Illuminating Cambridge Libraries at the Heong Gallery (2019)

The Illuminating Cambridge Libraries photography series was exhibited part way through its development at the Heong Gallery Cambridge, at Downing College in Feb 2019.

The full Illuminating Cambridge Libraries series was completed in the following year, but a final exhibition was delayed due to covid.

Click here to purchase the Illuminating Cambridge Libraries photography series monograph. Showing nearly 500 photographs throughout 160 pages, the oversized 32 x 28 cm photobook published in 2020 contains many photos from this earlier exhibition. Note, the photobook is considered the complete series. This exhibition at the Heong Gallery was held mid-way through the series shoot and therefore only shows 26 (out of 31) libraries in the series.

Welcome

One library from my childhood had a small amphitheater made from carpeted blocks. These three or four tiers of simple cubic structures created angular shadows and cozy corners into which I would retreat to reduce my towering stack of prospective books. While lying on these blocks whittling down my pile, I would inevitably pay as much attention to the blocks and spaces as to the books – hard linear shadows softened by carpet fibers, imperfect joins and curled carpet corners, the flimsy false blue-grey wall separating the kids from the grownups, the harsh and flickering fluorescent lighting in ugly utilitarian fixtures. In hindsight, it was a rather dismal aged area, but it didn’t matter to me – I was hooked. This love of libraries turned first into an academic career where research and lecturing proved studious enough to keep me in libraries, however it didn’t fill my need for visual aestheticism that persisted since my early years spent in my grandma’s darkroom.

Wall of Windows

Windows bring us from darkness to light. They change our moods and authorise a momentary lapse of concentration, altering our focus just long enough to straighten out that pesky writer’s block. They also play a role in material deterioration – accelerating it with direct sunlight or protecting it with curtains. Overall, windows are the harbinger of fresh – fresh air, fresh thought, fresh viewpoint – all of which are required to open our minds, to discover the adventures that wait for us in the library.

Wall of Texture

I like to judge a work of art by its ability to provoke aesthetic emotion, regardless of subject identification and representation. In this way, I use aesthetic emotion to show the emotion and simplicity within textures and shadows, geometry and details. While each feature shown is integral to the role of libraries in the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, I pull out the hidden beauty within decontextualised function, for example in shelving joins and keyholes, cornices and radiator grilles.

Presented in a 4 x 4 meter grid, the strength of this 154-photograph Wall of Texture lies in the cohesion and unity created from decontextualised imagery.

Heong Gallery cambridge downing college library exhibition room with bench Heong Gallery cambridge downing college library exhibition room with bench Heritage Photographs

Wall of Stairs

We climb stairs, each time aiming for a new level, yet so frequently we ignore the adventurous aspect. What will greet us at the top? Will our journey be dizzying or tiring? Are our footsteps likely to be noisy or quiet? Will we meet with disappointment at seeing someone else already in our favourite seat?

Heong Gallery cambridge downing college library exhibition wall of stairs with window and young girl drawing Heong Gallery cambridge downing college library exhibition wall of stairs with window and young girl drawing Heritage Photographs

Books, Lecterns, and an Easel

Underneath the ‘stairs’, visitors were encouraged to sit on an historic Wren stool (see below) at the easel and use the spotting scope as an aid to draw their favourite detail from the exhibition.

Looking at the concept of deterioration, restoration and preservation, book spines at various stages of ageing are presented here on historic rotating lecterns that were designed by Sir Christopher Wren for use in the Wren Library, Trinity College (built 1695). Several images of book spines rest on the lecterns themselves, and approximately 150 small (A6 sized) photographs of book spines were spiral bound together and placed on the table. Visitors were encouraged to sit on a Wren stool, rotate the lecterns, and ‘flip through’ the books of books.

FOOTNOTES: The lecterns and stools were on special loan thanks to Librarian Nicolas Bell at the Wren Library, Trinity College. Read more about the lecterns and their tour to this exhibition on the Wren Library blog. Note that the lecterns’ original tables were considered too fragile to be moved, so I commissioned Cambridge-based fine furniture maker Peter Harrison Furniture to create the table. The A6 size book spine images are my test prints. Because I print everything myself, I always start with these A6 test prints to find the optimal marriage between my camera-computer-printer – truly, an exacting relationship!

Heong Gallery cambridge downing college trinity college wren library rotating lecterns library exhibition Heong Gallery cambridge downing college trinity college wren library rotating lecterns library exhibition Heritage Photographs

Wall of Rooms

The spirit of each library is visualised with a ‘Grand View’ and shows the individuality of each space. Photos illuminate the distribution of natural light within each room that is often enhanced, obscured, or redirected depending on the collection content. While some rooms are designed for rearrangement of the furniture and shelving on an as-needed basis, others have been perfectly preserved for centuries and today feel more like a time machine than a room designed for lending books.

Heong Gallery cambridge downing college trinity college wren library rotating lecterns library exhibition with images of libraries Heong Gallery cambridge downing college trinity college wren library rotating lecterns library exhibition with images of libraries Heritage Photographs

Comments from the Exhibition

  • “Fabulous – it’s like photography finally meets fine art!”
  • “Each of your exhibitions is so unique, I can’t wait to see what you do next!”
  • “Yours has been my favourite exhibition at the Heong Gallery, and [whispering] I’ve been to all the others.”
  • A woman was scooting along the bench looking at the Wall of Texture. She was so engrossed that she literally slid right off the end of the bench (and still excitedly came to my next exhibition).

Future

By the end of 2019 (ten months after this exhibition at the Heong), the Illuminating Cambridge Libraries series was Completed – including one library from each of the 31 colleges of the University of Cambridge. Click here to see the final result that includes nearly 1800 photographs from 31 libraries taken over 2.5 years. A final exhibition was delayed due to covid.

Purchase the monograph here.

If you liked the exhibition, please consider talking about it:

Acknowledgements

While the exhibition was conceived, created, curated, formatted, printed (in 2019), and put online (in 2020) all by yours truly, I still could not have done it without help. Heartfelt thanks to the following: Dr Nicolas Bell, the Wren Library at Trinity College, staff at Heong Gallery and Downing College, Mr Peter Harrison, Ms Pat Aske, Dr Michael Brown, Ms Zuza Grubecka, Mr Dave Leonard, Prof Alan Bookbinder, Ms Kate Pozgay, Mr Jason Kufrin, Ms Andrea Thunem, Prof Nick Rawlinson, Miss Esther Rawlinson

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