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Photography and the Book: A Note on Ralph Gibson’s Ex Libris by Jan Baetens

Figure 1: Ralph Gibson, Ex Libris, pages 44-45 (courtesy Ralph Gibson) Figure 2 : Ralph Gibson, Ex Libris, pages 46-47 (courtesy Ralph Gibson) Figure 3 : Ralph Gibson, Ex Libris, pages 48-49 (courtesy Ralph Gibson) Figure 4 : Ralph Gibson, Ex Libris, pages 50-51 (courtesy Ralph Gibson)

Photography and literature : a particular case of intermediality If one takes a look at the field of literary studies, one may have the impression that the traditional field of comparative literature has no longer the presence and the impact it used to have. Despite the cultural and economic globalization – or perhaps because of that very phenomenon – there is less interest for the comparison of various national literatures and traditions. Often it is ”theory” that has taken the place of what comparative literature used to be, or cultural studies, yet to limit the picture to the sole field of writing and verbal language may also be a little misleading. One of the most striking aspects of contemporary literary scholarship is indeed its fascination with «intermediality studies» (as exemplified for instance by a journal such as the Montreal based Intermédialités/Intermedialities), and it is far from absurd to consider this new subdiscipline a new form of comparative literature, well appropriated to the visual and media turn that have become very important in literature as well since two or three decades. But what is at stake in intermediality studies? At first sight, the scope of the discipline is not very different from what had always been called «interart comparison». However, the differences with this traditional discipline are crucial. Contrary to interart comparison, which was mainly a way of comparing isolated works, authors, and techniques from two different fields, such as literature and painting or literature and music, intermediality studies has a much more radical starting point. It implies indeed that a medium can only be studied in its relationships


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with other media, on the one hand, and that all media are moreover intrinsically intermedial, on the other hand. For literature, this means for instance that, first of all, literature as such does no longer exist since it only exists in a complex network of media with which it has to interact, and, second and most importantly, that literature can no longer be defined as a text that may or may not communicate with other media, but that these other media are themselves part of the very heart of what literature is: the text is also sound and image, it is also materialized in books that can be seen and touched, etc. It is this internal complexity and multilayeredness that intermedial studies try to disclose. For the object and scope of what literary studies represent, the consequences of such an intermedial shaft are dramatic. New objects and new questions arise, such as the relationship between texts and illustrations or between print matter and its material (or digital) container. True, these questions are not new in themselves, but their position has ceased to be peripheral: they represent now the core business of what it means to study literature. In addition, this shifts affects also the status of literature as a cultural practice. Contrary to the classic viewpoint, literature is now no longer the centre of the cultural system. Its role is now occupied by the permanently shifting network relations within this system, and the leading role is now no longer played by literature but by other media. A symptomatic example of this “revolution” (and after all, it is really one) can be seen in the title of the recent book by François Brunet1 on the relationships between literature and photography, in which the order of the words (the book is entitled Photography and Literature, instead of Literature and Photography) exhibits the new power relations within the field. Books within photographs within books… The encounter of photography and the book is a very ancient one, and the example of William Fox Talbot shows that it has been twofold from the early stages of the new medium. It has been argued very convincingly that Talbot invented simultaneously the new medium of photography on paper and the new medium of the photo book. As stressed by scholars such as Hubertus von Amelunxenand François Brunet, one of the subjects of 1

