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A Serious Conversation About “Scrapbooks: An American History”  with Jessica Helfand

Rural Intelligence ArtsWhen I met Jessica Helfand five or six years ago, I was dumbstruck when she told me that one of the joys of having moved full-time to Falls Village from New York City was having more time to work. (I thought country life was all about recreation, but I’ve come to understand what she meant.)  Helfand and her husband, William Drenttel, not only run one of the world’s premiere graphic design firms, Winterhouse, from northwestern Connecticut, but they also maintain one of the design community’s most influential blogs, Design Observer. What’s more, Helfand also manages to find time to teach at Yale, raise two children, and research and write books, including her latest, Scrapbooks: An American History (Yale University Press; $45). It’s one of those rare coffee-table books that is scholarly and accessible; it’s informative, fun with a near universal appeal.


Rural Intelligence ArtsRI: The scrapbooks in your book seems to be unselfconscious. Do you think that it is possible to keep unselfconscious scrapbooks today?

JH: I think it is indeed possible, if you think of a scrapbook as you do a camera: funny that scrapbooks might be considered self-conscious while people think nothing of taking countless numbers of snapshots.  (Some serious photographers refer to this phenomenon as “fire-hosing” — literally, brandishing the digital camera as one would a fire hose, without self-censorship or self-editing.) Part of the problem stems from the emphasis on “getting it right” that’s largely been a consequence of all the merchandising surrounding “scrapbooking” as an industry. Some of the supplies are really quite extraordinary, and my point is not to denigrate them — on the contrary, they’re actually pretty great, some of them — but that, while they support the method, they don’t replace the motive, which is to make something extremely personal, not duplicative or generic.
I would say, too, that the whole idea of making something from limited means has long been of interest to artists and theorists because more isn’t now, nor has it ever been a way to necessarily make something better. So if we equate “un-selfconscious” with “limited means” (which I suppose I do, given that scrapbook-makers of long ago had no embellishments but drew from their own immediate orbit) then there’s probably an argument to be made, today, on behalf of a kind of sustainable scrapbooking: using what you have, emptying your pockets at the end of the day, saving all those post-it notes and things you might be inclined to toss. Less to the landfill, more a reflection of your everyday life — banal, perhaps, but also quite genuine, and in no small way, an authentic snapshot of who you are, where you live, what you do and value and experience. Ergo: unselfconscious.

Rural Intelligence Arts
Zelda Fitzgerald scrapbook, Auburn, AL, 1919

RI: One hundred years from now, will a visual historian like yourself be able to find scrapbooks from our era that will be as valuable historical documents?

JH: I certainly hope so. There will no doubt be more of them, since contemporary scrapbookers tend to work with archival materials more and more, while generations ago this was NOT the case. Librarians and archivists struggle with how to house and archive old scrapbooks, which are by their very nature extremely fragile. Many more scrapbooks will survive in coming years, so this will be less of a problem. Libraries may even upload and make them keyword-searchable. They’ll be easier to access and find: part of the difficulty I encountered during my research was due to the fact that they’re currently impossible to index. That will probably change, and soon.

RI:  I save tickets stubs, birthday cards, thank you notes, invitations, Playbills, and name tags in a box. Do I have the makings of a contemporary scrapbook or do I just have a lot of paper?

JH: You’re in good company: I hear this from a lot of people, and to me it suggests there’s a scrapbook in your future. The difference between a box of paper and a scrapbook is the narrative you produce: there’s something about cementing something on a page that’s a kind of gesture of permanence— rather a meaningful thing in our frenetic, modern world. Bear in mind that even pasting something on a page does not, in and of itself, mean you can’t go in and edit: indeed, some of the most fascinating scrapbooks I looked at during the course of my research were compelling precisely because you could see someone’s perspective shifting: names crossed out, dates revised, items added, annotated, removed, concealed, and so forth. Messy. Just like life.

RI: Do your children keep scrapbooks?

JH: Our son does not, although he’s a pretty good photographer, and he’s obsessed with news: he’s building his own news-aggreggator and probably sees his blog as a kind of scrapbook. Our daughter’s a consummate maker, sort of a junior member of our studio (and our muse) — and, very much like I was at her age, a serious collage person. We keep a notebook together as well as several of our own: Fiona calls mine a scratchbook — part sketchbook, part scrapbook — very much inspired by the journals kept by Candy Jernigan (who is featured in my book). Jernigan, who died at 39, left over 500 notebooks filled with what she called “rejectimenta” — literally, things she rescued around her. I think the secret to keeping a scrapbook that’s meaningful is keeping it with you at all times, which means it has to be small enough to be portable.

RII suspect that more than a few people are keeping Obama scrapbooks. Do you think that it is possible that they will be valuable historical documents?

JH: I think they’ll be like any political scrapbooks — there are thousands of scrapbooks on JFK, the family, the assassination and more, for instance — sort of a time capsule that frames a moment in time. That said, I think there may be political scrapbooks out there that are not so momentous: some years ago, Bill and I were in Washington, DC back when Bob Kerrey was in the Senate. (He’s now the head of the New School in New York.) This was way before I wrote this book, but I remember that in the corner of his office — somewhere between the closed-circuit TV to the floor of Congress and his conference table — he had an old-fashioned drafting table and a glue pot. Open on the table was a 18x24 inch sketchpad, and a copy of that day’s Washington Post. And he told us that every day he’d read the paper and find one seminal thing — an cut it out, and paste it in that sketchpad. Now, you have to imagine how unusual this seemed at the time, in that place: a senator with a drafting table, keeping a scrapbook! But he was devoted to it, and the process of adding something every day seemed an almost meditative act for him. For future Kerrey biographers, I suspect that scrapbook will absolutely be a meaningful historical document, framing his days in the senate, life in Washington in the late 1990s, and so on.


Rural Intelligence Arts Kelley scrapbook, Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1929

RI: Your book focuses on history, but have you seen any contemporary scrapbooks that make your heart race?

JH: Refer to question 4, above: Jernigan’s scrapbooks were life-changing for me because in them I saw an entire approach to making work. As a practicing designer who makes things, they seemed an unusual genre: part sketchbook, part journal, portable, personal, meaningful. But the longer answer is that many artists work in collage and in book form, and I share some of their work in my book — The Moleskine Project, for instance, or the 1000 Journals Project. They’re formally more interesting to me than the 12x12-inch scrapbooks in vogue today: ironically, I wrote my thesis in graduate school on the history of the square — a format that circumscribed every project I ever engaged in as a student, and that for a long time was thought to frame modernist design thinking — so I’ve actually spent quite a lot of time thinking about that format, that fascinating yet largely unforgiving aspect ratio. I am currently of the opinion that a more biased shape—6 x 9, for example—lends itself to more dramatic page compositions, and I would also say that what “makes my heart race” about many artist scrapbooks are the efforts to engage in a real narrative, to tell a story from page to page. And that’s kind of the point, isn’t it — to tell a story?

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