A few years ago, I received as a gift a volume of Shakespeare’s collected works, printed in 1865. Like many books from that era or earlier, it includes a frontispiece—a portrait of Shakespeare opposite the title page. In this image, the Bard’s face is fully familiar: pointed beard and receding hair; stolid in his wide, white collar; glancing from the corner of his eyes as he partially turns away, or perhaps towards. We know him.
But another Shakespeare is present in the book, one less familiar and yet, perhaps, more true. Time and pressure have caused ink from the engraving to seep into the adjacent page, imprinting a copy of the original. While the visage of Shakespeare first printed by the bookmaker is as clear as a cliché, the Shakespeare produced over the intervening decades is a shadow, the likeness of a likeness, insubstantial and indistinct.
I have been searching the shelves of libraries and archives for more of these enigmas, finding presidents and generals, famous authors and celebrated scientists, luminaries and royalty. These alternative images are imperfect likenesses, but they may be more accurate portraits. Who hasn’t stared at a photograph of Lincoln and felt certain of his sorrows? Yet what we can truly know of him more closely resembles these book marks—secondhand, faded, and obscured by the passage of time.
This project, “Book Marks,” is a collection of these happenstance portraits and part of a series of inquiries commenting on the claims, limits, and aspirations of photography.