After many years of photographing books, I have decided to explore in depth three possibilities: a few Ethiopian Bibles (to be accurate, books of psalms), a sixteenth-century medical book by Ambrose Pare and an obscure Japanese manuscript. Although I know what the text in the Bibles is, these Bibles with their palimpsests of leather, wood, paint, threads, and gazelle skin pages make me want to explore them visually. I can read the English and some of the French edition of Pare, but Pare’s thinking is from another time, the edge of the enlightenment. The only thing familiar about the Japanese manuscript is its basic form as a book. The images you see here are the beginning of an ongoing project.
The Bible in Book announces itself in several ways. It not only speaks as a sculptural object filled with words of a long human tradition; in damp weather, it and its leather nomad’s bag still smell of countless campfires. Its pages have red and black writing in Geez, copied by two or more scribes. Someone has stitched the gazelle skin pages to close natural holes in the hide. This book was probably its owner’s only book, a prized possession. How differently we regard books in the age of Amazon.com.
Ambrose Pare, a sixteenth-century physician to kings of France, wrote a book that was printed in several languages and many editions, a work that reveals the cusp of traditional verbal learning and enlightened observation. The woodcuts are of monsters, beasts, monstrous births, frightening surgical instruments and human anatomy. As the Book proliferated into many additions, the text was edited, translated and cut, and the woodcut blocks were recut until their prints became clumsy shells of the original. Many of the seventeenth-century editions have prints from new blocks copied from earlier editions as well as some entirely new illustrations. Despite the monsters Pare sometimes made brilliant observations. He rediscovered the optic nerves that cross over to the opposite side of the brain (Leonardo da Vinci did observe them in the 15th c.). Unfortunately, this idea and its wonderful illustration do not occur in the English seventeenth-century edition that I have been working with. As soon as information is in a book it gains authority, but that does not guarantee that all is revealed to every reader or that any reader will understand exactly what the author intended, especially when he or she only sees a small part of the book, the part a photographer chooses. I am interested in books that have different lives in different times.
The Japanese manuscript contains nothing that I understand except its extraordinary beauty. Blue silk on the outside, gold leaf for endpapers, it has archaic Japanese text and simple block diagrams. A Japanese curator suggested that the diagrams might be the ceremonial paths of a horse in Shinto ritual but he could not read the text. As with the other books, I work intuitively using visual rather than verbal thinking. Later I come back to each image and think about it verbally, a process that makes for a fascinating journey.
A closed book tempts me to open it. As it opens a book may release ideas the same way an opening door releases light into a darkened room. Alternatively, violence and hatred may explode through a door or a book leaving a dark burned interior. In a book, one person’s violence may be another’s inspiration for good or evil. Once created books, burning bright or dark can only live through those who look at them.
Olivia Parker ©2004