Melanie McWhorter is the Book Division Manager at photo-eye in Santa Fe, NM. She writes regularly for the magazine, reviews books for the blog, and curates exhibitions of local photographers for the bookstore. McWhorter is a frequent lecturer, portfolio reviewer, prize juror, and is also the co-founder of Finite Foto, a collective focused on the intersection of photography and culture in New Mexico.
Melanie McWhorter with her library, December 2012
Ward Long: Can you tell me a little bit about your library? Where do you keep your books? How long have they been there? Are they arranged or organized in a particular way?
Melanie McWhorter: Most of my photobooks are kept in a large bookshelf, measuring about eight feet tall and six feet wide. There are two other bookshelves in the house, along with stacks by my bed and books lined up along the backside of my desk. In addition to photobooks and photo-related zines, my library consists of magical realism and Southern gothic novels, art crime, photobook publishing, environmental issues, how-to books on urban gardening, layman’s books on economics, philosophy, and various other subjects and genres. I find comfort in having books in every room of my house. Even if I have not looked at or read them all, I still know that I can at any time.
I started collecting photobooks seriously after starting at photo-eye in 1997, but before that my very first photography book was a gift from my sister around 1996. It was not the most collectible book, but had one of my favorite images, which is still a favorite: Imogen Cunningham’s The Unmade Bed. There is something about that image that encapsulates all things feminine to me. The allusion of sexuality with the wrinkled, disheveled covers, the hair clips resting on the bed. In my mind, I have a vision of the wild-haired women somewhere in the background, likely Imogen with the camera. It is also the story of the aged woman I knew as a child. I think of her in her 80s. She wore Southern house dresses and pulled her long silver hair tightly into a bun during the day, but brushed out the last of her youth in the evenings.
Someone told me of a story, a short story, which I have attributed to Raymond Carver as it seems like the kind of nothing that happens in all of his stories, but I have been unable to find this story or who it is by. It is a tale of a woman sitting in the mirror at her vanity brushing her hair. The process of brushing is so meditative that she thinks over stories of her life. When I look at this Cunningham book, I feel all the romantic ideas of womanhood rush into my head. It is empowering without taking away the feminine side. This book still holds a special place in my library.
I digressed, but back to order and organization. The state of my library would be shameful to some; it is not stately. The books sit on the shelf where they can. Tall books in the tall shelves, medium ones next, the smaller ones and zines reside near the bottom. Fiction, literature, technical, instructional are mixed in with art. I have many times thought about rearranging them into some semblance of order. I am not opposed to order. But in searching for books, I often find little treasures mixed in with those that I know I have and rediscover the ones I forgot. It is frustrating and delightful.
WL: What were some of your oldest books? What are some books you’ve added recently?
MM: My oldest book, as I tend to focus on newer publications, has to be a copy of The Family of Man. It is a 1955 version published by Simon & Schuster. I picked up a copy in a used bookstore for $12.50 a few years ago. The inside front end paper has a sticker that reads “The Intimated Bookshop.” If I was going to know anything about curating photographic exhibitions, I needed to own a copy of this book. The gravure pages still smell of heavy ink.
The question of my oldest book caused me to dig a little through my shelf. I scanned spines in their random order to see what else I have, and I found Brassai’s Paris by Night, reprinted by Bulfinch in 1987. This new addition is printed in heliogravure using Brassai’s original plates except for a few that disappeared from the original printing.
Debbie Fleming Caffery’s Carry Me Home was published in 1990 by the Smithsonian Institution. Within are nearly 40 pages of double-spaced text, unlike any book object I have seen today. There would usually not be as many pages reserved for text. This one is inscribed to me, “Sweet Mama.” I had just had my first child and Debbie would go on to host my second baby shower and shoot my pregnancy photographs in classic Debbie style.
Spines on the shelf, Melanie McWhorter’s library, December 2012
WL: I’ve worked at a couple of art book stores, but never for more than a year and never one like photo-eye. Still, when I worked as a bookseller, I could tell that my job was changing my tastes. I found myself with a growing appreciation for the obscure and open-ended. Can you describe the relationship between your library and the bookstore? Has that relationship developed as you continue with the bookstore?
