“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Reading is usually a solitary, self-absorbed activity so photographs of people reading represent an intrusion. Alternatively, a photograph of someone reading is a photograph of someone only pretending to read. The photographer is a spy or an accomplice, both soiled occupations and each is instrumental to photography.
Reading was one of the earliest themes in photography. People sat for their portraits at a table with a book. Sometimes it was open and they leaned forward to read. The book was a prop to add interest to the scene with the advantage that having the subject study the open page kept them still for the long exposures. The presence of a book could signify knowledge, education and class but it could also have been the nearest object at hand for the photographer to use.
By the mid 1880s amateurs were buying miniature cameras that fitted into their stovepipe hats or cravats and some models that actually looked like books. The era of the amateur spy was a godsend to fear-mongers. Newspapers from the period carried wise warnings to young women to be aware that however harmless their activities outdoors, snappers were always lurking in the bushes. On August 20, 1884 the New York Times suggested no one was safe from camera lunatics. Almost exactly one year later, on August 18, an amateur interviewed proudly boasted that ‘while there is honor amongst thieves, there is none amongst photographers’. (That was after he woke up a group of sleeping drunks just so he could get a look of surprise on their faces.)
If spying on readers is the more recent phenomenon it’s a lot more interesting as well. People absorbed in reading have all manner of curious gestures. They screw up their faces, laugh to themselves, mouth words, pick their noses and suddenly look up and stare into space, lost in thought. Of all the activities usually done with the clothes on, reading is the most removed from the outer world. People can read on busy streets or in crowded terminals, in noisy cafes or rattling trains oblivious to everything happening around them. The photographer is invading a personal space the subject isn’t even aware of having created.
Andre Kertész occasionally photographed people reading and collected his examples in a book published in 1971 and called On Reading. For a man who spent a long time wandering the streets of various countries, readers were a natural subject. They remained still long enough for him to structure the composition and most of them weren’t conscious they were being photographed. Beginning in 1936, for five years Walker Evans rode the New York subway with a camera strapped under his jacket. Some of his unwitting subjects were also reading. Kertész and Evans were using a similar approach, the difference being that Evans needed to get closer so had to hide the camera, and both wanted the same result. Evans wanted to photograph people when ‘the guard is down and the mask is off”, which was what Kertész was also after.
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