I love books – love them. An unhappy childhood led me to find escape in reading, and whole new worlds were opened up to me in their pages. I escaped into story after story, stuffing the empty spaces inside me full of words, identifying with characters that, like me at that time, were a little mousy on the surface but burned with vitality within. In these stories, they were always recognised eventually for what they were – they came good, they became valued. There were alternative lives in these books that made me see how things might – just might – be different and gave me hope for a happier future.
I gorged on non-fiction too, and it has always seemed like a miracle to me that a few black marks on a white page can pass on to me all the knowledge and experience that someone else has spent years acquiring. I love nothing better than to learn, and with access to books I could learn about anything I wanted. When I found out at the age of six that I could be issued with a library ticket and take books away to read for free, I simply couldn’t believe my luck. Books held such promise and an unread book was something to be anticipated and savoured – it still is.
I also get huge pleasure from the physicality of books. The feel of them in the hand, the weight, the heft, and the paper – whether it be the crinkly, almost transparent paper of old bibles and dictionaries, the thick, card-like paper in a book of poetry, or the slick, glossy sheets of an art book. And the smell of them……the wonderful smell of a brand new book, with its smooth edges and untouched possibilities, or the rich, musty smells of old books and the people who have handled them. What lives have they touched before they got to me?
Despite the fact I love them so much, I’d never tried photographing books. I think perhaps I lacked the imagination to see how I could make something visually interesting of them. Then, while browsing in a Whitstable bookshop, I came across a volume of Abelardo Morell’s wonderful photography. This was itself a very large book, projecting out over the shelf edge, and it was called appropriately enough ‘A Book of Books’. AM (as I shall refer to him from now on) uses photography to bring out both the aspects that delight me about books – their physicality, and their potential to transport you to other times and places. He has been kind enough to allow me to use some of his images here.
This one is a book of proverbs produced for the blind. Apart from the visual interest of the raised lettering with its shadows, what draws me to this image is the band of sunlight falling across the page. Ironically, this book was created for those who will never be able to see this sunlight; you wonder if they can feel the extra warmth on the page as they move their fingers across it.
Have you ever dropped your book in the bath and then, once it dried out, been left with stiff, corrugated pages? This image makes you wonder what happened here; how did this book get so wet, so damaged? At the same time, you can’t help but admire the wonderful shapes that the distorted pages create.
AM also does a good line in juxtaposing pages and books together. This is one of my favourites, the telescope in one book studying the stars in the other.
By photographing pages of an open book from a particular angle, and using a shallow depth of field, AM manages to visually create the feeling of being lost in the interior world of the book. In this one, you feel as if you’re there, riding through the streets of Pompeii. This image manages to bring together the physical book with the felt experience of its contents.
In a similar vein, he has also done a whole series of images on Alice in Wonderland, which merges together the insides and outsides of books, and cut-outs of Tenniel’s illustrations of the characters, in a surreal and totally entrancing way. This is one of my favourites, with the White Rabbit peering down a perfectly circular hole that promises to lead us right into the heart of the story.
In the following photo, a face peers upwards just inside the pages of the book. It’s almost as if the characters are alive in there, waiting for us to go in and join them.
Some of this work also seems to imply that books both transmit and distort the truth of things. In this more recent work, a self-portrait of Van Gogh over two pages disappears into the curving of the pages and the binding of the book. Things in books appear to represent reality, but inevitably must end up distorted to some extent by the medium itself.
Finally, the light reflecting off this plate of Breughel’s Tower of Babel gives it a transcendent glow that makes it come alive with meaning.
Abelardo Morell’s work is by no means limited to books and I love it all; he’s got to be one of my all-time favourite photographers and I feel lucky I discovered him on that day spent browsing in the bookshops of a small seaside town. If books are not your thing, or even if they are, please go and have a good look round at the wonderful photography on his website; I think you’ll be glad you did. His other work includes a similar approach to money and maps, a series on people and museums, photograms, a large body of work using the camera obscura, and even a series of photos taken with a tent camera. All of it’s interesting, and it’s well worth spending some time there.