness provides readers a more internal, immediate perspective.

In attempting to convey the entire experience of a movement and a community, the curation oscillates between a variety of emotions and freely allows them to bleed into each other. Many of the pictures have the angry tenor one would expect from a protest: the frenetic energy of a powerful slogan handwritten across a cardboard sign, or a clenched fist raised high, or a leader chanting or singing or shouting, the casual brutality of a cop holding down a protestor while other officers stand by. Some are joyful and exuberant, while others center grief.

Witness 001, inside spread 15-16: with photo by Andrew Cenci

A series of three images toward the middle of the collection makes plain the pain, the tragedy of events leading up to and during the protests: the first a wide shot of Breonna Taylor’s memorial in Jefferson Square Park; the second a detail of a memorial for Tyler Gerth, a photographer killed during the protests; and the third an extreme detail of a balloon or sign emblazoned with the words “you are loved / you are missed / you are remembered.”

The sequence of these pictures feels deliberate: the first two to honor and remember specific people, and the third to acknowledge that this violence and the movement against it are ongoing, and that there are countless others named and unnamed who have died or suffered just as senselessly. Like the poems and many of the other photographs, this image ties Witness specifically to Louisville and simultaneously to the wider world.

Witness 001, inside spread 19-20: Portrait and poem, Brianna’s Black Love Blooms

From this complex, contradictory blend of emotions, a new feeling arose by the end of my encounter with Witness. To call it “positive” or “hopeful” feels insufficient — there is pain in this emotional state, and it certainly isn’t quietly or blandly inspirational. The feeling is perhaps best encapsulated by a series of several pages immediately after the three memorial pictures: contributor Amber Thieneman’s Dedication to Brianna Harlan’s “Black Loves Blooms,” inspired by the ongoing project of the same name.

The act of dedicating several pages to work inspired by and made for another artist in such a short and carefully curated publication emphasizes the interconnectedness of the artistic community and the parallel interconnectedness of the events in Louisville with events in the wider world. That dual connection, coupled with the message of unconditional love for Black people so central to Brianna Harlan’s project, is central to the experience of Witness. While the publication is so focused on Louisville’s deep racism, it is also a love letter to that city — not to its police or its history, but to the network of artists and activists there. In its intense focus on one place and one short span of time, Witness manages to impart something much larger: a blooming, a spreading-out of that complex, nameless sense of love.

This Land is My Land

This Land is My Land
Thad Higa
2021

5.5 × 8.5 in. closed
100 pages and two multi-page foldouts
Coptic binding with uncovered boards
Digital printing

Front cover of This Land is My Land

Thad Higa describes This Land is My Land as “a fictional narrative from the imagined headspace of current day white supremacists.” Artists rarely approach such a project with the required radical empathy, attempting to deepen their understanding of someone with opposing views, no matter how repulsive. The resulting works fall short, with straw men for subjects; narratives with no protagonist with whom the reader can relate. This Land is My Land cleverly avoids this trap, though Higa’s representation of the white nationalist perspective is anything but subtle. The book’s writing, design and structure create an immersive, polyphonic experience more like a collective consciousness than the headspace of a single character. Higa knows he can’t dismantle white nationalism in an artists’ book, but as a poet and graphic designer, he can battle on linguistic and symbolic terrain – a field where white supremacy is active (and inherently visible).

It is in examining the language of white nationalism that Higa achieves the necessary depth and empathy. This Land is My Land is a showcase of the various and complex ways that words and symbols are used to promote white supremacy. The book weaves together all manner of rhetorical devices and strategies, creating an experience familiar to anyone who has read the comments on an online article or listened to attendees at a Trump rally. With this chaotic aesthetic, the book is less a narrative with a beginning, middle and end, and more like a classical symphony with separate movements. The movements address particular themes with distinct visual treatments and correspond to the book’s structure (six signatures and two elaborate foldouts). The exposed spine of the Coptic binding and raw book board covers emphasize the role of the book as more than a mere container.

