Books, Pages and Tablets

By Olivia Parker Back to


The images you see here, part of an ongoing series of Books, Pages and Tablets, reflect my interest in the history of science. Although I work digitally, my images remain photographic in that they are dependent on light for more than general illumination. When I was working with view cameras in the seventies, eighties and nineties I was always looking for light or shadow that coalesced into its own shapes. In black and white I could control my contrast range in order to use many kinds of light and shadow shapes. Because of contrast issues in color, I had to wait for digital technology to allow colored light to take form in my prints.

Words and pictures gain authority as soon as they enter books, tablets, and pages. Until very recently we lived in a culture of words. If I am waiting in an unfamiliar room, my eyes dart around for something to read. If there’s a cereal box on the table, I start reading. I particularly like 17th century science books, because some authors observed things for themselves, some relied on verbal hearsay that had traveled down the years like an extended game of telephone and others made things up as they went along. Many early science books contain illustrations, but a lot of the pictures are masterpieces of verbal misinformation; their creators had only words about the subjects, verbal information handed down for generations that yielded monsters and fabled lands. Other illustrations came from first hand observation; vision informed the visual.

The Other Half, multi-media

As I make images I am exploring the relationship between visual and verbal thinking. ‘What does this picture mean?’ is a question I am asked over and over. Trying to explain what a picture means is much harder than paraphrasing a poem, and both endeavors usually give out only clumsy bits of information. I will try, however, to offer a bit of my approach and process.

A tablet can be many things: a message, a slate that has writing to be erased, a blank surface awaiting words or symbols or drawings, an account-ing, a poem, a gravestone, proof of identity, or an undecipherable message from anothertime. Both of my tablets: Astrolabe Adrift and The Other Half began as a 3” x 3 1⁄2” pieces of found metal that I photographed in natural light that was passing through shapes cut from blue and red gels. I am working only with natural light. Once I have established a base that I like, I experiment intuitively using other photographs or scanned material, building up layers in Photoshop. For Astrolabe Adrift, I tried lighter light shapes on paper. After finding something that seemed to work for me, I switched to a deliberate editorial mode in seeking and placing the line scan of an astrolabe (a navigational instrument once state of the art, now a footprint along the path of science). Back in intuitive mode, I placed the moon and stars.

The Other Half is a split tablet referring to those used for identification of the individuals carrying the matching parts. The figures on each half are of unknown origin from a site in southern South Korea. If the sides close in a match, the bearers are identified but the unknown path ahead closes. As I have traveled I have gathered photographs of clouds, so I had plenty of material to work with to achieve the right balance of light and fog.

Mosca is a fly made of light and shadow formed by light passing through a chunk of slag glass onto a piece of paper. One of its wings reveals itself as a dragonfly wing that I have photographed, but a very solid bug from a 17th century book peers in from the side.

In my black and white work I often used animate and inanimate shadows of beings and things outside of the image. In Experimentum I have combined illustrations from books by Anathius Kircher (A 17th century polymath who had his own system for how everything earthly and unearthly works) with a reaching human shadow. The paper, the aqueous red light and the shape that the small tree is on comprise the base photograph. The rest I added via computer.

The base of Opposites is a blank book with another little blank book stuck inside it that I found in a flea market in western China. As I was pushing around some blue gels and pieces of glass, I saw the bright circle and the dark one that for me immediately connected to the phases of the moon. After that it took me a while to find the other elements and some trial and error to balance the tension between them.

Mosca, multi-media
Experimentum, multi-media
Opposites, multi-media

Two and a half years ago I moved into a spacious studio, and for the first time have plenty of room for my piles of glass, broken and unbroken, metal reflectors and an assortment of stuff that I’ve been working with for 40 years. The good books I do take care of, but the ratty ones live with the rest of the stuff. Because of the random juxtapositions, I often see new combinations that I might not have discovered if the place were too organized.

In both straight- and digitally-made photographs, luck favors the prepared mind. That idea has been attributed to several people, but whoever thought it up was onto something important. I like to think that I can stay open to new ideas and surprises.

Product Resources: Camera: Canon 1Ds Mark II; Computer: iMac intel Core Duo, 2.33 GHz, 24”, 3GB RAM; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS4, Nik Viveza, Color Efex Pro 3; Printer: Epson Stylus Pro 7800; Paper: Epson UltraSmooth Fine Art Paper

About the Author

Olivia Parker
Olivia Parker, recognized for photographic innovation and experimentation, has created luminous work using a variety of processes and formats since the 1970’s. Her photographs are found in collections including the Chicago Art institute and the Museum of Modern Art, NY, as well as in books devoted to her work. Her current explorations include her work with books, manuscripts, insects and light.