Books by Artists / by Graham Dew

Art book and photo books have been occupying my thoughts a fair bit over the past few weeks. The Guardian this weekend had two  interesting articles and a photo gallery which seems based in large part on some of material from the Guardian Photobook Masterclass that I attended back in February. One of the small galleries in Winchester has just staged a small (but perfectly formed) exhibition of artists’ books, and I’m waiting for a Blurb book that I created from a small body of work created this Easter.

For the viewer or reader, there are few art forms that are as tactile as a book. For many forms of visual art you are encouraged to stand back, walk around and appreciate, but please do not touch. Sculptures may be made of durable materials such as rock or metal, but plinths pedestals and barriers exalt us to keep our hands to ourselves. Paintings, tapestries, photos are mounted on the wall, often behind glass to keep away sticky fingers. We understand and accept this because the work is unique, crafted and often delicate.

Books in contrast are designed to be touched, held, turned.  A book is intimate, and a well-crafted book is a pleasure to handle and to own. Oftentimes, and particularly with photography, it is the book that is the artwork, the finished article. Frank’s The Americans and Klein’s Life Is Good & Good for You in New York were first and foremost books and not gallery shows. Indeed, Christina de Middel is nominated for this year’s Deutsche Börse Prize on account of her book The Afronauts as was Rinko Kawauchi  in 2012 for Illuminance. One of the joys of the Afronauts was the feel of the book. From the stiff, buff cardboard covers, the matte paper, and the onion-skin diagrams and ‘handwritten’ letters interleaved between the photos, the book informed through the fingertips as much as by eye.

The Afronauts by Christina De Middel

For these reasons it was a pleasure to take in a small exhibition Books by Artists at the City Space, a small gallery that is part of Winchester’s Discovery Centre. This is a wonderful display of just some of the handmade artists’ books from the Artists’ Books Collection belonging to the University of Southampton, and housed at the Winchester School of Art. There are concertina books, hand-sewn books, pop-up construction, books with heavy wooden covers, photobooks and amazing feats of paper engineering. All of them were delightful and inspirational. The exhibition of about 50 works was divided up into several sections – fabric and textiles, text based, 3D and sculptural approaches, connections with the land or locale and so on. Most of the books presented were handmade one-offs or from very small runs, showing a very high level of craft skills. A great deal of imagination had gone into many of the works shown, by artist who were clearly thing ‘out of the book’. By necessity all the books were enclosed in glass cabinets. However, for an exhibition intended to inspire it did seem rather unnecessary though to deny the taking photographs as an aide memoire.

One of my very favourite services to come out of the digital age is the advent of the online book publishing services such as Blurb. With little effort one can create very attractive very short run books, something I’ve done several times myself. The results do vary, but in general it is a good way to create finish off a photo project. Now, after seeing the Artists Books exhibition I’m left wondering how I can create something that it a little more unique, a little more tactile and a little more special than a Blurb book.

The Books by Artists show has now closed, but for those that were unable to visit, the WSA Artists’ Book Collection is supported by some useful online resources about artists’ books. A nice booklet describing the WSA Library’s Artists’ Books Collection accompanied the exhibition, which can be downloaded as a PDF.