April 6, 2008

“All Shook Up” and Surrounded by Books

Looking at “All Shook Up,” the exhibit currently on view at the Boston Athenaeum,  reminds me of two quotations about books.  Alfred Hitchcock, that 20th century master of suspense, once said of a book he was reading, “This paperback is very interesting, but I find it will never replace a hardcover book--it makes a very poor doorstop.”  And Cicero,  in the first century BCE, said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” 

While I wonder what these two very different men in two very different times would say about Kindle and audio books, I know they had one thing in common with each other and with the Athenaeum exhibit:  they were looking at books as physical objects.

This is exactly what Thomas Kellner, a German photographer has done in “All Shook Up.” Kellner generally photographs architectural landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, or Times Square. Here he concentrates on the Athenaeum’s interior spaces, using the presence of books to help define them. His process is unique, producing contact sheets of photographs taken in a precisely determined order that he deconstructs and reconstructs, turns and tilts to show us something familiar that we have not seen before. 

In the Athenaeum group, shelves of books dance in juxtaposition to windows, columns, dark wooden tables, and lacy metal railings. It’s a visual representation of that heady feeling you get in a library or bookstore where the air is filled with the buzz of books and the sense of what is contained in them.  In Kellner’s photographs, the jaunty angles turn the books into advertisements for themselves, enticing us--daring us--to pick just one.

The tilt of the elements and the black contact sheet edges that run through them create images reminiscent of stained glass, something the Athenaeum’s Stanford Calderwood director and librarian Richard Wendorf  finds particularly apt.

“Libraries and museums are almost our secular cathedrals,” he says.  “They are the new important space for individual and community growth.

“In the interior of a very traditional library such as ours, kinetic movement animates the whole collection and has a visual energy that is a way of talking about the intellectual imagination and energy that lies within the books themselves.”

In Kellner’s photographs the books do look filled with energy, each a tiny glimpse--like a single word--forcing us to look at the pieces that make up the whole scene. 

“They  celebrate what’s here and give us different ways of thinking about what is here,” says Wendorf.  They may also offer a look at what might be there in the future for this 200-year-old institution that was one of the country’s first membership libraries.  The Athenaeum also houses a major collection  of visual art, so again there is the sense of books as objects, rather than only as containers of text.   

Wendorf reminds me, in fact, that the word “text” carries intimations of weaving and is related to “textile,” “context,” and “texture.”  In that case, the “All Shook Up” photographs return books to their proper context, weaving them into the chairs, the lamps, and the walls, so we can be surrounded and sheltered by what they have to offer.  


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©2007 Ellen Steinbaum

My photo on the home page is by Peter Urban.
The cover of my book, Afterwords, was designed by Kate Misail.
The painting on the cover of the book, which is also pictured on this page, is by Eric Sealine.

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