Tag Archives: Jerry Uelsmann

Learning about What Has Come Before: Book Art in America

When I was at San Jose State University, some of my favorite classes were art history. I know. Snooze. But I had the gift of three amazing professors who love art history and made me  love it, too.

Dr. Max Grossman’s enthusiasm for art history was a defining moment for me. What seemed dry and drudgery became interesting, even compelling. In his Medieval to Renaissance class, Dr. Grossman talked about the art and artists as if he had been there. His knowledge of the backstories of great works of art made them come alive and had a lasting effect. Now at museums I recognize work we talked about, I understand its place in the history of art, and its significance to work that followed. I’ve become a better consumer of art because I’m more educated.

Dr. Dore Bowen‘s class Contemporary Art: The Thing sounds like a good name for a horror flick. Instead it was a thought-provoking journey through the art world from Duchamp’s Fountain to Jeff Koon’s Puppy and far beyond. And, while I didn’t always like the art (or even agree that it is art), I did learn to really think. Not just about the visual impact, but also about the intent of the artist, the social and cultural context when the art was made, and the influence of that art on all that follows. This class also led to two of my artists’ books, Rocks and You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.

Brian Taylor‘s History of Photography changed everything for me. I’ve loved photography since I was a little girl (I have the “heads cut off” photos to prove it) but, until this class, I had no idea about the incredible artistic range of this medium I thought I was good at.  As I learned about Anna Atkins, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham,  Jerry Uelsmann, Alexander Rodchenko and too many others to name here, I realized that I knew nothing about photography and that I need to begin again. This class also led to new work including The Heaven Project and Ode to Anna Atkins.

Why have I spent four paragraphs reminiscing about art history classes? This rather long-winded introduction leads me to my current foray into art history, reading No Longer Innocent: Book Art In America 1960-1980 by Betty Bright. I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some time but I’d never actually opened it. One day I realized how much I was missing the reading and discussions from school and decided that this book would be a good start. I know a lot now about the histories of painting, sculpture, photography, but what do I really know about the history of my own media, book arts? So here goes, a self-directed art history class about book arts. I suspect, as the above mentioned classes changed how I view and make art, this book will also have an impact. I invite you to read along with me and join the discussion.



Why Artists’ Books if You’re a Photographer?

I am often asked the question, “Why books? Aren’t you a photographer?”

First I explain what an artists’ book is and then I begin to list why I chose to make them: the intimacy of holding a book, the way I can design the pacing, order and interaction with my images in a way that display on a wall can’t be achieved. I’ve always had a ready list, but the answer came to me most clearly and succinctly when I recently saw this Sunset Magazine cover that had my photo on it. Oh, not really my photo, but a near twin to one I’d taken. The photo, taken in a meadow in Lassen Volcanic National Park, is just one of many that I’ve taken that look pretty darned similar to photos I’ve seen in advertisements and magazines. I love to photograph outdoors  and so do many, many other photographers.

My Photo:

Sunset Magazine Cover:

I realized at that moment exactly WHY I choose to make artists’ books. I can take photos, great photos, and so can a lot of photographers. But only I can combine photographs, words, a chosen book structure and raw materials to create a particular artists’ book. No other artist will create that same pairing and that makes my work unique to me in a way that I’m not sure a straight photograph can anymore.

I think photographers are exploring this dilemma, largely created by the near universal presence of high quality digital cameras,  in many ways – the return to popularity of large format, toy and specialty cameras; the use of alternative processes, composite photography and staged photography; and the medium of artists’ books.

In fact, I think this is the difference between photographers and artists who use photography. Many of my favorite artists are good examples of this:  Brian Taylor combines alternative processes with beautiful framed book formats; Jerry Uelsmann is a master of composite photography – all done in the darkroom; Andy Goldsworthy’s photography serves to document his ephemeral artwork; and  David Maisel’s photography documents “the complex relationship between natural systerms and human intervention.”

Are you a photographer? An artist? Why do you make artists’ books?