Print Study Room: Weird Books

We often see the book as a transparent container for the text inside, and thus we tend not to see it at all. What happens when that changes—when we look at the book rather than through it? What new possibilities might we see for poetic imagination, artistic experimentation, and social engagement?

Assignment

Inspired by these questions, students in the Scribner Seminar “Weird Books,” taught by Assistant Professor of English Paul Benzon, studied a range of unconventional, experimental, and weird books.

They explored how creators across a range of disciplines use the material form of the book to engage with questions of identity, history, authorship, and representation. Each student selected a book-based work from the Tang collection to study, research, and write about for this online exhibition, organized by three key themes: Materials and Materiality; Treated Books, Authorship, and Appropriation; and Mystery.
Anchor name: Materials & Materiality

Materials and Materiality

A blue-spined, green and yellow speckled book cover depicts two trumpeters standing on top of an image of earth amongst the words “5 YEAR PLAN” outlined in red.
Aaron Sinift, 5 Year Plan, 2010, 5-color screen print on home-spun, hand-woven, unbleached cotton khadi, 13 1/8 x 13 ½ x 1 ¾ inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Jamie and Peter Hort, 2020.24.11.1a-gg
Allie Serapilio ’25

“The 5 Year Plan gives artists a chance to make a tangible contribution to the common good, simply by doing what they already do naturally. If people just give what they do naturally, everyone can live together with dignity.” — Aaron Sinift, Fall 2021

In this artwork—created in the style of a bound book including contributions from a variety of visual artists including Yoko Ono, Chris Martin, Francesco Clemente, and many others—Aaron Sinift aims to create global cohesion and promote philanthropy through his artistic practice. Many of the artists’ page contributions are political in their visual content, whether it be promoting equity, speaking on terrorism, or commenting on the nature of war. The imagery inside the piece is often violent or striking, drawing viewers in to contemplate these political and ethical issues. The specific choice to create 5 Year Plan in a book format beckons its viewers to become physically involved in their humanitarian practices, turning the pages to images of various political or social issues that those specific artists deem as worthy of our time, attention, and care. In a similar style to that of a zine, Sinift creates a small-circulation piece through the form of an interactive book, made by hand with the intention of cultivating a global community of culturally conscious art consumers.

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Since he was young, Sinift has been enamored with Indian culture, and a trip to India inspired him to create 5 Year Plan using traditional Indian khadi fabrics. True to Gandhian values of service and independence, he commissioned impoverished weavers and artists from India to provide the fabric for this project. Local artists and makers were able to stay employed and fed for months, invigorating the community both economically and spiritually. Due to the philanthropic focus of the project, Sinift gains no profit from the sale and production of each edition of 5 Year Plan, emphasizing the importance of mutual aid and altruism. Sinift asks each of his viewers to practice their own personal responsibility of turning the pages of their own “book” of social issues and do what they can for those in need.
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An open book showing two pages containing multiple fabric swatches of various colors, patterns, and sizes arranged in an asymmetrical grid.
Unrecorded Japanese artist, fabric sample book, n.d., silk, board, paper, 10 7/8 x 13 1/8 x 2 1/8 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Jack Shear, 2020.32.53
Gilly Ross ’25
This Japanese fabric sample book by an unrecorded artist is a book full of fabric swatches collected over time. The book includes samples on both sides of the pages and opens in a surprising accordion style. Several colorful swatches in an array of sizes adorn page after page: some occupy small portions of their respective pages while in contrast, one purple swatch is highlighted on its own solo page. The fabrics themselves incorporate nature motifs, including cranes and lotus flowers, and some samples have the mythical phoenix woven into the design.
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Ultimately, the unknown artist leaves us with questions such as, why put swatches into a book format? Was it for convenience or was it a deliberate action to make art for art itself? This question invites us to think about the artist of the book and what the motivation was for creating this book. One may even consider it as a simple project to pass the time, a record of clothing they had in their possession, or a part of their job, perhaps as a seamstress or a tailor. Is it a simple thing of making a collage or is there a deeper meaning revealed upon closer observation? This makes us wonder if the placement of different fabric was deliberate and carefully thought out or if it was a matter of space and what could fit. Rather than solely focusing on the physicality of the book, what is the cultural significance of having such a book in one’s possession? To have such a book full of silk and other fabrics might suggest an upper-class owner who could afford to have a large collection, although cut up, to put neatly into a book.
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A book page containing multiple fabric swatches of various colors, patterns, and sizes arranged in an asymmetrical grid.
Unrecorded Japanese artist, fabric sample book, n.d., silk, board, paper, 10 7/8 x 13 1/8 x 2 1/8 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Jack Shear, 2020.32.53
Nikki Qian ’25
This sample book includes dozens of patterned fabrics that may have served a wide range of uses including business and trade, cultural dissemination, and aesthetics. Not every fabric sample is cut into identical shape or size which reflects that there may be a great possibility the sample book was created casually. Many details show the book was not elaborately arranged when it was being produced, and even the most basic information such as author, publication time, and copyright ownership were not included.
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Japanese embroidery originated around 500 AD. It is a traditional craft. The Japanese learned the technology from China, then combined it with their unique knowledge of design, colors, and techniques to form a unique Japanese aesthetics called wabi (侘び)-sabi (寂び), which generally refers to things that are simple and imperfect. At the first blush, the fabrics truly give you a feeling of peace and elegance. It is dim and some of the pattern seems faded. It looks imperfect, even though there are bright colors such as orange, yellow, and purple as well as brown and black used. This is the beauty of wabi-sabi.

