Vanishing Photographs, a Book, and a Box

In February, I wrote to someone who had been a graduate student at SFAI, someone I had met at a gathering of students and educators at the Book Club of California in the Spring of 2013. I remembered the book he had presented a little hazily: I knew that the photographs, that he had taken and developed on gelatin silver paper, were unfixed, and that they would disappear over time, that the book was about memory and loss. Since I often have photography students in my CCA class, I thought I might inquire and perhaps purchase or trade for the book. I did remember it as powerful and conceptually interesting, the sort of thing that would appeal to anyone, really.

The book's creator is John Steck Jr. The book is called Lament. It is hardcover, a kind of drum leaf binding with digitally printed text. He made it in 2012 and there are five copies. Each has twelve photographs, including the cover image.

He sent it in a box, formerly used to house photo paper, and wrapped in bubble wrap.

With a loose paper to shield the cover image.

It begins: "All of these memories must leave me"

An inside page: "Shadow of a window, vase of flowers in the distance"

Very simple, understated, yet somehow powerful and not sentimental because of its straightforward description. The mystery lies in the hidden emotion, which is clearly there with words like "no longer there" and "Willow tree in the rain" and "my Ireland."

Last December, before I bought the book, I asked him a few questions, which he was happy to answer. After some  "extreme changes" in his life he found that he had bad associations with a series of photographs he had taken. Struck by how powerful those images had become, he thought he might be able to rid himself of those unpleasant feelings if he watched the images fade away. Ultimately, the more he worked with the images, the more neutral they became. He still felt connected to the images, but they did not cause him further anxiety. Conceptually, the book mimics our experience of memory; we hold onto images and they begin to change and fade gradually over time. As he pointed out, the words of the titles will remain, and even after the images are gone or become ghostly silhouettes, the words can spark the viewer's own imagination. In this way, the viewer will become a more active participant over time.

It is interesting that John confronted his emotions by delving deeper into the material instead of running away from it and how that confrontation (transformation through art) actually released him.

I didn't really want to leave the book in the mailing box with the bubble wrap, so this past week I made a box for it, a clamshell that echoes its colors. Black seemed a natural choice, but the book is a warm black, more brown, and I generally hate all-black boxes anyway. Luckily, I was able to rustle up some scraps of maroon, plus some painted paper pieces that seemed to match.

The box is slightly too large. In calculating the size of the box, I had added an inch to the book's width and height. Three-quarters of an inch probably would have been better. But I'm thinking about wrapping the book in plain muslin cloth, shroud-like, or in black velvet, photographer-style. That will pad it, protect it, and give a clue to its delicate nature, I think.

I will keep it in darkness. But I won't be afraid to look.


Anna Mavromatis said…
The book, the story, your box and desire to house and protect it, the post...
This is a wonderful post. There is an article about memories in the New Yorker this week, Partial Recall. Reminds me of this.
Velma Bolyard said…
i really like this, and like your plan to clothe the book in its box.