Considering our modern tendency to get swept up in the world of digital technology, it’s refreshing to see a body of photographic work that deals with the Kindle or the Ipad’s predecessor: the book. Mickey Smith, an American photographer currently starting up in New Zealand, has focused her energy on photographing books, bound journals, and the like. Countless hours in libraries around the world have culminated into her numerous series like “Believe You Me” and “Collocations.” Through her images, book and journal titles tell new stories…
The majority of your work deals with bound material – books, periodicals, journals – the object itself, their roles in society, their physical presences and absences. What originally drew you to this theme?
I spent several weeks over a period of years, as an artist-in-residence on Mallard Island in Northern Minnesota. On the island, there were seven different houses built in seven different architectural styles. Every wall of every house was lined with books. Everyone on the island used and loved the books, but it wasn’t until I had spent several weeks in-residence that I turned my camera toward them. I instantly quit caring for the subject matter. The image they projected sitting on the shelves was far more alluring. I started to look them as part of the architecture. Once I returned to the city, I revisited the public library with the same perspective.
And how did you navigate from one subject to the next under this umbrella theme of books?
I’m not an academic, but I imagine my process mirrors the research process. One piece of information leads to another and another, and before you know it hours have passed, the lights have dimmed, and the security guard is telling you to come back tomorrow.
What is your photographic process?
I’m continually shackling myself with self-imposed rules. In art school, I studied under a wonderful documentary photographer. Perhaps it’s the honesty, the perceived honesty, of documentary photography I keep trying to hold onto. I don’t touch, light, or manipulate my subjects. They are photographed as found in the stacks, created by the librarian, and positioned by the last unknown reader. Louis Menand has written an essay to accompany a book of the Volume photographs. He wrote, “The photographs are taken from life; they’re not made from props in a studio. The artist was on library safari.”
“Believe You Me” is an interesting off-shoot series in that you borrowed, or recycled, images from popular culture. How did this creation process compare to the photos you take with a camera?
When my son was seven months old I was invited to a residency in Puerto Vallarta for a month. During the day I would search for imagery and I night I would shut down all the lights and re-photograph portions of the found images off of a computer screen. I struggled with the process at first, feeling like I was cheating, not because the images were appropriated or because my subjects were behind politicians and porn stars – but because I was free of the rules I had set up for myself with the Volume project. It was liberating, and allowed me to step back and see the project in a broader perspective. For me, the most exciting part of Believe You Me is the In Memoriam installation, a floor of books that accompanies every exhibition of the photographs.
The series “Volume” and “Collocations” play with bold titles, always within the bound periodical or journal context. What drew you to photograph these groupings?
Their simplicity, logic, irony. BLOOD is red. MONEY is green. But over the years I’ve found not all stereotypes are the same… BLOOD bound in Minnesota is red but blue in Manhattan. Ebony is brown in Chicago, black in Minneapolis, green in Kansas City.
Are the titles meant to be read as statements, political or other?
Yes, they are. But my first rule of art making is to let the viewer lend their own interpretation… I’m not keen on committing to a precise statement with any of my works, except that I try to steer clear of precise statements.
Will you be continuing in the same “book” vein for future projects?
Denudation is my most recent body of work. It is a dark documentary of libraries stripped of their books, their librarians, and patrons. It would be the appropriate, poetic place to end – but I’m making no promises.
Mickey Smith’s Denudation is now available from Hassla Books. The exhibition opens at Invisible-Exports gallery in New York on October 26.