What Catherine Gass Knows

Today I have the pleasure of posting an interview with Catherine Gass, who’s been the Photographer at the Newberry Library for the last ten years. The Newberry, an independent research library open to the public without charge, is one of my favorite places in Chicago, and Catherine’s work is vital to their mission of research, preservation and education.


April 29, 2009

Today I have the pleasure of posting an interview with Catherine Gass, who’s been the Photographer at the Newberry Library for the last ten years. The Newberry, an independent research library open to the public without charge, is one of my favorite places in Chicago, and Catherine’s work is vital to their mission of research, preservation and education.

Catherine is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received her MFA in 1997. Her BFA is from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Her work has been published in books and journals such as A Field Guide to the North American Family, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Cornell UP, 2008), and Notre Dame Review #23. She has exhibited at the Wrigley Building (Chicago); Artemesia Gallery (Chicago); Left Bank Books (St. Louis); Organization of Independent Artists (NYC); Open Book (Minneapolis); and elsewhere. Her awards include a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Program Grant, and an Illinois Arts Council Assistance Grant.

We met originally at a luncheon for her father, writer William Gass.


Catherine, welcome. What’s a typical day for you at the Newberry?

The library houses an extensive non-circulating collection of rare books, maps, music and manuscripts. I photograph the collection for publication and archival purposes, and create the images we all take for granted in history books and exhibits. A lot of exhibits and other projects go online now, and the requests for photographs for these come from all over the world. There is enough of a demand that I’m always juggling multiple projects, anything from manuscripts from the 14th century to a book by Matisse, and inevitably I end by photographing maps. (The library has one of the largest and most important cartography collections in the world.) Currently many requests are for material relating to Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Burnham; both men have anniversaries this year and are important in the history of Illinois.

What kind of fab gear do you get to use? And what are the processes?

One of the goals of the job is to help in the preservation of the library’s materials, so everything is shot using archival handling practices. Almost everything is shot digitally now; however, I still shoot large-format film for some projects. The industry standard used to be that a press wanted either a black-and-white 8x10 print or, if they were going to print the image in color, a color 4x5 transparency. Scholars wanted 35mm slides. Now most images are digital, high-resolution Tiff files or Jpeg files for PowerPoint presentations. In the Photoduplication Department we have a few computers and a shooting studio, as well as a rather defunct darkroom that I haven’t been in for quite awhile. This is a positive shift in quality of image that we’re able to reproduce but requires a great deal more attention to storage and access and a great deal more money than the library really has. There are always challenges.

What’s the most unusual project you’ve worked on? The one you liked best?

I’ve worked on so many great projects…. I’ve had requests from unexpected places such as the quiz-show Jeopardy (they needed an image for the “Final Jeopardy” answer), American Girl dolls, Pirates of the Caribbean (the movie), and the S.A.T. (history section).

There are a few things that are a little strange in our collection that I’ve always enjoyed: Charles Dickens’s pickle fork and ink well, and the amputation kit belonging to Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle studied with who was an inspiration for the character Sherlock Holmes.

There’s a letter in the Sherwood Anderson Papers in the Modern Manuscript Collection from Ernest Hemingway to Anderson. Hemingway tells Anderson that he has just finished his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, and mailed it off to the publisher, and he mentions that he thinks James Joyce’s new book (Ulysses) will do very well. He says he’s teaching Ezra Pound how to box and it’s not going very well, since he leads with his chin too much. Gertrude Stein signs a postscript, ”I wrote some pretty good poems lately in Rhyme.” I love this letter; it’s hard to find a powerhouse of people like that all on one page.

What’s the health/financial situation of the library?

The Newberry’s situation is like many other non-profit cultural organizations throughout the country, and it’s had to reduce both its current operating budget and its staffing. But the library is currently developing a plan for the future and will continue to support studies in the humanities. We are persevering.

How’d you get interested in art and/or photography?

I was fortunate in that I discovered photography at a young age. When I was about 14, I took a photography class in school and fell in love with it. There were a variety of things going on around me that made me wonder what holding up a camera to the world might offer. My father was teaching courses on the Philosophy of Aesthetics, and I would watch him put the slide show together, all original photographs that he took, some of smashed birds and peeling paint, rust and reflections in windows. That same year he published a special edition of River Styx that wove together his photography with text from his novel The Tunnel.

I began to see that the photograph could act as passport or metaphor; things could be other than they were. I learned that there was beauty in decay and that the frame could be a way out instead of always a way in. Diane Ackerman was at Washington University at about the same time, and I loved hearing about her adventures in the world. She said I could go with her sometime and be her photographer. I’m still waiting for the call.