MM: When I first started at photo-eye, I was pretty green. I attended Lander University in South Carolina, a small liberal arts college known more for its nursing and education programs than art. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Art History professor, Dr. Tom Pitts, who told me that there was more out there than what I had experienced in South Carolina. This only added fuel to my desire to travel and learn. I had loved photography since I was a small child, but I have no idea why. I do have a first camera story, but I will spare you that one. My next exposure to photography was elementary and high school photography in Charleston, SC. It was an great job in the days of glamour shots (look that one up if you don’t know what those things are) and finally my friend Caleb Richardson offered me a job in Jackson, WY taking photos of the tourists as they headed out for their daily dude ride in the mountains. On the way to Jackson, we stopped in Santa Fe. I fell in love with a photographer’s platinum prints and decided to head back with the threat of Jackson winters looming.
I first went to Andrew Smith Gallery and their longtime employee Chris Marquez sent me to photo-eye (I found that this was a habit that maybe he only did with redheads. My redheaded friend Lara Shipley was given the same instructions when she approached him at the gallery a few years later). I showed up at photo-eye, was interviewed and given the job of receiving and customer service. I am grateful to have been given this job as it has offered me a wonderful career in a field that I love. When I first started at photo-eye, I had ambitions to do something, not sure of what the something was, with my photography.
This was pre-internet time. I had been exposed to very few art images like those in American Photo and in my “Masters of Photography” calendar that hung on my wall the previous summer. (One of whom was Paul Caponigro, who I was privileged to meet a couple of times at photo-eye). Now I was surrounded by photographs everyday. I was overwhelmed with the wealth of photography—the subjectively good and bad. I still took photos but eventually gave up the idea of making money as a picture-maker, but I still took photos for my own enjoyment and catharsis.
A few years ago, I earned the title of Book Division Manager at photo-eye. I was now in charge of most of the book buying decisions. I took over around the time of the start of something big. I went to the first Blurb presentation at CENTER in Santa Fe. I cannot recall the year, but Blurb had just started making books for photographers and I believe that the owner Eileen Gittins was presenting the new service. Now it was easy for photographers to actualize their work in book form. This was something new. Photographers had been making books of their work for years, but now anyone could produce a book. I believe that the existence of Blurb and the idea of print-on-demand was empowering to photographers whether they chose to use this method or not. It seemed that years of legacy publishing was now being challenged. The old models were being modified and anyone could be a publisher. There were now newer models of print-on-demand, whether Blurb or other online services, your local print shop, non-profit publishers, self-publishing, zines and newsprint. These became widely accepted as mediums for art photography and subvention of the established publishers. Photographers were empowered to make more of their own choices.
Photo-eye had carried self-published or small art press books of photographers in the past, but over the years, that source of new publications has grown for us while the larger publishing houses have declined. The larger publishing houses seem to be more focused on books for the masses and that makes total sense. They sell directly or sell through Amazon. There is more bang for the buck, choosing a project where you can print 10,000 coffee table books versus only 1,000 art books.
So, over the years, photo-eye has had to make changes. We try to develop relationships with photographers and smaller publishers so that we can sell the books that Amazon and other mass market booksellers do not focus on. I have tried to pay attention to movements, trends and new ways of communication and examine if each is worthwhile and if it will work for us. I have to cater to the customers, but we also have an idea that if we believe in a book, our clients should too. My collection, as well as what we sell at photo-eye, has evolved. We’ve evolved through the classic hardbound art books produced by Random House like Bellocq and Requiem, through Harry Abrams’ Richard Avedon Portraits, the now defunct Arena Editions Lincoln’s Assassins, Scalo’s Francesca Woodman and Sternfeld’s Hart Island, to Alec Soth’s newsprint publication Last Days of W and small publications by small publishers like Gottlund Verlag, Hassla and Marten Lange’s now out-of-business and I hope soon-to-be-revived Farewell Books. Yes, we have changed a few things about what we sell at photo-eye and it has changed much about me and my collection.
Spines on the shelf, Melanie McWhorter’s library, December 2012
WL: In another interview you said that Swedish portraiture was a big influence on your own photographic portfolio, Dealing with 35. I’d love to know more about how that influence took shape. Are there books that speak directly to your personal work and photographic ambitions?
MM: Well, Debbie Caffery was one of the first photographers who allowed me to see that blurriness is not bad. She uses the medium to convey movement and emotion. Then I found Anders Petersen. Gosta Flemming of Journal published Close Distance, the first book by Pertersen that I had ever seen, and it is still shocking to look through. I would not have dared to capture moments like Petersen provided, had I ever had that opportunity.