The aesthetics represents an attitude toward nature and the love of the imperfections and defects of everything in the world. The perception of the changing seasons and nature provides ideas for a variety of decorative patterns. The design of patterns of seasonal plants shows delicate perceptions of the changing world, an interpretation of the close connection between art and nature. There are flowers and leaves on nearly every single sample. In Japan, there are certain ideas around nature and death. When the petals fall to the ground, they are as beautiful as when they bloom on the branches. Learning to discover beauty in flaws, this book exemplifies the spirit of Japanese aesthetics.

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Against a blue carpet sits a blue book with a photograph affixed to the cover depicting a train’s interior with a silhouetted head looking out the window.
Leslie Hewitt, Riffs on Real Time (1 of 10), 2006–2009, chromogenic print, 30 x 24 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Ann and Mel Schaffer Family Collection, 2017.22.7
Memories are something we try our very best to grasp onto but are often difficult to share with others. In Riffs on Real Time (1 of 10), Leslie Hewitt finds a way to bring memories out into reality through both photography and objecthood, like when she emphasizes the objective elements of items, such as the blue carpet layered with the blue book. This allows for memories and the feelings those memories hold to be shared with others as if the moment could live on forever. The viewer is immediately captivated by the use of the layering to focus on the foreground images, making it look like a window or a portal of some kind.
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As an African American artist who focuses on the unequal ways in which different kinds of art are celebrated in the American public eye, Hewitt strives to capture and quite literally frame real moments in Black lives to celebrate their role in American culture. Hewitt is challenging how society has been molded to benefit the white gaze. Hewitt’s artwork successfully spreads this paramount message by challenging typical assumptions about what art is or should be and asserting Black life as valid and important. Hewitt places Black cultural contributions on a pedestal to be pondered and appreciated in popular culture. Growing up, Hewitt saw and admired how her grandmother would take and organize her photographs, which was a large part of her inspiration for her later artwork. She makes these candid, seemingly insignificant photographs incredibly significant through her choice of layering the photos with books, carpets, and other objects one might find around a house. Through her intense examination of seemingly insignificant items, Hewitt brings to the viewers’ eyes the beauty of daily African American life. Inspired by other Black artists, she asserts the validity and showcases the beauty and significance of Black art independently and in American culture as a whole.
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A book stands vertically, open to a white page spread with black pop-up structures depicting a silhouetted scene of a figure lying on their back and palm tree in center.
Kara Walker, Freedom: A fable–A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times with Illustrations, 1997, bound volume of offset lithographs and five laser-cut, pop-up silhouettes on wove paper, 9 ¼ x 8 ¼ inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Frank and Patti Kolodny, 2012.20.2.5
Shane Ryan ’25
An unstable serenity persists through the pages of Walker’s Freedom, a Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times, with Illustrations, an inner and outer peace, a freedom, which remains in question. Note that figures white and black are partly redacted, raised to the fore, highlighted. Viewers might ask: is the work color-blind or does it challenge the very binaries which for years have relegated Black authors and artists to a purely political, historical realm, one where only trauma can be found? Freedom, a Fable is characteristic of Walker’s style in its subdued violence, its subtlety. The book is not a pop-up storybook but simply a codex, with moving shapes, one that could be read to a child, a narrative of a freed slave, a Black woman whose total freedom is a fable.
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Walker’s work, she explains, has the ambiguous duty of being both part of the real world (which is cruel and nasty) and the world of other images (which sometimes pretend to be noble, but often conceal disgusting intentions). Freedom, a Fable occurs between the political and apolitical, between mourning and celebration, between profanity and prudence, text and image. It is not a revision nor an inspired vision of history, but a Fable.
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Anchor name: Treated Books, Authorship & Appropriation

