David Solo: An Inveterate Photobook Collector

In a loft apartment in the former grand ballroom of a converted pre-war Brooklyn landmark hotel, David Solo is surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves punctuated by framed photographs, works on paper and a beautiful collection of Chinese scholar’s stones.  The room’s middle space is taken over by a mammoth antique pool table. It is the only diversion in an apartment where art and books take center stage. As an inveterate collector of works on paper and photobooks, David is one of the most informed and knowledgeable people in the field of Asian photobooks. He is also extremely modest – quietly supporting and acquiring books and art way in advance of those who collect according to trends. He is everywhere at once: constantly up-to-date through aggregated online feeds and regularly traveling to Europe and Asia to seek out small bookshops, galleries and obscure art fairs. Recently, I spent several hours visiting David’s collection and learning more about what he values in photobooks.

David Solo
David Solo

Russet Lederman: Your apartment is overflowing with books and art. How did all this begin?

David Solo: Well, I’ve always been a book accumulator, a book person. As a kid, I collected science fiction and mystery novels, and buying books was a natural part of whatever I was interested in. For that reason, I would describe myself as always having accumulated lots of books, but not until recently as a serious collector. My collecting gene, which had been dormant throughout my twenties was rekindled when I moved back to New York from Boston in the mid-1990s and started making connections with museums and art institutions here. As I got interested in various modern and contemporary Asian arts – Chinese and Japanese painting, calligraphy and photography – I turned again to books for historical and reference information.

RL: How did your collecting interest shift from books as reference sources to the photobooks themselves?

DS: As I began collecting contemporary Chinese ink works and following various artists’ creative paths, I became aware that many were also doing photographic works. This led to purchases of both prints and books that included photography. But I think the real crossover came when I started to get more interested in Japanese photography. In the early 2000s, I was doing a lot of traveling in Asia, and Japan in particular. I can’t remember exactly what got me to look more closely at Japanese photography – there was no cause and effect, rather a natural process of observation that incited my interest. I found myself more drawn to photographic series rather than individual prints, and that was the tipping point for my more serious collecting of books. I moved from casually buying books about Japanese photography to collecting Japanese photobooks, beginning with Masahisa Fukase’s Karasu / Ravens (1986), and Shomei Tomatsu’s I Am a King (1972) and Nihon / Japan (1967).

RL: Do you primarily collect Japanese and Chinese photobooks?

DS: No, not at all. My photo and artists’ book collection is very global. That said, there is a strong Asian focus in my collection, with a large Japanese photobook selection in part due to the wide range of amazing material. I have also acquired equally interesting Chinese photobooks, but the earlier material in China just didn’t survive well and those that did are harder to find. For example, in the 1920s, there were avant-garde publications being made both in Tokyo and Shanghai – but hardly any of the Shanghai photobooks survived.  During the State and Cultural Revolution periods few photobooks were produced. In the 1990s, Chinese contemporary photography picked up, but still there just wasn’t much attention given to producing books other than exhibition catalogues. Instead, a premium was placed on large-scale photographs. More recently in China, a growing interest in making photobooks has emerged. But it’s quite different than in Japan, where there’s a broader and deeper interest in the book itself as an object.

RL: Your interest in Japanese photobooks is quite expansive and includes both pre and post-war periods. How did this evolve?

DS: Following various historical paths of the Japanese book as object led me to learn more about Japanese visual experiments in the 1920s and ‘30s. Many of these books blend Japanese and Chinese motifs with various avant-garde traditions from Europe, such as Expressionism, Surrealism, Bauhaus design elements, Russian Constructivism and visual poetry.  As my fascination with this period grew, I became more attuned to pre-war materials through exhibitions and dealer visits. Initially, I didn’t acquire anything because I told myself it wasn’t what I collected. But then by the second or third time, I had to admit that I really liked what I saw and eventually temptation kicked in. Many of the books from the Tokyo avant-garde pre-war period blur the borders between photo and artists’ books. There was a lot of crossover between music, performance, literature and photography. My aesthetic sensibility leans towards works that explore these experimental alterative processes, and in doing so also often include calligraphy or typographic elements. As a result, I am drawn to Sosaku-Hanga, the Japanese creative print and book design movement of the 1920s. As one of its main proponents, Koshiro Onchi broke with the traditional graphic model of multiple artisans creating a wood block print and advocated that a single artist should be involved from start to finish as designer, carver, and printer. The books from this movement reveal a strong Bauhaus montage influence, where photographic images are mixed with graphic design.

