Above my bed hangs a small black and white photograph of the artist Joseph Cornell, a torn frontispiece from one of his biographies. In it, Cornell is sitting outside, his lumpish figure hunched over in a rickety chair that looks more appropriate for a child. His body is turned away from the camera, just barely revealing the corner of the book he’s holding. A tangle of blurred branches juts into the right edge of the frame, making the picture feel especially voyeuristic, as though we’re intruding on a silent conversation he’s having with himself. It’s the kind of image that befits a man known for his lifelong solitude, who, through his obsessive tinkering, sought to transform the discarded materials of the world into objects of reverie. Cornell is something of the ultimate fantasist, a maker of miniature dreamworlds, which makes him seem an ideal person to be shown immersed in the act of reading. Is his attention sustained by the book in front of him? Or is he daydreaming about Rose Hobart, or another one of his infatuations from the silver screen, like those whose images adorned the edges of his bedroom mirror? None of this is discernible, and my feeling is that the allure of this photograph, and others like it, resides in that barrier to knowing, in the kind of unfounded speculation that arises from it. ‘Is there anything,’ Sven Birkets asks, ‘more open-ended, and more suggestive, than the sight of an open book?’
Photographs of readers are a peculiar species of portraiture, if they can be considered portraits at all. Unlike other photographs of people, which can proffer a sense of the subject’s interiority through their facial expressions and bodily posture, pictures of readers are set apart by their preoccupation with the page, making their outward appearance remarkably untelling. With the picture of Cornell, a viewer is twice removed. Not only is the subject occupied by something that eludes visual representation, his back is also to the camera, so that we’re incapable of registering even a furrowed brow or some other gesture that might signify what’s going on underneath the surface. Unable to impart much about the dynamic mental processes that constitute the activity of reading, pictures of readers can sometimes feel especially mute and inaccessible. Even if the reading subjects could somehow transcend the picture’s immobile surface, the subtle scanning of eyes and occasional turn of the page would still fall short of suggesting something of their inner life.
Photographs of readers are a peculiar species of portraiture, if they can be considered portraits at all.
Such pictures are invitations to a different kind of photographic reading, though, one that feels less like learned visual literacy and more akin to a form of daydreaming. While pictures of readers seem to highlight the rift between reading’s cognitive locus and the representative capacity of the photograph, they can also be particularly generous, encouraging flights of fancy and wild, pleasurable conjecture. The subject is withdrawn into themselves, blank in expression and dull to the camera’s presence, leaving a viewer free to pile on whatever suppositions they please. The nature of the exchange between reader and text in the photograph, ‘the gap from eye to page,’ as Philip Larkin calls it, becomes a space for projection, and an invitation to more imaginative thinking. Looking at photographs of readers, one also gets the sense that there is a peculiar kind of mimicry being acted out. We are looking at someone looking at something, absorbed in the same activity to which we are also onlookers. This is especially true of photobooks containing these images, like André Kertész’s On Reading or Melissa Catanese’s recent Voyagers, filled with image upon image of stoic bibliophiles craning their necks over books, magazines, and newspapers. Moving through the pages of these books, one feels themselves inadvertently emulating the subjects in the pictures, becoming a reader of readers. This is another reason why I think pictures of reading subjects tend to be so captivating. They are, at least within the binary logic of John Szarkowski, less like a window and more like a mirror.