Animated GIF of all 4 openings of the second interior foldout in "This Land is My Land" - on the theme of freedom

This Land is My Land is designed and printed digitally, but Higa is clearly invested in the tactility of reading.  I have never encountered foldouts quite like the ones in this book, but simple, strategic design elements like color and typeface were enough to guide me through the unfamiliar folds. Higa also plays with visual versus tactile texture, the most obvious example being actual torn pages and facsimile paper tears. Subtler contrasts, such as coated and uncoated papers, add further texture – literal and figurative – to the reading experience.

This tactility is one way Higa demonstrates how language inhabits and informs the physical world. He also manipulates symbols, letters and words in layouts that turn these bits of language into objects and agents interacting in space. In Higa’s hands, words inhabit the real world – cemeteries and supermarkets – and create their own environments from pure typography. They form dense walls of vitriol and elsewhere they dissolve into cyberspace, a ragged trickle of characters. The reality of language cannot be overstated in a book about land and borders, nations and countries. Such constructs are, after all, a matter of definition. And since much of the book’s appropriated imagery is from the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbol Database, the physical impact of the language is easy to feel.

This Land is My Land, inside opening from early in the book. A black and white photo of a neglected cemetery spans the full spread. Red, abstract symbols based on the "othala rune" are centered in the composition, with black and white stars at the top and bottom left

Yet the materiality of language is only one half of This Land is My Land’s examination of white nationalist rhetoric. Higa identifies a dangerous and seemingly contradictory attribute of words and symbols – they are flexible, fluid, fungible. Especially online, white nationalists have harnessed humor, irony and plausible deniability to great effect. The power of these distancing devices is on display in This Land is My Land, whose narrative is disrupted by stark white spreads with one word each: lol, lmao, rofl. These spreads are later echoed by a series of pages spelling out the phrase “I want to break free,” as if the subconscious desire has bubbled up beneath the crust of internet irony.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with torn pages on the verso - the images are full color photos of pavement or gravestones. The recto is a white page with the word "lol" centered, and a right margin edge with a facsimile torn edge, mirroring the verso.

By playing with the gap between the explicit and implicit, conscious and subconscious, This Land is My Land can engage more deeply with the ways white nationalism appeals to individuals. This is not an attempt to empathize, but rather to deconstruct and disentangle intersectional issues. Higa shows how white supremacy corrodes institutions and ideas, from electoral politics and consumer capitalism to masculinity and parenthood. These intersections are easier inroads for the reader than the often-obscure hate symbols, but their familiarity breeds discomfort. Even progressive readers may find themselves reexamining what abstract concepts like ownership, inheritance, freedom and family mean, and how they ought to impact our daily lives.

This Land is My Land, inside opening with a full bleed image of a mass of stacked shopping carts. The photo is tinted red. The top half of the composition is a block of white text on a read background, around the theme of fear.

This Land is My Land doesn’t answer those questions, but Higa does insert his own voice (or at least that of a narrator from beyond the white nationalist headspace) to offer clarity amid the cacophony of soundbites and insults. In fact, this more poetic, reflective voice poses even more questions — and offers a few insults of its own. These interventions reinforce the connections between land, body and language and give the reader a critical perspective to cling to as they navigate the noise. This is especially important for the book’s conclusion, which exits the white nationalist headspace and deconstructs its rhetoric from the outside.

This dialectic from inside and outside the white nationalist perspective is calibrated to keep the reader from simply setting the book down in disgust or skimming through tired old stereotypes. (The engaging foldouts and tactile elements help with this as well.) The result is a fairly long artists’ book that can nevertheless be read in a single sitting – an immersive, cohesive experience in the book form. The work’s duration weighs on the reader, raising the stakes and hinting at life inside a right-wing echo chamber. One doesn’t feel particularly rosy after reading This Land is My Land, but it is empowering to witness an accomplished artist fight white supremacy with their linguistic and symbolic weapons.