Monday, August 6, 2012

NYPL Underground

Photographer Ourit Ben-Haim started the Underground New York Public Library in 2008, snapping pics of people reading books while riding the subway and waiting on its platforms. As a lover of real books and the city, I love her project. I caught up with Ourit on Facebook where we had the following chat.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: I'm most intrigued by the shots of the book readers seated next to screen scrollers. Do you seek out that juxtaposition in your photos, or does it just happen a lot?

OBH: It happens a lot that the eReaders are there, and I most often incorporate them into the frame. I like the juxtaposition of course, as it tells the story in an immediate way. There's a shift happening, people are switching over from print books to digital readers, and things will look different because of that. When a person with an eReader sits next to a person with a print book, the picture becomes a picture of this shift.

JVNY: So the story is "Real books are vanishing." What do you think is lost from the subway experience when we lose real books to e-readers?

OBH: That's a risky way of putting it, as it might sound like Literature is vanishing. The story I'm telling is about the reader. One aspect of this story is that eReaders are changing the reader. The devices, as they are designed right now, are nondistinct and impersonal to literature. This makes the reader less vulnerable. Riding the subway is a great opportunity in our day to look around and connect in spirit with various people. One of the more direct ways of doing this is seeing what others are reading while riding. Books tell us where the reader is, in mind and in relation to the world. If we look around and see only eReaders, we see only the activity of reading, but we don't see glimpses of our own past and present and heart.

JVNY: So true. E-readers are these blank slabs that tell us nothing about the reader, except that they prefer to read off a screen. A connection, or potential connection, is lost. When I look at your photos, especially those that pair a book reader with an e-reader, I get the feeling that the people reading books are rebels in an electronic world. How do you think there might be something radical in reading a book made of paper today?

OBH: I suppose it's reached that point. There's a change underway, and suddenly the printed book expresses what that change is affecting. Reading a book made of paper and providing that visual connection can be an affirmation now. It's an affirmation towards who we are. They're applying themselves to story and discourse, and that affirms our inner reality.

JVNY: Because of the visual connection?

OBH: The visual connection let's me see this. My project wouldn't be possible with eReaders. It would no longer be photographs showing people reading. It would be photographs showing people with devices, on which the people could be reading.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: Right. The project either would not exist, or would be very dull to look at. No offense to your weekly e-reader shot. What made you include that?

OBH: I start the week off with a Bible reader, I end it with an eReader. It's a narrative of some sort, a story ultimately about our journey.

JVNY: So...Bible as origin, the first printed book by Gutenberg, then moving through a diversity of physical books, to the...what...of e-readers?

OBH: It would just be a question. The eReader as a big question mark. The bible, it's the ultimate book in terms of connection. We've all heard of it, it’s a part of our known world, in one way or another. Then everything branches out, story and discourse that separates into niche territory then: The Device.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: The "book reader on the subway" is a wonderful subject for getting us to wonder, and your photos give the viewer that feeling, that process. You know, "This guy is reading this book, so who is he? Why this book? What is he about?" And we can go into a fantasy, which cannot happen when looking at a person with an e-reader. Do you ever find yourself falling in love with your subjects?

OBH: Ha ha, I love how that great paragraph ended up with that last question.

JVNY: It is a funny question. Do you know what I mean? That kind of momentary falling in love that happens when you see a person on the train with a book.

OBH: Yes, I do. In general, I look at people and I see a story, and just how I am is that I may care about strangers with their stories that I see on them. The reader, though, they have their story, and they have the story that they are holding, and sometimes it's the fit of those stories, or the contrast, or the evident fantasy of it, that elicits a great feeling towards them. A feeling of love.

JVNY: Yes, you're talking about a simple but profound sense of connectivity. About the possibility for one stranger to feel connected to another in between subway stops. How have people reacted to you "connecting" with them via your camera?

OBH: I like how you say that I'm talking about the simple but profound sense of connectivity. Precisely, that is what my photographs are about. Anyway, people, when they are in the moment (which is where I catch them), they are marvelous. Surprised for a little moment. Then they are just curious. It's just been amazing to see the distinction, between how people imagine they or others would react to what I'm doing, and how it actually is.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: What happens when they get curious?

OBH: They look at me. That look is a question, so I answer it. Sometimes I get into it. I tell them about the project. Other times, I just tell them that indeed I did photograph them. It’s complex, though. Describing it is difficult. The moments are exciting. I get bored often with things, but I have yet to get bored of shooting street.

JVNY: Is the Underground NYPL getting boring yet?

OBH: I love my library. It's like a place. I tend to it and build it. I love it, I guess, so I don't feel bored. I want to see it through to what I envisioned for it.

JVNY: What did you envision for it that you want to see through?