F. Brunet, Photography and Literature, London, Continuum, 2009.


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The Pencil of Nature was precisely the mutual resonance of the verbal and the visual. 2 The world of the book has been selected almost spontaneously by Talbot as setting and prop, like in the famous scenes in – and of – the author’s home library. But the book has emerged no least rapidly as receptacle, with Talbot’s efforts to have his work circulated in book-form. Moreover, Talbot’s example demonstrates also that the coincidence of the medium of photography and the medium of the book involves a third medium, that of language – not language in general, but written language, either in printed or in hand written form (and thanks to the seminal study of Carol Armstrong (1988) we now better know the crucial importance of words in, on, and next to pictures in that era).3 Until today, this multiple-sidedness of the encounter of book and photography has prevailed, and the work by British photographer Ralph Gibson (born 1939) reflects either aspect of it. Several of the books he published in the seventies like The Somnambulist (1971) have proven dramatically influential to those photographers looking to explore the format of the photo-book beyond the traditional circuits of university presses and the exhibition catalogues. The founding editor of his own publishing company, The Lustrum Press, Gibson has been of those who have made room for the rediscovery of the book as photographic venue. Linking the “stream of consciousness” technique to the sequential structure of the book-form, Gibson has had a strong impact on the field of photo-publishing – despite the severity, if not the unusual (and, I think, undeserved) harshness of some recent judgments such as that by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger: The Somnambulist certainly delivers on that promise – taking us through moody landscapes and enigmatic interiors, frequently populated by naked women. The style could not be more representative of its era – Robert Frank meets Bill Brandt - and that potent combination, filtered through Gibson’s personal sensibility, was an obvious reason for the book’s success. […] However Gibson’s dreams emanate from near the surface rather than form the darkest depths of the well of desire, and seem imposed from the outside rather than dredged up from within. The Somnambulist is retro-modernist formalism in a surrealist disguise – Surrealism domesticated – a kind of hip pictorialism. But the problem with this kind of formalism, as opposed to the sort that purports, is that it is timeless, and it is one of the medium’s great paradoxes that “timeless” photography will eventually seem dated.4 2

H. von Amelunxen, Die Aufgehobene Zeit. Die Erfindung der Photographie durch William Henry Fox Talbot, Berlin, Dirk Nishen, 1989; F. Brunet, L’invention de l’idée de photographie, Paris, PUF, 2000. 3 C. Armstrong, Scenes in a Library. Reading the Photograph in the Book, 1843-1875, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1998. 4 M. Parr and G. Badger, G., The Photobook: A History, v. 1, London, Phaidon, p. 259.


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However, the commitment of Gibson to the merger of photography and book cannot be reduced to the use of sequences in book – form which made his fame – and which proved key for preparing the ground for the narrative photo book and perhaps for the success or the return of narrative photography in the last decades of the 20th century. Without Gibson, one may argue, it would have proved much more difficult for artists just as Duane Michals to find their broad readership and for the genre or subgenre of sequential photography to become more than just fashionable. Duane Michals’s combination of staged photography, sequential editing, and frequent use of (handwritten) captions, has clearly benefited from the commitment of artists and publishers such as Gibson, whose devotion to the photo book form as a privileged medium of photographic communication should not be overlooked. Yet Gibson is also the author of other works in which the book is not only the structuring vehicle, but also the very subject of the photographs. These apparently less «personal», less «subjective», less «experimental», probably less «fashionable» creations prove at least as stimulating and as challenging as the «hip» ones – to quote once more Parr and Badger. In all their earnest modesty they are perhaps more appropriate to the exploration of new horizons in the field of book and photography. It is to one of these works, the 2001 Ex Libris, that I would like to devote the following reading.


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Cover stories From the very opening of the work, Gibson establishes a play with the basic tension that makes the book such a wonderful and creative host medium for photography. On the one hand, the book is indeed a medium, i.e. an ordered sequence of pages, and in this regard there is no incompatibility with the traditional view of photography, which is generally thought of in terms of two-dimensional images. Photographic pictures and book pages share this basic formal characteristic and bear therefore a natural family resemblance. Yet on the other hand, the book is also a three-dimensional object that exists independently from any text or image content whatsoever. In this regard, it draws our attention to a forgotten aspect of photographs: the fact that they are not only images, but also “things” or «objects». As Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart put it in their book Photographs Objects Histories : a photograph is a three-dimensional thing, not only a two-dimensional image. As such, photographs exist materially in the world, as chemical deposits on paper, as images mounted on a multitude of different sized, shapes, coloured and decorated cards, as subjects to additions to their surface or as drawing their meanings from presentational forms such as frames and albums. Photographs are both images and physical objects that exist in time and space and thus in social and cultural experience. […] They […] occupy spaces, move into different spaces, following lines of passage and usage that project them through the world […].5

The examples studied by the contributors to Edwards and Hart’s collection prove very clearly that this “objectifying” of the photograph often entangles the book form in and through which it is presented. And historical work performed by scholars such as Martha A. Sandweiss, whose study Print the Legend6 (2002), has revolutionized our way of thinking the relationship between the explicit (the photographic image, the photographic representation) and the implicit (the picture as an object, with its often forgotten, destroyed or otherwise censored materiality). Sandweiss’s work offers supplementary evidence for the usefulness of taking on board these purloined aspects of a picture’s social life. In a very astute manner, Gibson starts foregrounding this duplicity in those spaces of the book where the author 5 6

E. Edwards and J. Hart, (eds.), Photographs Objects Histories, London and New York, Routledge, 2004, p. 1. M. A. Sandweiss, Print the Legend. Photography and the American West, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2002.