Treated Books, Authorship, and Appropriation

An open book showing a page of text with heading “A Human Document” and scribble-like red, green, and black drawing over most of the other text, rendering it illegible.
Tom Phillips, A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel (detail), 1976–1978 bound book, screen print, video, 8 x 5 ½ x 1 ¾ inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Ben and Lesta Wunsch, 1982.102a-d
Kimberly Pienkawa ’25
Tom Phillips’s A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel is a reconstructed Victorian novel: Phillips altered the pages of a preexisting book through paint and collage techniques. In this work, language is woven into artistic layouts of the recognizable designs of faces, of coffee cups, etc., alongside more fluid, geometric shapes, contrasting bright and solid colors with blurry overlapping ones. The effect of fragmented images juxtaposed with conventional structures still applied within the novel (such as the traditional font, the chapter titles, and the paper binding of the cover) is one of a surreal, dreamlike state. Phillips’s composition of concrete and abstract drawings paired with language centers sensory experience, rather than comprehension of plot material, as the attention is drawn to the varied ways the text and art interact with each other, rather than solely what the text is communicating on its own. Sometimes the text is alienated from the pictures, while with other pages, the words complement the illustrations.
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The reworked novel inquires about who the author is, as the designs are constructed from Phillips’s overlay of color and images on another book. The borrowed words build a connection between what Phillips read and what he developed inventively with the material: prior text is integrated with pictures in a new context where art contrasts or expands on it. How does assimilating words written by someone else affect the definition of an author? What role do textuality and visuality (and the tension between the two) play in deciding authorship and why do they matter?
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A black leather-bound book with gilded page edges and “HOLY BIBLE” and “OLD TESTAMENT” gilded on its spine.
David Hammons, The Holy Bible: Old Testament, 2002, soft cover, leather-bound, gilt-edged, gold-tooled artist’s book with slipcover, 2 ¼ x 10 5/8 x 13 3/8 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Peter Norton, 2014.7.10a-b
Natasha Machera ’25
When closed, this artwork by David Hammons creates the illusion of a religious object given its golden title—The Holy Bible: Old Testament. It is upon opening the pages of the object that one begins to view the works of the artist Marcel Duchamp. The same way the Old Testament foreshadowed Jesus of the New Testament, Hammons pays tribute to Duchamp as the prophetic figure of modern art deserving worship and celebration.
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In its form, the object appropriates the works of Duchamp into a readymade Bible, allowing the viewer first to ponder on whether ready-mades should be considered art, since they are not entirely original, and then perhaps to take a step further to consider who then is the right person or thing to define what art really is. Alternatively, because the object is leather-bound, it may be taken as a book, rather than a stack of paper.