Then there is a book that I must have looked through and many of the images must have stuck in my subconscious. I wish I would have bought the book, but missed out on Anna: Amerikan Mummu by Nina Korhonen. This book is a gentle, but raw document of the daily life of Korhonen’s grandmother who emigrated from Finland in 1959. What is amazing about this book to me is that a couple of my images — 11:23, taken in the kitchen of a former rental unit, and Getting Dressed, a shot from behind while strapping my bra — are quite similar to two of her photos. I have a belief that most of us share a common vision and that what we have seen has been seen by others. I might have noticed her photos before, but I think that the frame of the photo dictated the image. I want my work to feel real without being banal. This feeling is something that I strive for, but do not feel that I have been able to create in my own work.
If I were to classify this entire geographical region, I would say that the reason I like most of the artists is that they are honest with themselves, they tell what they would believe to be the true in their photos: artists like Morten Andersen, Tina Enghoff, JH Engström, and on a slightly different note, Pentti Sammallahti.
WL: Looking at your stacks, is there a book that has special meaning, but is something that might be invisible to a stranger?
MM: By invisible, do you mean a thread or a theme? A few nudes, books focusing on the mysterious or macabre, books on the idea of romance, political issues, and surprisingly more Raymond Meeks, Maseo Yamamoto and Terri Weifenbach than any other artists. As for special books, many of them hold special places for various reasons, but two that I can think of are Édouard Boubat’s Lella and Jackie Nickerson’s Farm. Nickerson’s book is special, aside from the book itself is such a beautiful object, because if my son had been female, he would have been named after one of the farm workers.
Lella, the subject of Boubat’s book of the same name, is clearly a redhead. I am quite partial to redheads, being one myself and growing up around plenty in my family, but the bond is stronger than that. It is story of love, maybe unconditional, or unrequited. It is a narrative of longing. Boubat wants all of Lella. She is strong, guarded, distant, but loving and comforting. The book is a product of male gaze, but where the female has more control. Well, that is my take.
A stack of favorites, Melanie McWhorter’s library, December 2012
WL: How do you feel that your library is changing over time?
MM: I have aged and, through much fighting with my youth, matured. The books I choose now are often still eye candy with an inclination towards great design, but they cannot be all superficial. In the beginning, I often listened to those around me telling me what makes a good book and why this book would be worth the small amount of money I had left over each week. Now, although I focus much of my book buying budget on books that will help me to help others—book contracts, publishing, funding, etc.—I also am wise about what I choose to add to my library. As one collector told me, there is only so much room in the library: as one is added, one must go away. The book has to be valuable to me, and maybe only me, to make it on the shelf.
I also treasure books that are inscribed and given to me. The gesture of a gift bearing my name has weight. I also collect many of the leave-behinds at portfolio reviews. I have been reviewing work since 2006 and I have kept most of the print-on-demand books and handmade objects. I have to be more selective than before. As for what I collect most now, I still love books as object, but I like smarter works. I love artists like Taryn Simon and books with intelligent essays combined with strong photos. Jim Krantz’s Homage with his images from Chernobyl has at least four texts addressing the various social and scientific aspects of the region. Now, I basically like well-executed design and intelligent conception of the work, whether it’s a simple eight page zine or a 200 page anthology.
List of my favorite books in my collection not previously mentioned:
Box of Ku, Maseo Yamamoto
Ghetto, Oliver Chanarin and Adam Broomberg
The Memory of Pablo Escobar, James Mollison
The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, Corrine May Botz
Bodywork, Liz Cohen
Case History, Boris Mikhailov
Illuminance, Rinko Kawauchi
A Clearing, Raymond Meeks
Possible Relatives, Tina Enghoff
An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Taryn Simon
No Ordinary Land, Virginia Beahan and Laura McPhee
The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, KayLynn Deveney
The Pond, John Gossage
Crime Album Stories, Eugenia Parry
61 Pimlico, Bill Jay
Mariposas Nocturnas, Emmet Gowin
Other Nature, Ron Jude
Borderlands, Eirik Johnson
Nudes, Annie Leibovitz
Melanie McWhorter’s library, December 2012