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establishes his «contract» with the reader: the paratext. In Gérard Genette’s canonical definition the paratext is a threshold, a «zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public […]». 7 More technically speaking, the paratext entails three major zones: front matter (such as title page, prefaces, blurbs and epigraphs), end matter (notes or postfaces, for instance), and between-matter (chapter titles or illustrations, for example, although Genette pays only little attention to the visual dimensions of the paratext) – at least one prefers of course to distinguish between the paratext that can be seen form the outside (front cover and back cover) and the paratext inside the book (between the covers), a quite crucial distinction from a marketing point of view. The paratext’s source of enunciation is never homogeneous: some paratexts are auctorial (the epigraph for instance), some belong to what Genette calls the publisher’s paratext (such as for instance the colophon), although in many cases the source can be blurred or multiple. In Ex Libris, a book in which it is plausible to suppose that the author’s voice has not been suppressed or superseded at paratextual level by that of the publisher, Gibson uses the possibilities offered by the paratext in two ways, thematically as well as structurally. First, at thematic level, Gibson combines the abstract representation of the book as medium with the concrete representation of the book as object. The front cover of Ex Libris foregrounds the idea of twodimensionality of the book, whereas the back cover emphasizes its three-dimensionality. Besides, this thematization occurs at two specific places that exemplify the ambivalence of the book as material form: the front cover with its image of an opened book (what we see are pages) connotes frontality, two-dimensionality, and thus the book as communicative medium, as “ground” of content, as carrier of visible information, while the back cover with its image of a closed volume (what is shown actually is a pile of anonymous hardbacks) connotes much more the book as an object. The back cover is not just the flip side of the front cover, it reveals instead something that cannot be inferred form it, and one may even say the back cover displays in a virtually haptic way what appears as the hidden dimension of the image and the page: the three-dimensional, almost sculpted aspect of the book as 7

Genette, G. (1987), Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation, trans. J. E. Lewin, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 2; for some specific details on photo books, see J. Baetens, The logic of extraction, «History of Photography», 29-1, 2005, pp. 81-90.


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object. And once we enter the world between the covers of the book, we notice a similar broadening of the theme. What Gibson will be displaying in Ex Libris is not a serious of images of books, nor is it a series of images from books. What he will do goes much beyond these simple forms of representation. For according to Gibson’s pictures the library is not the book; it is not just full of books, it is also full of images, of art, of people, and it points variously to the world, as Ralph Gibson will make clear in very simple yet fluent transitions from the inner universe of the library to the outer side of the word. To put it otherwise: the library is more than the book, but the world is definitely a library. Second, at structural level, Gibson establishes a link between the two major occurrences of the paratext that he has added to the usual publisher’s paratext: the preface and the afterword. This link enables the author to tighten the intertwining of the book as transparent content-carrier (image or text) and the book as an opaque object. In this perspective, the book is no longer the carrier of information provided form elsewhere, it acquires an information value by itself, which is open to interpretation by the reader (of course unless the reader decides to overlook the values of the book as an object, but given the preliminary insistence, at cover level, on this issue, the hypothesis of a distracted reader is here quite implausible). In the opening text of Ex Libris, Gibson opposes, in an extremely classic way, the ephemeral character of the spoken word to the eternity of the fixed symbols. The frailty of the human body is saved by the solidity of material culture. Within the Republic of Letters all libraries are cities unto themselves, and each citizen-bibliophile is his own personal archaeologist. […] Since the inception of history, the spoken word has been considered ephemeral until fixed in some incunabula of signs or symbols. Words and images have greater duration once graven in matter more durable than flesh. It is the image, word, sign, or glyph that brings our pas into the perfect future. It is the impartial eye of optical glass that has informed this most theoretical enterprise. The inability to perform otherwise rends all lenses absolute in their perceptions.

