For bibliophiles and generally nosy people, one of the worst things about the rise of e-books and e-readers is that they don’t have distinct covers. How, now, can we start up conversations with strangers who are reading our favorite graphic novels or judge fellow subway riders for their poor taste in science fiction? Subway book spotting may not quite be an art, but it’s certainly a hobby about which some of us are very passionate.
Dutch photographer Reinier Gerritsen appears to be one of those people. For his latest series, The Last Book — photographs from which are on view at Julie Saul Gallery and collected in a new book from Aperture — he captured New York subway riders in the act of reading printed books (plus the occasional magazine and e-reader). “Books are vanishing,” he says in a video about the project. “I discovered in 2008, 2009, 2010, that less and less people were reading books, and it was very visible on the subway in New York. Because in 2008 when I came in a car, there were 20, 30 books, and three years later when I came in a car there were 5 or 8 books. I thought, it’s declining rapidly. So, that’s why I decided this has to be photographed.”
Gerritsen actually makes his photographs by taking many of them, shooting a burst of individual portraits of readers, their books, and their neighbors, and then combining the images in Photoshop to re-create the subway scenes. Perhaps for this reason his pictures have an incredible focus and striking, painting-like compositions: a woman glares at the camera from just behind a reader; another reader stares out across the top of her book, lost deep in a daydream. The tight clusters of faces are positioned and framed just right, like contemporary versions of 17th- and 18th-century Dutch genre paintings.
In this sense, Gerritsen’s photographs are as much, if not more, about the people in them than the books those people are reading. But that seems appropriate — reading is a deeply, inherently personal act, and the whole point of identifying books by their covers on the train anyway has always been to try and catch some deeper, if fleeting, understanding of the people holding them.
Reinier Gerritsen: The Last Book continues at Julie Saul Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 7. The book of the same name, published by Aperture, is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
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