OBH: I set out to build a visual library. I said I'd make 1,000 photographs, so that patterns can emerge, and so that it would be enough for it to be a place. A little world. A visual library.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: I'm very curious to see what it will tell us about the reading psyche of New York City. Any clues yet?

OBH: Well, my first responsibility for this topic is to remind everyone that I'm out there selecting my moments and my photographs.

JVNY: True. So it's mediated through your own desire. Which you could say about all libraries. Different librarians make different decisions about what books to put on the shelves.

OBH: Exactly. It's still a library that is a general reflection of the locale, but it’s also a result of the librarian.

photo by Ourit Ben-Haim

JVNY: When I see someone reading a device, they don't feel inward to me--or they feel inward in a different way than a book reader. I've not yet been able to put my finger on it. Do you know what I mean?

OBH: I hear what you mean. They may be inward, those so-called cell-phone zombies, they may be having one of the most inwardly gorgeous moments of their life when they’re staring at their phone, but that’s not the point. The point is our sense of collective self. The eReader is separated.

JVNY: What do you hope your readers, of the blog and the book, will take away from your project?

OBH: A sense of reconnection. Ourselves, others, story, truth…

See more of the Underground NYPL at:
- the blog
- the Facebook page
- the flickr set


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

I supply them with both, books and e-books. My Holy Communion, which won the Lambda Award, is in book form, as are Vienna Dolorosa, Times Queer, 100 Whores, while novellas such as Dee Dee Day, Murder in Times Square, Queers of Central Park, etc., are in e-book form. Some want paper copies while others want electronic gizmos, I give them both.

Little Earthquake said...

Maybe it's just me, but I don't ride the subway looking for spiritual connections. And when I'm reading a book, I don't want to be bothered by some yahoo just because he read it too.

GAF said...

Love the viewer creating a story about a stranger who is engrossed in a narrative at that moment. Currently re-reading The Long Winded Lady, and Maeve Brennan does this all the live long day.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Great project & interview. It is really sad when you don't know what other people are reading on their devices, & totally spoils the sense of communion with other readers. Also denies you the pleasure of seeing some very unpredictable book/reader pairings that undercut your stupid assumptions about others. I love the cross-section of reading material I (used to) see - it always made me feel good. And when younger, enjoyed the pretentious pleasure of fake-casually revealing obscure or lurid titles!

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Great interview, and the photographs are wonderful.

Brendan said...

I like physical books. I don't have an e-reader, and never intend to.

However, I can't even imagine the depths of self-absorption and self-regard to which I would have to sink in order to see myself as a "rebel in an electronic world."

Literary culture existed before the printing press and it will exist after. In any case, the absolute worst case scenario for physical books is that they will become like vinyl records, which after all one can still buy.

The last time someone talked to me about a book I was reading, it was a very bad, though critically acclaimed, recent novel that I was finishing only out of stubbornness. This guy loved the book though. The conversation did not prove fruitful.

Marty Wombacher said...

Loved this interview and what a great idea. I'm going to go look at his website right now, thanks for posting this!

Elan said...

Of course I love the project, but as a photographer, it is worth mentioning that this interview and indeed the project is about capturing books in print, all the while, there's an excellent chance that these pictures are being taken with a digital camera. I'm not necessarily against digital cameras. I just think it's interesting that we make a big deal out of focusing on print (analog) books, while we completely ignore the way these photographs are communicated -- how it is "okay" to use photography digitally, but using e-readers is condemned. This is just a discussion point -- i'm a proud non-owner of an e-reader and fully accept that digital is the new photography industry standard

Anonymous said...

I am getting a little tired of the endless criticisms I people who read on e-readers rather than books, not least because the critics make some pretty hefty assumptions.
For example, when I'm traveling or out and about, I use an e-reader because I read fast, and one e-reader holds thousands of books, which I love. At home I have floor to ceiling shelves of "real" books, but I don't want to drag bags of them around with me. Some of them are also getting quite fragile.
To make assumptions about me and my preferences just because I'm reading on an e-reader when you happen to see me is silly. And I agree with the other commenter about being interrupted while reading just because someone else recognizes the book. It can be very frustrating.

Little Earthquake said...

I'm just glad to see people enjoy reading. If e-readers promote a literate public, okay with me.

Anonymous said...

e-reader = me-reader

Brian Dubé said...

Hearing that people with e-readers cut off the "sense of communion with other readers" reminds me of two young girls I saw last year in a restaurant. They were sitting together but they were both on their phones, distracted from the outside world and barely saying a word to each other. Reading is a completely different thing in and of itself, but the fact that e-readers limit this communication and getting to know someone from afar is analogous in my mind to the girls' phones limiting their real-life contact with each other. I guess it's a matter of preference - some readers don't want to be disturbed, while others wouldn't mind finding serendipitous connections with people around them. The e-reader is convenient either way, but whether you like print or not, it's better than no reading at all :)

Anonymous said...

One does not really own their Kindle books