In the final text of the book, a completely different idea is suddenly revealed: books and libraries can burn, even that of Alexandria, or that of Babel to put it like Jorge Luis Borges, nevertheless their memory goes on living in the imaginative mind of the readers. Here it is the elasticity – the immateriality? – of the human mind that saves


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material culture form destruction and oblivion. History tells us that at its fullest, the library [of Alexandria] contained over 4000,000 scrolls. According to various scholars, including Livy and Seneca, the library was reduced to ashes as a result of Caesar’s warring pursuit of Cleopatra’s fleet. This historically mythic library has lived on in the imaginations of scholars ever since, not withstanding the fact that not a single stone remains a concrete proof of its existence. Perhaps in a similar manner all books, once read, continue to exist embedded in the minds of their readers. Perhaps in the infinite realm of the imagination, all knowledge lives eternally.

But once again, the structural figure that is established cannot be separated from a material, i.e. spatial reworking of the object: a chiasm is created, between the ephemeral and the eternal, but what matters most is that this chiasm is located at the two extremes of the book, and this concrete, topographic mapping of the link between two abstract ideas (the ephemeral versus the eternal) helps it to transcend the sequentiality of the pages, superposing a spatial figure on it. Time and space are thus knotted, confirming thereby the coincidence and intertwining of medium and object. The book becomes a map, but a very special kind of map that combines aspects of time with aspects of objecthood: instead of crating a map that can be seen in one single glance, Gibson produces a map that one has to compose oneself through time and within the boundaries of a three-dimensional object, the book.


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Ex/in: out of the library, into the world If we now enter the world of the text itself, after the threshold of the various paratexts, we observe a dizzying variety of depicted objects, coming from all possible cultures and backgrounds (the aim of Ex Libris is undoubtedly to marry the architecture of the library with the spirit of the encyclopaedia), while at the same time we never feel lost, since the diversity is clearly structured in successive, thematically glued series, although this structure is never really very tight: the boundaries between the series can be slightly blurred, and the internal coherence is not always a 100% pure. The order of the book is therefore less temporal than categorical, to follow the terminology by Bordwell and Thompson: Categories are groupings which individuals or societies create to organize their knowledge of the world. […] If a filmmaker wants to convey some information about the world to audiences, categories and subcategories may provide a basis for organizing the film’s form. A documentary film about butterflies might use scientific classification, showing one type of butterfly and giving information about its habits, then showing another, with more information, and so on. Similarly, a travelogue about Switzerland might offer a sampling of local sights and customs. Often the categories chosen will be loose, common-sense one that audiences can easily recognize. […] [T]he categorically organized film typically each segment upon one category or subcategory.8

Yet two all – encompassing dimensions in the representation of the book occur on almost every page. First of all the fact that the book is not shown as such, but always in use – it is, to quote the actor-network theory, a book «in action». We see fragments, not complete books or pages; but sometimes we see also several pages at the same time, as the pages of the book are being turned; and in most of the cases Gibson highlights a tension between what can be read or seen and what remains blurred or out of focus. The reasons that motivate this type of representation are of course very diverse. The blurring of the text can emphasize the mobility of the reading process, for instance, but it can also repeat at the level of the printed word the shift from the book as a transparent medium to the book as an opaque object. Or it can question the traditional distinction between the textual and the visual. Second the fact that the contact between man and book is often performed with the help 8

D. Bordwell and K. Thompson, Film Art. An Introduction, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2003, pp.130-131.


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of the hand. This last point may seem a detail, and even a very uneventful or pointless one, but there is a dramatically strong contrast between this stance illustrated throughout the whole Ex Libris and the perspective on the book proposed by the most popular of all modern media gurus, Marshall McLuhan. In The Medium is the Massage, a kind of vademecum of contemporary media theory designed according to Jan Tschichold’s New Typography devices, Mc Luhan writes the following, famous statement, which the designer of the book, Quentin Fiore displays in a very specific way: All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical. 9

At the same time, McLuhan, never afraid to surprise and even to shake his reader with strange loops and open questions, illustrates this statement with one of the most stunning conceptual visualizations ever, for the book that is shown is… empty, a blank space as if wiped out by the action of the eye. 10 It is the difference with McLuhan’s presentation that I would like to stress here. Indeed, it is because McLuhan considers the book a medium, i.e. a form of sign-technology and information processing, that he can 9

M. McLuhan and Q. Fiore, The Medium is the Massage. An Inventory of Effects, produced by J. Agel, San Francisco, Hard Wired, 1996, p. 26. For an analysis of the cultural and ideological underpinnings of these images, see J. Baetens, Visual rhetoric and visual thinking, in M. E. Hocks and M. Kendrick (eds.), Eloquent Images, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 2003 pp.179-199.

