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This is not a photobook: Errata Edition’s study on Zdeněk Tmej’s ‘Abeceda: duševního prázdna’ and the mystery of missing pages.

Photobooks are precious objects. The previous decade saw a rapid increase in their popularity and in their monetary value. Largely responsible for this are the books on photobooks by Andrew Roth (The Book of 101 Books, 2001) and Martin Parr & Gerry Badger (The Photobook: A History, two volumes, 2004 & 2006). These reference works have disclosed a great deal of hitherto hidden treasures. Of course, photobooks whose classical status was already established were also included, alongside obscure and sometimes extremely rare books, both from the West and beyond. While Roth, Parr & Badger and others have made us aware of the beauty and importance of photobooks as integral works of art, the inclusion in the newly established canon has led to soaring prices, and nowadays its market is the playground of wealthy collectors. It is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access to original copies of canonised photobooks. Fortunately some titles have been republished, either as facsimile or as reprint, often in a modified version, like the recent reprint of John Gossage’s subversive classic The Pond, the second edition of which has three extra photographs and an inverted cover design.

As an alternative to facsimiles or reprints, New York City-based publishers Errata Editions came up with the idea of issuing studies on photobooks. Since 2009, they have published  four titles annually in a series called Books on Books, each time in a combination of two classics and two lesser-known books. They come in standard portrait format (octavo size), in which the photobooks being studied are represented with “every double-page spread of the original, including texts, so the reader has a comprehensive ‘illustration’ of the original.”[i] The result is a complete visual representation of a book within another book, accompanied by an essay that examines the photobook in question in its historical context as well as a short text about the circumstances pertaining to the original printing.

Early 2011, Errata Editions released a study on Czech photographer Zdeněk Tmej’s startling book relating to his conscripted labor camp experiences during World War II. Abeceda: duševního prázdna (translated as The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness) was produced in Prague in an estimated edition of 2,500 copies and released shortly before Christmas 1945.[ii] Since paper was scarce and expensive at the time, cheap newspaper stock was used for the printing of high-quality photogravure reproductions. Andrew Roth describes the gravures as “gorgeously tactile”.[iii] I have been able to verify and confirm this claim while studying two original copies with a private collector in New York City. The tactile feature is lost in Errata’s version, but their editions aim more towards representing original layout and image sequencing than at reproducing the physical sensibilities of the original object.

Abeceda collects 45 photographs of a series of 88 known photographs [iv] that Tmej took under difficult circumstances in Breslau [v], where he was conscripted for forced labor from September 1942 until he escaped in early 1944. Tmej was a talented photographer who assisted Karel Hájek in the 1930s, perfecting the technique of photographing in low-light conditions without using flashbulbs. During his time as a forced laborer, Tmej acted as a participant-observer, taking photographs in the building where the labourers were housed, a former tavern turned dormitory. The Nazis allowed Tmej to keep his photographs, which they merely deemed “souvenirs”. Most of the greyscale photographs show carefully framed scenes of men sleeping, waiting, playing cards, or else portraits of injured men. Yet the final sequence of images is for something different. They were shot in a brothel the Nazis had set up for foreign workers, in an effort to prevent non-Germans from having intercourse with Aryans. Women from countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia and France were forced to work as prostitutes. In a cynical coincidence of fate, both types of involuntary labourers crossed each other’s paths in these brothels, blowing off steam from the harsh conditions of life in the camp. One of the Czech prostitutes arranged for Tmej to take pictures in the brothel. They show laughter, dancing, and prostitutes seducing men. These images aren’t sexually offensive according to today’s standards, but some of them might have been sensitive at the time.

Surprisingly, Errata’s study on Abeceda is missing four photographs in the final sequence. Errata’s source copy turned out to be incomplete. Errata’s creative director wrote me that three experts previewing this particular original all missed the discrepancy–and this despite the fact that two of the missing spreads had been previously reproduced in Roth as well as in Parr & Badger. This error is intriguing, since it heightens the notion that rare photobooks are vulnerable, and that their integrity is sometimes not even secured via reproduction. Errata’s source is one of an indefinite number of rebound versions, some of which are missing the same four photographs. Two of those show a scarcely dressed French woman, and the other two are more restrained images of dressed prostitutes in their respective rooms. Is some kind of censorship involved, demanded by (relatives of) the depicted prostitutes, or were pages at some point cut out in order to be individually sold as vintage prints? There must be a reason for the omission. At the time of writing, I haven’t been able to obtain proper answers.

This error leading to an incomplete representation of the entire original sequence revitalizes the question as to why rare photobooks like Abeceda aren’t reproduced digitally–as an iPad App for example–or, if on paper, as a well-crafted magazine? Both options would allow for easier distribution and cheaper production. There will be less confusion about the terms reprint or facsimile. Also, it will be much easier to undo potential errors, and to get an erratum out quickly if necessary. Ultimately, Errata’s books are not all too convenient material for study purposes. The hardbound books are relatively inflexible, some double pages are reproduced fairly small, and the gutter often interferes with the rephotographed gutter of the original, a feature that enhances the already mise-en-abyme experience of the ‘meta-book’. The valuable mistake that occurred in Errata’s Abeceda reflects the curly and unfathomable journeys which original copies of rare books inevitably make. In this form it won’t be reprinted, and perhaps becomes a collector’s item itself.

 

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Notes:

[i] Gerry Badger, ‘A Blessed Companion’, in: Ag Nr. 55, Spring 2009, pp. 22-29, pp. 26-27.

[ii] Officially 1946.

[iii] Andrew Roth, The Book of 101 Books, New York 2001, p. 124.

[iv] Online at: http://www.vaclavchochola.cz/Tmej/totaleinsatz.htm

[v] After WWII part of Poland, renamed Wrocław.

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This book review on Zdenek Tmej: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness (Books on Books #10, Errata Editions, New York 2011) appeared in print in Camera Austria 115 (2011), pp. 89-90.

 

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