11 January 2009

the importance of scrapbooks

[…] This beautifully illustrated coffee table tome suggests that the scrapbook is an amazingly flexible medium, one that adapts to and reflects the times. In fact, it may once even have been ahead of its time. Helfand calls it "the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media." That may sound a little too highbrow for an artform that thrives on ribbons and roses, but Helfand's text points out that all kinds of lively minds have kept scrapbooks over the years, from playwright Lillian Hellman (who hilariously kept track of her running feuds and pasted in nasty clippings about herself) to poet Carl Van Vechten (who maintained a clandestine and artful compendium of male pornography) to Anne Sexton, who gathered telegrams, recipes and fledgling poems into a newlywed's memory book, 25 years before she commited suicide. Mark Twain not only recognized the importance of the format but also profited from it, patenting the first "self-pasting scrapbook" back in 1872.

But "Scrapbooks" doesn't dwell on famous names. Helfand is more interested in peeking at the historical shifts embedded in the way people recounted their lives: the episodes they chose to describe, the objects they included (newspaper clippings, gum wrappers, dance cards, dog tags, family photos), and even the way they laid out the pages (sophisticated modernist visual styles like collage had somehow already been absorbed by ordinary scrapbookers of the early and mid-20th century). She zooms in on an antibellum society woman whose marriage is (shockingly, for the times) falling apart, the privacy of the scrapbook's pages liberating her to record her life as she wanted it to be. Then there is the Seattle doctor, an immigrant who crams his meticulously laid-out book with portraits of presidents and newspaper clippings on wartime health -- "a kind of self-initiated primer for good citizenship," as Helfand notes.

These books are remarkable to look at -- so individual and specific, each becomes a "repository of evidence" from someone's life. An early 20th century young woman's scrapbook veers between movie star worship and suffrage marches, whereas a WWII soldier's volume gathers together enlistment papers, medals and Japanese money. In fact, war and danger seem to spur the desire to preserve memories and make one's mark, and Helfand partly traces the current mega-boom in scrapbooking -- now a nearly $3 billion industry with its own national holiday and a vast network of Web sites, groups and retreats -- to the trauma of 9/11. […]
…read it all @ http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2008/12/04/scrapbook/

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