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offer such an abstract and shallow view of it as a collection as blank spaces and empty pages. And it is because Gibson approaches the book no as a physical object than as an information medium that he is able to show us no just bound sheets of paper but a complete world. This emptiness is however not what is displayed by Ex Libris, which attempts on the contrary to demonstrate that the library and the world are actually one and the same. In this regard, and as a small intermezzo in our reading, it might be interesting to underline the spatial orientation of the Latin prefix ex, which shifts from inbound to outbound. Designating the bookplate, i.e. commonly a printed piece of paper pasted on one of the pages of a book, most often on the inside front cover showing ownership.The word «ex libris» slowly changes meaning and is being interpreted by Gibson’s reader in a much more general and after all quite different way. Instead of chaining free-floating books to the place where they belong, «ex libris» is gradually pointing towards the move away from the world behind closed doors toward the open space of the world. This “move” is actually the target of the main structural principles of the whole book, whose basic visual and compositional devices and mechanisms – provided of course one consider it possible to extract and isolate them from a wide diversity of competing forms and models – are threefold: the reflection between coupled images; the idea of itinerary and travel; and the montage in translinear ways. In what follows, I shall specify somewhat these three mechanisms, being well aware of the relative character of the structures under scrutiny.


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The world of the navel a) Reflection Ex Libris is not an experimental book, on the contrary: there is no strategy to ‘by-pass’ the distinction between cover and sheets, or between paratext and text. As well as it accepts the traditional use of the global book form, Ex Libris accepts the fundamental feature of the spine, i.e. of the fold between the pages. At the same time, however, Gibson’s book also transcends this separation, and this what makes the work so creative within the boundaries of the classic, traditional photo book. On the one, hand Ex Libris avoids to break the unity of the page. The printed surface is always defined and limited by the dimensions of the page: there are almost no examples of texts or images that do not follow one of these two frames. Whatever the content of the pictures may show us, the photographs themselves are always quietly cast in the mould of the page or the double spread, as clearly demonstrated for instance in the direct opposition between the insertion of the printed spaces on pp. 90-91, each picture occupying one page, and the completely different – multiple, non linear – status of the page within the books that have been photographed). Corollarily, the importance of the spine is increased also by the parallel absence of pages presenting more than one image and by the attempt to neutralize as much as possible the space around the images by using almost everywhere black “gutters”. The decision to use the colour black as a uniform background colour may be motivated also by the desire to stress the difference between the pictures in this book and the pictures one usually find in the contemporary exhibition space – museum or gallery –, where most of the times the background colour of the framed pictures is white or a variant of white (spanning from broken white to cream). In Gibson’s world, the techniques of representation are undoubtedly more traditional than the content of representation. On the other hand, Ex Libris surpasses the fold by including many double spreads or, if this is not the case, by multiplying «reflecting» pages, in which left and right clearly constitute, despite their thematic and formal differences, a synthetic unity. The most salient example of this mechanism can be found pp. 18-19: this double spread does not contain mirrors, it acts like a mirror with its symmetrical balance of dark and light areas on the left and on the right pages and of the additional use of diagonal lines that bridge the gap between the left and the right side of the spine.


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b) Itinerary The book does certainly not tell a story, for instance a history of the library or printing techniques. What one will not find here is a grand narrative leading from the carved pictograms to the virtualization of the letter in the digital world. Yet it is clear that the reader is systematically pulled forward by a chain of echoes that work in either direction, both forwards (one feels that something is missing, one expects something – and it is this lack that makes Ex Libris a real page-turner, despite the absence of any recognizable plot) and backwards (one is constantly occupied with verifying and fine-tuning reading hypotheses – and this mechanism as well transforms the book into a page-turner, but this time not in the linear sense of the word, for one is invited to read the book à la Rimbaud, i.e. «littéralement et dans tous les sens»). If Ex Libris tends to spatialize temporal structures, for instance by relying upon the chiasm, this generating of a back-and-forth reading succeeds no less in temporalizing the spatial. Indeed, as soon as the reader becomes aware of the structural importance of the chiasm, he or she will also be able to predict certain transformations, as occurs for instance in the beginning of the book.11 In the sequence that occupies these three double pages, we first see a face, then a book, and afterwards a book followed by the view of a face, and finally the worlds of the face and the book are merged in such a way that they coincide, literally as well as metaphorically. The chiasmic superposition of the book and the human face is resolved, in a dialectic synthesis, in their literal as well as metaphorical coincidence: the human forefront on pp. 10-11 does not only illustrate this bringing together of the book and the body, it materializes it by the very features of the page lay-out. The symmetrical structure of the face, divided in two equal parts on either side of the nose, can no longer be distinguished from the symmetrical structure of the book, divided in two similar parts on either side of the fold. In this progressively built-up mixings of the face and the page, one no longer knows what belongs to cause and what belongs to effect. Is the human face a metaphor of the book, or is it the other way round? In Gibson’s careful composition, this question is no longer relevant, since the two answers are both correct. This example shows also to what extent the various techniques are subtly interwoven, for the double-spread of the forefront ‘as book’ is not just an example of “itinerary” (the second of the major techniques that can be identified throughout the book), but also of “reflection” (the very first of these techniques), given the structural play with the fold. 11