You’re also an artist with a body of original work. In your sports series, shown at your website, you say that miniature books being hit and kicked “questions our knowledge of scale and exaggerate[s] the significance of the sentiment of the souvenir.” You sure it’s not a statement on physical versus intellectual activity?

I have no interest in sports but I am interested in the split between the body and the brain. It’s important to look to the title of this series to derive more meaning. “Faulty Diction” means using an incorrect word in either speech or writing. The books in these photographs represent the construction of a discourse that is characterized by errors in language. The books are miniature books; the scale between the trophy and the books has not been altered. I am interested in the ability of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience; trophies and souvenirs function this way. Trophies are rewards for specific achievement, and usually serve as proof of merit, and those who win cherish the objects. I wanted to question the significance of these sentiments, because both trophies and books are collected, celebrated and displayed and have an authority of idealized forms. Both objects elicit cues…. Ooooh that book is so small and cute (precious), or Ohhhh that trophy is so big (important).

You write that your work “contains images that involve the process of learning—a continuous exchange between the body and the book.” What does that mean to you?

When I talk about this process I’m thinking about it on a variety of levels. First, as a way of working; when I photograph books or texts I am quite literally reading and photographing simultaneously. Next is the struggle between language and images. Each time I come to the camera, it is like being asked to empty my pockets. Out come all the things I carry around; I can spend hours trying to describe why today they are these objects and why tomorrow they will be different. For me the frame is like the page, a place of control; where to aim the lens, what objects to place and how. I can use language to carve out spaces, say—this is where I want the body to lie and this is how language will instruct it to do so. I can construct another type of home, of body, like a book and rest myself there.

Why the emphasis on texts, as if I need to ask?

I don’t think I stick to texts as an absolute rule but I do seem to gravitate to them. Here’s an exception: “Colonial Assortment” is a single photograph of about 100 or so character cookies posed together for a group portrait. This is one of those projects that started as a distraction from other work I was supposed to be doing. It started simply as an observation on the large variety of commercial character cookies that are out there; it’s obscene really. Then it became my mission to find as many as I could. They have to be commercially-produced vanilla cookies. I’ve stopped collecting them now; it was a little out of control.

It’s important to me that the work has expressions of play, of a sense of humor. Humor can let everyone off the hook. It is a great tool to use in subversion and an important tool for survival.

Oh lord: Playboy in Braille? It must be for the articles.

The Playboy in Braille was a great find because it is such a perfect example of the book as a body. The object brings up so many questions: What exactly is translated into Braille? Just the text or the pictures too? When you move your fingers across the Braille, what exactly are you feeling? I like the lack of access a sighted person has in this, how the heart of that photograph exists in our imagination.

What are you working on now?

I have two bodies of work that I’ve been working on continuously for a few years now. My “Illuminations” series consists of found handwritten letters that are digitally manipulated to resemble illuminated manuscripts from the 15th century. They’re printed on cotton paper, with gold leaf applied to sections of the letter by hand. I take direct instruction from the history of the illuminated manuscript in my designs.

The images I use are scenes germane to the text or designed to revive the text. Often within the borders you can find drolleries, which are amusing and often grotesque characters, sometimes a hybrid of elements from various human and animal forms. Sometimes the images I uses are allegorical to help illustrate moral lessons. There’s a nice parallel of history here: Just as the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in about 1450 signaled the beginning of the end of handmade illuminated manuscripts, the computer is ending the handwritten letter. If anyone out there has handwritten letters, I’m eager to photograph them. No one writes by hand anymore, so they’re hard to find. I have a lot of grocery lists.

Infestations” is an ongoing body of color photographs that examine patterns of book damage done by both insect and man. The books are from a variety of different sources; some are from the Newberry’s collection. (I should make it clear that none of the damage occurred at the Newberry but rather was done long before the books got here.) In fact, damage to a book does have some value: It can help establish provenance and attest to crimes of censorship. I find a lot of damaged books in used bookstores and book fairs as well. I look for damage done by cockroaches or silverfish that eat the protein and starch; their feces disfigure the pages. Book-boring bugs will eat adhesives, paper, gelatin, sugar, hair and dandruff; they prefer warm, dark, dirty, and poorly-ventilated conditions. Their damage is usually irreversible—text and images lost by insects eating and boring through paper cannot be replaced. Rodents will destroy books in order to get paper for their nests. I have developed a keen eye for this type of damage.

Finally, I have a new project titled “Shreds.” Imagine a large tangle of shredded paper, like tumbleweed. That’s all I can say for now.

Many thanks, Catherine!

Readers who would like to contact Catherine Gass (or donate or loan handwritten letters for use in her “Illuminations” series) can send e-mails to gassc@newberry.org.


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