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These days, it seems people do most of their reading using one electronic device or another, but enormous numbers of us still treasure time spent with the tangible printed page. From the first crisp crack of a textbook’s spine to the faintly mildewed scent of a beloved, dog-eared novel, paper publications conjure a sensory avalanche. Panopticon Gallery induces a wave of sensations in Bibliophile, a group show with images ranging from historic photographs of Boston’s literary repositories to modern abstractions of line and form, featuring the work of Thomas Allen, Mark Douglas, Carolyn Hampton, Sean Kernan, Thomas Marr, Fawn Potash and Aline Smithson, on view until October 28th, 2018.
Black & White photographs predominate, imparting a reverential feel to the show. Fawn Potash arranges old texts in visually pleasing patterns against black backgrounds, with subdued lighting, sepia toning and hand-rubbed wax finishes conferring a somber look that contradicts their fanciful compositions. Sean Kernan pays homage to aged books by picturing open spreads of foreign or Old English texts, using directional lighting that highlights both font and surface texture and placing objects in the foreground as a clue to their content. Mark Douglas takes yet a different approach, manipulating the undulating pages of water-damaged books to create modern, high-contrast studies of line and form that look almost solarized in his Lith-processed silver gelatin prints. Additional context, appeal and gravitas are supplied by vintage documentary photographs of the Boston Public Library (anonymous photographer) and of the Boston Athenaeum by Thomas Marr.
The tone gets notably lighter in the exhibit’s color photographs. Aline Smithson walks us back a generation, seemingly into a time warp between 1950-1970 or so, in photographs with warm nostalgic palettes, comfy chintz sofas and reading chairs, and close-ups of shelves with book collections and vintage radios that invite us down a biographical memory lane. Thomas Allen injects whimsy into the show with his photographic send-ups of pulp fiction, positioning illustrated characters with vintage books in vibrant, dramatically lit scenes with action-packed narratives and pithy titles.
Although Bibliophile captivates with some remarkable imagery, a more fitting name for this show might have been “Bibliograph”, as in “book display”, since the exhibit takes a rather objective view of the subject, much like a comparative typology expounding on ways to observe books. To my mind, “Bibliophile” proclaims love, a level of emotional engagement always difficult to achieve, but especially when there are few images with people actually relating to books. I think the show would have been that much more compelling with the inclusion of photographs directly expressing that exhilarating avalanche of sensory connections we experience when we pick up a book and read.
For hours, directions and more information about the exhibit, go to: https://www.panopticongallery.com/bibliophile/
Feature Image: “Stolen Pile of Books, 1995” (Detail) Sepia-toned silver gelatin print with hand-rubbed wax finish by Fawn Potash (courtesy of the artist and Panopticon Gallery, Boston).