R. Gibson, Ex Libris, New York, Powerhouse Books, 2001, pp. 5-11.


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c) Translinear montage This third technique ought to be considered an expansion as well as a combination of the two previous ones at a larger scale. Yet what makes Ex Libris so fascinating is the fact that this large-scale mechanism is also taken as the very theme of the images at different levels. Such a thematization is one of the most powerful and unifying procedures of the whole volume. The idea of itinerary is exemplified by many images of travel, for instance the frequently occurring images of the voyage on the sea. The idea of reflection is exemplified by, for instance, the confrontation of faces and texts, an opposition which we tend to interpret as that of the “focalizer” and that of the “focalized”. Faces and texts are not simply juxtaposed, they are first associated (the faces represent the reader or the beholder, the texts represent the books that are read12 and then merged (Ex Libris tends to show faces as books and books as faces). Thematically speaking, we have seen that the whole book is oriented toward a definite goal: the transition from the library to the outside world, and vice versa. This idea, which may be the deep “cipher” of the translinear montage worked out throughout Ex Libris, is combined with the two techniques of itinerary and reflection. And once again Gibson achieves this arrangement by a very original use of chiasm. This use appears most clearly in the inversion of the relationships between part and whole. Ex Libris likes to propose to its reader series of images in which the part becomes the whole and the whole becomes the part. An intriguing example can be found,13 with the double inversion microcosm and macrocosm. A deskinned human corps (p. 44) «morphs» into a terrestrial globe (p. 45) thanks to the common feature of the «navel», as is “proven” by the subsequent image focusing on an almost abstract representation of this body part (pp. 46-47), and in the following image (pp. 48-49), the place of the navel is occupied by a coin showing a human face (Alexander, master of the world, but coinciding with the most tiny part of body and world). The fact that the coin is not photographed in a showcase, but held between two fingers, one of which has a nail whose dimensions are equal to that of the face of the ruler of the world, gives even more strength to these paradoxical intertwining of the fragment and the universe, which include each other in many paradoxical ways. Several of the threads that Ex Libris is knitting converge here in this image of the ancient coin, which is almost a shortcut – or to put it in more visual terms, which is almost a thumbnail, pun intended – of a book that Gibson’s paratext had defined as both a nostalgic and a proud and confident double of the lost library of Alexandria. 12 13

For some good examples, see Gibson, Ex libris cit., 2001, pp. 60-61 and pp. 66-67. Ibid., pp. 44-49.


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Picture making, picture taking Until now, my analysis has paid relatively little attention to photography itself. Yet Ex Libris is not only a work that proposes a special viewpoint on the world of the book as similar to that of man himself. It is also a study in the relationships between book and photography, which share the fundamental feature of print culture and printing, for both texts and images in books and photographic pictures on sheets of paper are printed material. All this may see extremely banal, and as such it certainly is, but the way Ralph Gibson treats this matter is highly original. Just as Ex Libris projects the world of the book into the world of the body, and vice versa, it does something analogous with the relationship between the world of the body and the world of photography. As most representations of Ex Libris show, the body is used as a marked surface, be it actually marked (for instance by wrinkles and cracks and other, unidentified elements:14 or virtually marked (as in the already discussed image of the forefront as double-spread). One can perfectly imagine that Gibson is suggesting here that the body is no less able than the page of receiving photographic marks. At a second level, however, Gibson uses this idea of the body as a marked surface to put forward a larger view of photography, which becomes then close to print itself, as if, so to speak, all photography has fundamentally something to do with the idea of “direct contact” – a technique not invented by the Surrealist Man Ray by Talbot himself and all those who had been experimenting with one form or another of the calotype. This idea, which blurs the boundaries between book printing and photographic printing, tends to stress the general idea of “marking”, of leaving traces on a surface, and it has been discussed most eloquently in photography theory by Patrick Maynard, whose book The Engine of Visualization. Thinking through Photography makes a strong play for photography as technology and who convincingly demonstrates that such an approach of the field does never reduce photography to the… photograph: […] for the present we can agree with one principled everyday understanding and define photography as a “science” – but better as an “art or process”: that is, as a technological family comprising ways of doing things. We can characterize photography in terms of technologies for accomplishing or guiding the production of images on sensitized surfaces by 14

