Monday, May 11, 2009

What Remains

(Above) Cover of 19th century book with photo, c. 1875.
Click for larger view.

Click any image for larger view.

Click any image for larger view.

BUYERS OF BOOKS AND OTHER FINE OBJECTS OCCASIONALLY FIND surprises, especially when one buys what is called “a lot ” from an auction house. In a situation like this, the buyer may have his eye on just one thing that he wants, and the rest is along for the joy ride. If something turns up in addition to what he was wanting, it’s a bonus. That is what happened to my friend Mark Katzman, who runs FK Photo in St. Louis and also has a not-for-profit, educational web site called Photogravure.

Mark collects photography, photogravures, to be exact. When he bought this particular lot, he was happy to get this book, dated to 19th century Glasgow, Scotland. The new art of photography was thriving in Scotland in the latter part of that century, and this book (see top of post) had a nice example of a photograph embedded on the cover. That is what interested collector Katzman.

I was visiting him recently when I noticed the box of varied, old books on the table outside his studio office.

“Oh-h…” Mark said, immediately after I spied the pile books. “…I saved something here to show you. I think I have something here you will like.” He picked up a small glossy, caramel-colored book and handed it to me. “Open it.” he said.

I took the 6” x 9”small book into my hands and opened it. There was no printed text anywhere in the book, just blank pages of 100% fairly thick cotton leaves with cryptic marks here and there on the pages, in a sepia colored ink. I hadn’t quite soaked in what I was looking at when Mark said: “Looks like someone 125-years ago used the blank pages of this book almost as blotter paper, to soak up the “bleed-through” from letter writing.”

Almost before the words were out of Mark’s mouth I suddenly “got it.” I think I uttered something unintelligible, like “Oh-uh-oh. Ohh-h, wow!”

“We all thought you would like this,” added Mark’s partner at the photo studio, my other friend Scott Ferguson.

Indeed I did. This book contained random “left-behind” marks of messages written over a century ago. To me, it was beautiful. The traces of distant words became art. Were these the remains of a poem? A cryptic piece of a letter to a loved one? I really didn’t want to know. What remained in this book was enough for me.

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