Koshiro Onchi. Umi no Dowa (Tokyo: Hanga-so, 1934)
Koshiro Onchi. Umi no Dowa (Tokyo: Hanga-so, 1934)

RL: You also have a strong interest in the radical Japanese Mavo Group of the 1920s. Although less photographic, their books speak to the overlap between artists’ and photobooks.

DS: Yes, the Mavo group is more about visual poetry and avant-garde graphics inspired by the European Bauhaus movement. Their books are amazing objects and I started to read what I could on them. About ten years ago, Gennifer Weisenfeld, an art historian at Duke University, published the first English language book on the movement. She outlined how many of the Mavo group artists, which included Tomoyoshi Muriyama, were reacting in different ways to the prevailing Japanese aesthetic and the social upheaval of the 1920s, which was shaped to a certain degree by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and Tokyo’s destruction and subsequent reconstruction as a modern industrial city.

Increasingly, many artists of all forms are using photographic images as part of their visual language and my collection includes a fair number of works that explore overlaps between distinct disciplines. Like a lot of things, it’s a question of context. In many institutions, rare photobooks are acquired or collected by different departments than those that collect artists’ books. Also, many photographers as photobook-makers still think of themselves as somewhat separate from the artists’ book community. Published scholarship separates them – with books about photobooks and books about artists’ books, and not much blending between the two. Recently, there’s started to be some interesting new essay books that discuss the photobook as artists’ book, but it is not the norm.

Kyojiro Hagiwara. Shikei senkoku / Death Sentence (Tokyo, 1925)
Kyojiro Hagiwara. Shikei senkoku / Death Sentence (Tokyo, 1925)

RL: Do you see your collection as accessible to those who do research?

DS: Absolutely. I learn a lot when people come here and tell me something new as they do research within my collection. Often what happens is a scholar, depending on how well they’re funded to travel, will see material mediated through books or online and not in person. I’m more than happy to provide access to the original material whenever possible. It also is an excuse to pull things out that I haven’t looked at for awhile. I always enjoy finding connections or questions that I hadn’t thought about when books were originally acquired.

RL: How do you think your travels and ability to see exhibitions abroad affects your photobook acquisitions?

DS: It’s hard for me to take a trip that doesn’t involve loading a good number of books into my return luggage. Almost anywhere I go, within a week or two, there’s some kind of book fair or other photo or works on paper event. I do end up seeing a lot. For the targeted and more focused kinds of collecting – with Japan or otherwise – I can do a lot remotely, but it’s still good to be able to go. Some dealers in particular work much better in person. If I’m dealing with a dealer who I understand how they talk about condition, then buying something remotely is fine. But in some cases, it is better to see the books in person and establish a relationship.

RL: Over the past 5 years, interest in and information about photobooks has greatly expanded. Why do you think this is?

DS: I don’t know. I’ve been trying to figure it out.  The fairs are one thing, but now there are so many Internet sites and blogs devoted to photobooks. When I get up in the morning, and skim through all the feeds that I subscribe to, it seems like there are 40 new photobooks that I’m being exposed to each day. I’m not sure whether there always has been this interest and there just weren’t as many vehicles to communicate it, or there really are now more people interested. One side of it might be that a lot more photobooks are now being published, and as a result people are more actively looking at photobooks. I don’t know whether this translates to people buying more photobooks or not. I’ve noticed that even when a book is published in a small edition of 20 or 30, there never seems to be a problem getting a copy – except for the one or two, for whatever reason, is a hot book of the year that everyone feels that they must have. So in that sense, trend-wise, there seems to be a lot of people energetically creating them and wanting to share them in whatever form they can. But I don’t know how many people are collecting them.

RL: How have all the recently published books on photobooks influenced collecting practices?

DS: Without any question, there has been an explosion of books about photobooks in the last few years – where every country, every city, or personal collection now has a book about its photobooks. I have a separate section in my bookshelves for books on photobooks and it has expanded quite a bit recently. There can be a danger in using these books on photobooks as strict guides. Personally, I still find more satisfaction in discovering the quirky, “never seen this before” book. Finding eclectic and interesting things that may reflect a side tangent is just as much fun as getting a copy of a “hot” book listed in all the books on books. I enjoy the process of hunting and finding – especially finding something and deciding what I think of it as opposed to whether it made the latest list or book on books.

I also suspect that the advent of numerous photobook prizes and awards have encouraged photographers who might have in the past been satisfied with just making a catalogue or simply a record to be used as a sales tool. The effect has been to make more photographers think about design and other elements of the book form.  More people are conducting workshops and portfolio review sessions around photobook design and dummies.  In terms of trends, I think this is indicative that photobooks have a broader role in the art and photo world than perhaps they had 15 years ago.

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