In Edinburgh last week I went to the Surreal Encounters exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and a smaller show of photography by Lewis Baltz at Stills.
The surrealist exhibition was themed around four collections, those of Roland Penrose, Edward James, Gabrielle Keiller and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch. It made me think about how I’ve resisted my own impulse to be a collector. When I was younger I obsessed over my collections of records and comics, but I like to think I’ve grown out of that kind of thing. I suppose I associate music or comics as something young people are really into and when you’re older it’s unseemly to define yourself by things like that. Not that I’ve given up entirely on music and comics, but other interests have come in, like art, photography, photobooks, artist’s books.
I’ve been buying photobooks for seven years now and I have quite a few. The fact that I haven’t counted them proves I’m not really a collector! They are of various kinds: some self-published, some from small publishers, a few from relatively mainstream publishers like Steidl, some are more like artist’s books, a few are exhibition catalogues. I’ve been sampling different things. There’s no totally unifying theme or genre, but there’s more about landscape and nature than anything else. Perhaps it’s time to admit to myself that I’m building a collection anyway so I should take it more seriously.
Collecting doesn’t have to be passive. Edward James was a collaborator as well as a patron, and commissioned some of Dali’s most famous work.
Most of those surrealist collectors bought the work at the time it was made. Right now we’re living through a boom in photobook publishing so why not make the most of it and make a coherent and representative collection of my favourite work?
At Surreal Encounters what fascinated me most were the original surrealist publications - magazines, books and posters - from the 1920s and 30s, shown in vitrines of course. I would have loved to have been able to page through all these. I’ve always been attracted to printed matter. Even in an exhibition of paintings I’m looking for something in print. Probably because magazines and posters are often seen as throwaway, it seems romantic they’ve survived at all, and they usually show their age, with yellowing paper with tattered edges, in a way paintings never do. They’re archival evidence that cannot be tampered with or rewritten.
There are no books on show at the Lewis Baltz exhibition, but the emphasis here is very much on the assembly of series of images rather than any individual masterpieces. Small photographs are arranged in grids on the wall, making them all of equal status to one another so none stand out. There’s no narrative sequence suggested here, but the grids reminded me of uncut sheets of pages on the printer’s table, or an arrangement of photos pinned to a board or lain flat on the floor ready to be moved around into new juxtapositions.
For me it all comes back to books, or possible layouts for a book. I like to look at pictures much more by paging through a book than shuffling around an exhibition. Baltz’s grids on the walls of Stills let you scan a lot of pictures without changing your viewpoint, but it’s hard to get close enough to see anything in detail. Being kept at this kind of remove is appropriate since Baltz always remained detached and unromantic as an artist. He used his camera as a distancing device between the subject and the audience.
It’s interesting how the curator, Sebastien Montabonel, has made these decisions on how the work is presented to highlight these aspects of Baltz’s approach.
Baltz aimed to achieve no style of his own and his subjects were everyday and unremarkable. He wanted his work to look anonymous, like anyone could do it. He wasn’t much interested in photography and saw it as ‘the simplest, most direct way of recording something’.
The minimalist mode is emphasised by the inclusion of a metal floor sculpture by Carl Andre, a grid to be walked on. You use this grid to stand on to get closer to the photographs.