By looking at the object’s form and content, it is then up to the viewer to decide which of the two is most important in defining the object. Should it be taken literally as another Bible? Is it a piece of art, or merely a book? Perhaps just like the author, the viewer may even opt to define the object by fusing both the form and content of the book, creating a definition that allows multiplicity in meaning.

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An open book with a black ribbon bookmark in the center and an artwork image on each page.
David Hammons, The Holy Bible: Old Testament, 2002, soft cover, leather-bound, gilt-edged, gold-tooled artist’s book with slipcover, 2 ¼ x 10 5/8 x 13 3/8 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Peter Norton, 2014.7.10a-b
Yury Leonardo ’25
The artwork by David Hammons The Holy Bible: Old Testament looks like a normal Old Testament when you first glance at it, from the soft leather cover to the gilded edges. This book, though, is a mockery of the Bible. It is a book only meant to be seen from the outside. David Hammons uses this mystery aspect to taunt the viewer into thinking this is a normal Bible that many people have seen when, in reality, it isn’t. It is a book filled with Marcel Duchamp’s best artworks, which poke fun at how we view old art as high and mighty. The use of the Holy Bible as a cover is to show that if someone is foolish enough to be deceived by surface appearance, anything could be a Bible. This is usual in David Hammons’s works, as he makes art to taunt people’s ideas and perceptions of reality and what art really means.
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This artwork specifically raises a lot of questions about authorship, such as who the first person was to make these art pieces and whether adding a black leather binding around a book suddenly makes the book an artwork, a whole new piece claimed by Hammons. The artworks themselves inside the book are artworks made by multiple other people, with Duchamp’s twist of them being made to ridicule old art. This at first glance feels like plagiarism of plagiarism, a work heavily referenced from another. But Hammons still makes it his own by taking it a step above in how he ridicules other people—and, one could say, even religion.
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Multicolored and shaded red, blue, and white shapes resembling wounds are painted on text-heavy pages of a book.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S., The Red Badge of Courage, 1987–1988, oil on book pages mounted on linen, 24 x 36 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of Dan Cameron, 2020.27
Lila Ressler ’25
The Red Badge of Courage by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) explores the intersection and relationship between art and literature and challenges traditional portrayals of masculinity. The group’s work is layered over The Red Badge of Courage, a novel by Stephen Crane, and serves as a modern commentary on an outdated text. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. create art in response to previously established literary works and use it as a way to emphasize themes within a text. Rollins formed the art collective while working with underprivileged youth, many with learning disorders, showing how one can incorporate activism in art.
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Together, the group takes traditional Western literature and uses artwork as a tool to defy institutional, historical, and societal norms and values. The method of renovating white canonical literature by collaging over it symbolizes a pushing back against the system. They give a voice to those who perhaps would otherwise be voiceless, and do this in the context of the white, male presence—in this instance, Stephen Crane. The main character of Crane’s novel, Henry, has archaic notions of manhood that are centered around the conflation of courage and violence; these ideals are reflected in his actions as a Union soldier in the Civil War. The artwork provides commentary on the outdatedness of this depiction of the male experience. Members of the group painted shapes evocative of bullet holes over the text, wounding the novel. In the context of the piece, this signifies a modernization of the notions of masculinity that are present in Crane’s work while on a larger scale, it prompts us to consider how we can use the past to shine light on prevalent modern-day issues. We must acknowledge the heteronormative, white, patriarchal past—and present—in order to allow for the flourishing of previously silenced perspectives. We must collage over it in order to create a more colorful, inclusive future.
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Anchor name: Mystery

