Kerry Mansfield, Expired

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Modernbook Editions (here). Hardcover, 12×12 inches, 120 Smyth sewn pages, case bound linen cover and leather wrap spine, tipped in back cover image, with 73 color reproductions. Includes a foreword by Heather Snyder and afterword by Matt McCann, $65. Available in a limited-edition (50) box set, with one signed limited edition print, linen clamshell case, $350, directly from the photographer via her website. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Adults as they hit middle age can’t miss the warning signs that the young view them as irrelevant and perhaps even obstacles to their natural succession. These generational anxieties have only accelerated in the last two decades as the digital revolution has forced everyone to adopt its innovative tools and methods or be left on the shoulder of the information highway.

The San Francisco-based artist Kerry Mansfield was born in 1974 and so is old enough to have learned to read with three-dimensional books and to photograph with film. Expired is her response to the irrefutable fact that those practices—and by extension, herself—are becoming obsolete.

From among thousands of library books marked for disposal, she rescued some 180. She has photographed 175 of them and chosen 73 for this, the first of a projected two-volume series.

Her method is straight-forward and neutral, similar to that of Walker Evans for his “Beauties of the Common Tool” essay. All the books are shot in color against black backgrounds, either flat against a surface or in profile. Her camera records a book’s physical composition, not only the paper but also thread, glue, dyed cardboard, and ink.

For example, a copy of Old Yeller from Mackville High School in California, is dissected in four parts. First, we see the white card with the due dates for the book’s return, beginning in 1967 and ending in 1980; the library’s stamps are in both black and red ink. Second, the manila pocket, glued to the cover, that held the card; third, the front cover, so battered that the board is held to the binding with yellow tape. The publisher’s typed title at some point became so eroded that it had to be hand-written; the stamped illustration of the boy and Old Yeller is also badly faded; a red dot in the upper right hand corner marks the book for death; fourth, the back cover, the cloth separating from the cardboard in the lower left corner.

Many of the books in Expired were written for young children: Boris, the Lopsided Bear; Mystery Tales for Boys and Girls; Lad: a Dog; The Velveteen Rabbit. Others were for more sophisticated audiences: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Crusoe in the Caribbean; Cannery Row.

To underscore the duality of her project about bygone eras, Mansfield has also taken two close-ups: a page of an index to a photography manual, with references to Polacolor and entries on “UV filters,” “viewing filter (Wratten #90)” and “visualization”; and the white due-date card for an unseen copy of Polaroid Land Photography by Adams, A.

The elements of nostalgia in Mansfield’s exercise aren’t goopy. She isn’t cocooning herself in girlish memories. Nor is she campaigning to turn the clock back and “Make Libraries Great Again.” In an approach similar to Found magazine’s, her book collects ordinary things that would be overlooked or slated for oblivion, unless observed and recorded.

It’s important to mention that these objects aren’t precious but mass-produced. Nor are the institutions that housed them exclusive. Anyone who attended a public high school or applied for a library card possessed these books for a few days or weeks. They were passed from hand to hand like dollar bills.

Each of the items is in the same physical crisis, deemed useless and outmoded because of its deteriorated shape. And yet each earned its terminal rating in unique circumstances. Mansfield shows, for instance, that the ink used by librarians has faded at different rates and that even the bureaucratic language is not uniform. Some books are labeled “Discard,” others “Discarded.” A few are branded less lethally as “Withdrawn.” A scientist or historian could probably examine these photographs and tell by the perishable materials in which years the books were manufactured. I’m guessing most date from the 1950s or 1960s.

Whether these books, with their torn bindings, were loved too well by readers, or abused by careless ones, is impossible to say. What they gained out of reading them, if that’s what they did, is likewise outside Mansfield’s field of vision Her job is simply to document the present state of these books, as if she were a medical examiner performing an autopsy, or a crime scene photographer or a museum conservator.

Underneath the sense of loss chronicled in Expired is the demise, or at least senescence, of analog photography. One can’t look at these books and not think of the enlargers and developing trays photographed by Adam Bartos, Robert Burley, and Michel Campeau for their respective books on antiquated darkrooms.

When making art about the culture of decay and consumer disposal, sometimes offering no explanation is the best policy. Mike Kelley’s yarn dolls and soiled baby blankets, fished out of Goodwill bins, were so icky and perplexing when he first presented them in the 1980s because he did little to alter them other than position them on the floor.

I wish nonetheless that Mansfield had given more information about her criteria for choosing one book over another. Did she approve those she had read as a child? Or was it their pathetic condition—the more beat up the better—that weighed more heavily? And the index, which lists each item photographed, could easily have added fuller bibliographic data. If these books are to be preserved as photographs and cataloged as objects, they deserve the sort of history that any first-year librarian would have entered into the system.

Although Mansfield’s project is not political, it might be used to support the forceful arguments of the novelist, essayist, and self-described “library activist” Nicholson Baker, whose book Double Fold campaigns against the blithe replacement of newspapers, library card catalogs, and other paper-based printing technology with microfilm and digitization. Her photographs, she might add, are no replacement for the books themselves—artifacts with datable human DNA left on the pages.

As a scientific invention, a product of the industrial revolution in chemistry and physics, photography is always subject to periodic upgrades that have led to a forsaking of habits and practices. Constant innovation has meant that some piece of equipment (glass plates, flash powder) or element of the process will sooner or later be obsolete.

The printed book is older and has been relatively unchanged by comparison. But as an object, it has numerous properties—physical, pictorial, and linguistic—that interact in unexpected and powerful ways that the camera is uniquely qualified to disclose. Like the book photographs of Abelardo Morell, Tim Maul, and Nina Katchadourian, Mansfield’s project takes up common things and elevates them as art, not by beautifying them but by asking if we’ve ever really looked at them thoughtfully before.

Collector’s POV: Kerry Mansfield is represented by Themes+Projects in San Francisco (here). Mansfield’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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