Photo Books

Putting America’s Libraries In New Light

April 25, 2017

By Conor Risch

Thomas R. Schiff’s interest in American libraries grew from his fascination with American architecture, which he’s photographed for several decades. Schiff published a book on the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, and his 2012 book, Prospect, looks at remarkable buildings around the country.

Schiff’s new monograph, The Library Book (Aperture), gathers panoramic images he’s created at public and private libraries around the country over the course of more than a decade. The book depicts libraries in 30 of the 50 states.

There are old libraries, such as the Boston Athenaeum, which was established in 1807, and contemporary libraries, such as architect Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Central Library, which was completed in 2004. Schiff photographed The Morgan Library in New York City, The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles Public Library. He also visited several university libraries. Schiff and Aperture’s Chris Boot, who edited the book, decided to show interiors primarily but include some exteriors as well. The result is a fascinating tour of many of America’s monuments to study, history, education and leisure.

© Thomas R. Schiff

Thomas R. Schiff’s photo, “Boston Athenaeum,” 2010, appears in The Library Book, a collection of his panoramic photos of American libraries.

Schiff chose his libraries for their architectural significance, their history and their current state of use and preservation. “I was looking for libraries where they paid a great deal of attention to the architecture and how it looked, and where you could tell that the people in the town wanted to build something that stood out, and that was unique and architecturally significant,” he explains.

His search for interesting architectural detail “compelled” him to photograph libraries, and, he says, he’s “just always felt comfortable” among the stacks. “I remember as a child going to the library with my mom and just spending hours and hours there looking at a wide variety of books.” Schiff takes a purposefully objective, typological approach to his work, aided by the democratic panoramic camera, which offers a 360-degree view.

His goal for the work, he says, is that he’s “made some pictures that will allow people to look at buildings, and look at interior spaces specifically, in a different way than what they’re used to. [The panoramic format] allows them to see the whole building and the whole space all at once. It’s a new way, a different way of looking at things, and my hope is that people will be amazed by that.”

Working with the panoramic camera is something of a signature for Schiff. He’s done so for 20 years, and he still shoots 120 or 220 roll film. A lot of photographers who work with panoramic cameras tend to photograph landscapes, he notes, whereas he’s doing something “a little bit different” by focusing on architecture and interiors.

© Thomas R. Schiff

“State Library of Iowa Law Library, Des Moines” 2011. © Thomas R. Schiff

When Schiff arrives at a location, he looks for a position at or near the center of a room. Because he uses a wide-angle lens, eye-level photographs would be unbalanced, incorporating more floor than ceiling, he explains. Schiff uses a tripod to raise his camera 10 to 20 feet, so he can place it midway between the ceiling and the floor. He can’t look through a raised camera to frame his pictures, so he moves the camera around a bit, creating 15 to 20 frames at each library. The panoramic camera format distorts the straight lines. “I’ll try to have the camera placed in the location where I’ll have some of the building lines close to the top of the frame and then some on the bottom,” Schiff explains. He is simply searching for “the most pleasing composition,” he says.

Despite his seemingly humble aims, Schiff’s skill in using the panoramic camera to interpret architectural detail is evident from the features he emphasizes with his camera placement. A concrete column at the center of his image of the Marcel Breuer-designed Alcuin Library at Minnesota’s Saint John’s University seems to prop up the entire structure. His photograph at the Beaux-Arts Handley Library in Winchester, Virginia, turns a spiraling staircase into a series of graphic, sweeping lines.

Beyond esthetics, Schiff’s matter-of-fact approach leaves a great deal to his viewer. While marveling at the architecture, the shelves, the library ladders, the murals, artwork and stained glass, we might also search for meaning in the physical manifestations of the intellectual ambitions of different individuals and institutions.

Related Articles:

Ty Cole’s Photos Offer a New Look at London’s Brutalist Buildings

Picturing Architecture at the Venice Biennale 

Thomas Schiff Gallery: Looking Around America’s Libraries

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