Mystery

A book submerged in water inside a dome-shaped terrarium is situated on top of a laurel wreath and an octagonal, wooden base with letters  C, E, S
Nayland Blake, H.O.S. (Pickled Pornography), 1988, wood, silk laurel wreath and glass dome containing House of Studs pornography book, 31 x 13 x 13 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of the Hort Family Collection, 2008.10.2a-c
Ezra Merleaux ’25
A book of gay erotic fiction sits submerged in brine, wreathed with fake plants on an ornate wooden pedestal. This trophy of a bygone era, when homosexual content was only available discreetly in cheap, disposable novels on poor-quality paper, is preserved both figuratively and literally by artist Nayland Blake. Blake preserves the book as a biological specimen, floating in a dusty bell jar, a dead relic of gay culture. But is this hidden, hyper-masculine and hypersexual pornographic culture dead and gone, merely a stepping stone toward more inclusive queer text? Or is queer culture today still haunted by the issues in these pages, of concealment and toxic masculinity? The letters encircling the base read “SUCCESSES.” The fact of these books’ existence, descriptions of passionate love between men, free on the whole from moral condemnation, was a revolutionary step in the gay rights movement. So is it to be celebrated as a success for queer liberation? Books like House of Studs, despite being mass-produced in their era, are rare nowadays because of their disposability, meant to be read and thrown out discreetly. By pickling this piece of historical ephemera, Blake questions what is worth preserving in culture.
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One of the pages Blake leaves open is a foreword on homosexuality: “For those open minded Americans who have realized that homosexuality is another facet of the human condition, their problem is that they believe that homosexuals are vastly different from themselves.” Even though it was published in 1977, does this still ring true today? Did it when Blake created the piece in 1988? Now, over three decades later, queer culture and acceptance is even more radically different. Although the book seems dead, its era and cultural movement finished and replaced with modern, progressive queer representation, how much has really changed since this book was sealed away? Is this foreword still necessary?
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A book with one page of text visible starting with the heading “FOREWORD” is submerged in a water-filled dome-shaped terrarium with laurel leaves at the base.
Nayland Blake, H.O.S. (Pickled Pornography) (detail), 1988, wood, silk laurel wreath and glass dome containing House of Studs pornography book, 31 x 13 x 13 inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, gift of the Hort Family Collection, 2008.10.2a-c
Elizabeth Wood ’25
Nayland Blake is an American artist whose work often explores themes of same-sex attraction and intolerance. Their piece, H.O.S. (Pickled Pornography), renders a book near-unreadable, which forces viewers to read it not as a book, but as an object. The book in question is author Wes Talbot’s 1977 gay pulp novel House of Studs, now pickled in brine for almost 40 years. As shocking as it may have seemed at the time of its publication, this copy of House of Studs is a weird book not in content, but in context. The bell jar containing the pickled book is mounted on an octagonal riser painted with the word “SUCCESSES,” festooned with a garland of fake ivy. Why did they choose to pickle the book in brine? Why did they remove the cover? Was it to expose the publisher’s note and order form, or to hide the identity of the “pickled pornography”? Furthermore, what successes are they referring to?
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At the time House of Studs was published, it was common for gay pulp fiction books to have publisher’s notes explaining how the book fit into a historical or social context. This was in part because of changes in American censorship regulation in the 1970s that allowed gay pulp fiction to thrive, so long as it justified itself as having some sort of literary, artistic, or social merit. How does this careful framing manifest in House of Studs? And by describing the book as pornography and encasing it in such a phallic manner, is Blake debasing the text, or freeing it from the shackles of homonormativity?
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A black-and-white photograph depicting      book’s zoomed-in images of a galaxy with light beams and orbs emitting from larger stars and dotted speckles from smaller ones.
Abelardo Morell, Book of Stars, 1994, gelatin silver print, 20 1/8 x 24 inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2015.1.465
Lulu Yu ’25

“One day in 1993 I was looking at a book of works by El Greco. [As] I turned a page, its surface caught light from a window at a funny angle, changing a reproduction of a painting into a shimmering distortion. What I saw wasn’t El Greco anymore, but it was a beautiful new image nonetheless. I photographed this effect and was immediately inspired to find other ways of seeing books in a new light, so to speak.” —Abelardo Morell

Morell uses photography not only as a way to record the past and to express nostalgia but to spark imagination and thinking from common objects. His works inspire the audience to see the wonder in daily life. In Book of Stars, Morell pictured dazzling stars of the universe in a book, capturing the vast universe into a small photograph.

