Amongst the earliest experiments in photography Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced a series of photo engravings—images in relief on glass and metal coated with an asphalt-like substance known as Bitumen of Judea. Niépce exposed traditional printed engravings, oiled to enhance their transparency, onto this light sensitive surface and produced the first transformations of existing works of art into photo-based reproductions.
A century and a quarter later, in a world saturated with photographic images, André Malraux published Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale (it later appeared in English as Museum Without Walls). An array of photographic reproductions of works of art from across centuries and continents, reduced to a portable collection unified in scale and (tonal) value. Malraux’s concept was important in suggesting a shift in attention for the art viewing public from the site of the museum—based on the presence of unique works, to the book—a standardized format that underscored, somewhat paradoxically, the absence of those works.
The painter Chuck Close, in referring to the physicality of his medium, recently stated “I always thought the history of art should be called the history of slides”.
I relish looking at art—in the studio, in galleries and museums, on the street, online, and perhaps most often in books. Images register—isolated, in sequence, framed, fragmented, merging, and overlapping—continually reshuffled by design and desire, circumstance and happenstance, moment and memory. Shifting contexts and reinterpretations open up to new possibilities.
I often begin my day by looking at art in books. Several months ago when Polaroid announced the end of production of its instant films (another harbinger of the passing of the era of chemical photography) I turned my Polaroid camera towards some of what I look at in the mornings. In this case a selection of published portraits in the context of the history of art.