See Gibson, Ex libris cit., pp. 42-43 or pp. 68-69, where the distinction between paper and skin actually disappears.


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means of light (broadly understood), without necessarily understanding such images as “photographs”. Procedures, structures, materials will then be photographic when they have a place in such technology, whether or not they themselves work by light (which, in the case of some parts of camera engineering or development chemistry, they certainly do not). […] For the present, then, it is enough to say that etymology proves a guide: John Herschel’s 1840 term “photography” has stood the test of time better than have many of the products to which it applies. The first part of the word means light (and related radiations); the second part means marking. Photography is technology by which light is directed to make physical states that we call images. Our sources neglect to state what such “images” are. Paradigmatically, they are markings, although photo-technology has significantly extended them to less permanent states than implied by a strict definition of that. These markings – or quasi-markings – occur […] on special surfaces. Such surfaces, in the case of the more transient markings, are screens, of which there is a variety.15

It is this idea of picturing as marking that finally explains why the word of the library and the world of photography can end up being mixed so seamlessly. Books and pictures are not only part of the same culture of print making, they belong, in a more general way, to the world of marking, and in that respect it is not possible to draw a clear-cut distinction between both. A simple example of this blurring is given by the comparison of pp. 9697, where the curved representation of printed numbers on the left is echoed by the equally curved representation of letters projected on tissue – a curtain? – which seem to be more shadows than actual prints. A more sophisticated and abstract –but in the light of the whole book very clear and transparent – example can be seen in the double spread that follows Alexander’s tetradrachm (a structurally foregrounded image in Ex Libris, as we have seen at repeated occasions). On the left page (p. 50), we see a cast-iron column with a pattern of subtly lighted protuberant nails (the image has been taken at the Musée d’Orsay). On the right page (p. 51), a piece of marble containing some carved inscriptions in Greek (this picture has been made in the archaeological museum of Naples). Beyond the visual rime that is established between these two images – and it is not possible not to see the rime, after the «navel sequence» which so powerfully forces us to see construct that type of relationships –, what matters is, first, the play of the convex (on the left) and the concave (on the right); second, the symbolic relationship between the left and right pages, the convex representations on the left ‘producing’ the concave 15

P. Maynard, The Engine of Visualization. Thinking through Photography, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 19-20.


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representations on the right (and it should be clear that producing does signify here: marking, picturing, photographing); and, third, to understand that this mechanism of producing marks by contact is what is common to the making of books (at the end Ex Libris, Gibson will show us several images of typefaces and printing machines) and the making of photographs (also by the end of the book, Gibson will include «negatives», remembering us in a very didactic way how the negative/positive way of photographic printmaking actually functions).

By doing so, i.e. by emphasizing not just the photograph as a result, but also photography as a process, Gibson’s inspiration comes quite close to the inspiration defended by Maynard and, by extension, close to the inspiration of Talbot:


Photography and the Book: A Note on Ralph Gibson’s Ex Libris

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Early inventors and promoters such as William Henry Fox Talbot were prudent to draw attention not so much to a new class of objects as to the diverse uses of a new set of technological procedures. Talbot was, after all, inventing and patenting photographic procedures, not photographs. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who twenty years later coined the rather misleading phrase “mirror with a memory”. Talbot’s famous book displaying his invention was called, more appropriately, The Pencil of Nature, emphasizing photography as a means by which we do many valuable things. In this he proved no only a fine inventor but a sound prophet.16

In a certain sense, Ex Libris can be read as a continuation of these fundamental questions on photography. Gibson’s book, I argue, can be read as a tribute to Talbot’s work on contact photography – and therefore on the relationships between printing and picturing. From this viewpoint, it is also an egregious example of what literature and photography can produce together, even in the case of a book like Ex Libris that does not contain any literary text in the traditional sense of the word.