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Why choose a book specifically? As Morell’s experiments in “seeing books in a new light” suggest, the reflection of light on pages strengthened the sense of haziness and mystery. Moreover, there’s no better metaphor for “a new world” than an open book. Morell makes the universe into not just castles in the air, but everyday items that we can hold in our hands. The distant universe and stars are never so concrete and touchable. Furthermore, this artwork questions our own existence. Is it possible that we’re living in a book? When we’re appreciating the universe in Book of Stars, are we being appreciated by others outside the photograph that contains our universe? Can we ever know that our universe exists for real or just as a certain artistic creation by someone else?
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A black-and-white photograph showing a detail of a book corner with pages whose pages depict photographs of stars and orbs in the galaxy.
Abelardo Morell, Book of Stars (detail), 1994, gelatin silver print, 20 1/8 x 24 inches, The Jack Shear Collection of Photography at the Tang Teaching Museum, 2015.1.465
Dorothy Wang ’25
Page ninety-nine of A Book of Books, a book of Abelardo Morell’s photographs, contains Book of Stars, a black-and-white photograph of a book open to a photograph of a galaxy. As we look closely at this photograph, thousands of stars glow in different magnitudes, showing that each star is unique in its shape, size, and brightness. The stars and halos even come out of the limited space of the page and extend onto the tabletop. Where the pages are stacked, another page of stars exists. This weird book can only begin to be further understood through the following question: what do the stars themselves represent? Each individual star is a part of something bigger, representing our galaxy and solar system as a whole while suggesting that other stars could also have lives of infinite possibilities.
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Secondly, thinking about how the author blurs the line between spaces, why can stars and light cross the boundary of books and desktops? Why can there be a book in a book? This mystery leads us to reflect on the relationship between two-dimensional space and three-dimensional space. When we are in three-dimensional space, appreciating the universe on the pages of this two-dimensional space, will someone in four-dimensional space look at our universe in the same way? Finally, how does the existence of another parallel page of stars relate to the current page? The parallel page is associated with a parallel space, and the different pages of stars imply that other universes exist beyond the human universe. Such a concept is known as a parallel universe, representing different outcomes that can be obtained in different parallel universes that create a sense of mysterious possibilities.

Abelardo Morell uses photography to replace text, making it different from traditional representation. He also provokes the reader to see beyond conventional form as we enter the world of the book itself and experience the galaxy. With the development of photography and the concept of books, more and more books presented in photography can convey brilliant and mysterious ideas.

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A red velveted gold case, opened like a book, holds a photograph of a man posing with one arm resting on a stack of books and another book in hand.
Unrecorded artist, title unknown, n.d., daguerrotype in case, 4 x 7 ½ inches, Tang Teaching Museum collection, EL2021.4.15
Nick Flecha ’25
This untitled piece from an unknown artist, which depicts an unknown person, is a daguerreotype. The daguerreotype was a revolutionary invention by Louis Daguerre from 1839 and served as the first form of photography. Unlike how we print photographs today, daguerreotypes were made using silver-pated copper plates. This meant that they were extremely fragile and needed to be protected by some sort of housing. This is why this specific piece uses a folding case to keep the image intact.
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More so, this piece incorporates elements of mystery within it. To start, the folding case cover does not appear to have any significant markings that can identify the man in the photograph. This results in the man in the photograph being unrecognizable, which is ironic because the main selling point of the daguerreotype was that it preserves someone’s face. The sitter possibly bought this daguerreotype as a way to be remembered yet he is unknown by the people of today, despite the preservation of their face. The other mysterious elements of this piece start in its closed form. When in its closed form, there is nothing specific that the case reveals. The observer is forced to make assumptions about what’s inside. When opened, it answers some questions but poses many more questions that cannot be answered. The mysterious properties of this work can help us better focus on the physical part of the piece or the whole concept of daguerreotypes themselves.
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Pattern by Jonnea Herman ’18
Inspired by the annual February Tang <3 Students Event
The Tang Pattern Project celebrates the Museum’s 20th anniversary. Organized by Head of Design Jean Tschanz-Egger, past and current Tang Design Interns created patterns inspired by the Museum’s exhibition and event history.