Episode in a small town library

Ian Breakwell's unusual photograph documents an "episode" that took place in an unnamed small town library in 1970. The episode seems to be a library user somehow transforming into, or sprouting, printed pages.

"Episode in a small town library" - Ian Breakwell, 1970

The only background information about the photograph that I've been able to find comes from Clare Qualmann's article "The Artist in the Library":

My fascination with Breakwell's image has prompted me to return to it over the last three years to gradually investigate its story. What was the performance that led to this photograph? Was it intended as a performance, or was it composed solely to be photographed? Even in the latter case, there would have been the happenstance performance – the spectacle of Breakwell (or his model) preparing the chicken-wire covered headdress for wearing. Was it actually photographed in a library? Was the librarian consulted? Were permissions sought? Was it executed at a peak user time? Or was it tucked away on a quiet morning? What did 'The Public' think of it, coming across such a scene? Did it last just the time that it took for the photograph to be shot, or was it a longer performance, an episode that endured?

More detailed research into Breakwell's extensive archive held at Tate Britain did not provide answers in written form. Several versions of the image were published in journals, including Fotovision (August 1971), Art and Artists (February 1971) and Stand Magazine (Winter 1997). The different paper stocks that they were printed on enable more detail to be seen than the digital version that I had looked at before – in Art and Artists the photograph was reproduced on a newsprint insert to the magazine that is very different from the glossy black and white of the others. In this version, the chicken-wire frame underneath the newspaper is more visible, as are the titles on the bookshelf behind – Art and Civilization is clearly legible.

The version published in Fotovision has a completely different feel – instead of The Guardian newspaper on the table the artist holds a copy of Typographica magazine in his hands. Although this dates from 1964 (the photograph was taken in 1970), its cover design (an assemblage of logos arranged in a dense slanting pattern across the cover) juxtaposes old and new – the 'timeless' look of the traditional library space with the contemporary graphic design of the journal, and the branding that it is presenting. The existence of multiple versions suggests time spent in the space – time to shoot multiple images, test and trial different ideas and perform the image repeatedly (rather than a hit-and-runundercover-quick-photo-before-anyone-notices).
     Posted By: Alex - Tue Jul 09, 2024
     Category: Photography and Photographers | Performance Art | Surrealism | Libraries | 1970s


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