16

Ibid., p. 9.


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ABSTRACT

One of the most striking aspects of contemporary literary scholarship is indeed its fascination with ‘intermediality studies’, and it is far from absurd to consider this new subdiscipline a new form of comparative literature, well appropriated to the visual and media turn that have become very important in literature as well since two or three decades. But what is at stake in intermediality studies? This means for instance that, first of all, literature as such does no longer exist since it only exists in a complex network of media with which it has to interact, and, second and most importantly, that literature can no longer be defined as a text that may or may not communicate with other media, but that these other media are themselves part of the very heart of what literature is: the text is also sound and image, it is also materialized in books that can be seen and touched, etc The encounter of photography and the book is a very ancient and multifaceted one, and the format of the photo-book has been variously explored by artists and photographers. Yet British photographer Ralph Gibson is the author of works in which the book is not only the structuring vehicle, but also the very subject of the photographs, and these works are perhaps more appropriate to the exploration of new horizons in the field of book and photography. This article focuses on the 2001 Ex Libris, in which Gibson highlights and explores the basic tension between, on the one hand, the book as medium, i.e. an ordered sequence of pages, and, on the other hand, the book as a three-dimensional object that exists independently from any text or image content whatsoever. And indeed this very tension characterizes photographs as well, which can be conceived in terms of two- dimensional images, but also as ‘things’ and ‘objects’. Starting from this double basic tension, Gibson’s work plays with photography and the book-format, challenging some well established distinctions, such as the one between text and paratext, the one between the book as text and the book as image, or the one between the library and the world. Uno dei più notevoli aspetti degli studi di letteratura contemporanea è certamente la sua attrazione per gli studi intermediali, e non è affatto assurdo considerare questa nuova sottodisciplina come una moderna forma di letteratura comparata, adeguata al visual and media turn che è divenuto molto importante in letteratura da due o tre decenni a questa parte. Ma qual'è la posta in gioco negli studi intermediali?


Photography and the Book: A Note on Ralph Gibson’s Ex Libris

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Questo significa ad esempio che, prima di tutto, la letteratura come tale non esiste più dal momento che essa esiste solo in una complessa rete di comunicazione con cui deve interagire, e, in secondo e più importante luogo, che la letteratura non può più essere definita come un testo capace o meno di comunicare con altri media, ma che questi altri media sono essi stessi parte di ciò che la letteratura è: il testo è anche suono ed immagine, e si materializza anche nei libri che possono essere visti, toccati, ecc. L'incontro fra la fotografia e il libro è molto antico e multisfaccettato, e la struttura del libro fotografico è stata variamente esplorata da artisti e fotografi. Tuttavia, il fotografo inglese Ralph Gibson è l'autore di opere in cui il libro non costituisce solo la struttura, ma anche l'oggetto vero e proprio delle fotografie, e questi lavori risultano forse più adeguati per esplorare nuovi orizzonti nel campo del libro e della fotografia. Questo articolo è incentrato su Ex libris del 2001, in cui Gibson sottolinea ed esplora da un lato la tensione primaria fra il libro inteso come medium, ossia una sequenza ordinata di pagine, dall'altro il libro inteso come oggetto tri-dimensionale che esiste indipendentemente da qualsiasi contenuto testuale o di immagine. E certamente proprio questa tensione caratterizza anche la fotografia, che può essere concepita in termini di immagini bi-dimensionali, ma anche come "cose" ed "oggetti". Partendo da questa duplice tensione primaria, il lavoro di Gibson gioca con la fotografia e il formato-libro, sfidando alcune ben radicate distinzioni, come ad esempio quella fra testo e paratesto, quella fra il libro inteso come testo e il libro inteso come immagine, o quella fra la biblioteca e il mondo.

Photography and the Book. A Note on Ralph Gibson’s Ex Libris  

If one takes a look at the field of literary studies, one may have the impression that the traditional field of comparative literature has n...

Photography and the Book. A Note on Ralph Gibson’s Ex Libris  

If one takes a look at the field of literary studies, one may have the impression that the traditional field of comparative literature has n...

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