Books On Books Collection – Michael Snow

Cover to Cover (1975)
Michael Snow
Cloth on board, sewn and casebound. H230 x W180 mm. 310 unnumbered pages. Published by Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Unnumbered edition of 300. Acquired from Mast Books, 10 December 2020. Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

After a long search since first sight of it in 2016 at Washington, D.C.’s now defunct Corcoran Gallery library, the original hardback edition of Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover (1975) finally joins the Books On Books Collection. Thanks to Philip Zimmermann, more readers/viewers have the chance to experience Cover to Cover — if only through the screen — than the original’s 300 copies and Primary Information’s 1000 facsimile paperback copies will allow.

Amaranth Borsuk describes the work and experience of it in The Book (2018), as do Martha Langford in Michael Snow (2014), Marian Macken in Binding Spaces (2017) and Zimmermann in his comments for the exhibition “Book Show: Fifty Years of Photographic Books, 1968–2018” (for all, see links below). Like Chinese Whispers by Telfer Stokes and Helen Douglas and Theme and Permutation by Marlene MacCallum, Michael Snow’s Cover to Cover has that effect — of evoking an urge to articulate what is going on and how the bookwork is re-imagining visual narrative, how it is making us look, and how it makes us think about our interaction with our environs and the structure of the book.

The already existing commentary about Cover to Cover sets a high hurdle for worthwhile additional words. One thing going on in the book, though, seems to have gone unremarked. Some critics have asserted that, other than its title on the spine, the book has no text. There is text, however. It occurs within what I would call the preliminaries, and they show us how to read the book.

Front cover and its endpaper

On the front cover, we see a door from the inside. Then, on its pastedown endpaper, the author outside the door with his back to us. On turning page “1” of the preliminaries, we see in small type a copyright assertion and the Library of Congress catalogue number appear vertically along the gutter of pages “2-3” (a tiny clue as to what is going on).

Pages “2-3”

Over pages “4” through “14” from the same alternating viewpoints, the author reaches for the door handle, the door is seen opening from the inside, and the artist is seen walking through the door (from the outside) and into the room (from the inside). But who is recording these views?

Pages “10-11”

Over pages “15” through “24”, two photographers appear. Facing us, they are bent over their cameras — first the one outside (clean shaven and wearing a short-sleeved shirt) behind the author, then the one inside (bearded and wearing shorts) in front of the author. As the author moves out of the frame, we see that the photographer inside is holding a piece of paper in his right hand. All of this occurs through the same alternating viewpoints. At page “21”, the corner of that paper descends into the frame of the inside photographer’s view of the outside photographer, and after the next switch in viewpoint that confirms what the inside photographer is doing, we see a completely white page “23”, presumably the blank sheet that is blocking the inside photographer’s camera aperture. Page “24” is the outside photographer’s view of the inside photographer whose face and camera are blocked by the piece of paper.

Pages “16-17”, pages “20-21” and pages “24-25”

Over pages “25” (from the inside photographer’s viewpoint) and “26” (from the outside photographer’s), something strange happens with that piece of paper. Fingers and thumbs holding it appear on the left and right: we are looking at photos of the piece paper as it is being held between the photographers. What’s more, on the outside photographer’s side of the paper is the developed photo he just took of the inside photographer with his face and camera hidden by the sheet of paper. We are looking at images of images. But what is on the other side of that photo paper? — a blank with fingers holding it, which is what page “27” will show us from the inside photographer’s perspective. But whose fingers are they?

Pages “26-27”

From page “25” through page “38”, we see images of this piece of paper being manipulated by one pair of hands. The thumbs appear on the verso (the view from the outside photographer’s perspective), the fingers on the recto (the view seen by the inside photographer). By page “34”, it is upside down. By page “37”, we can see that the photo paper is being fed into a manual typewriter. But does the pair of hands belong to one of the photographers? Or a typist — the author?

For both pages “42” and “43”, the perspective is that of a typist advancing the paper and typing the title page. On both pages, we can see the ribbon holder in the same position. Pages “44-45” return to alternating perspectives, page “44” showing the photo paper descending into the roller. Page “45” presents itself as the full text of the book’s title page, curling away from the typist and revealing the inside photographer on the other side of the typewriter. Page “46” shows the upside-down view of the title page as it moves toward the inside photographer and reveals the outside photographer on the other side of the typewriter. Not only are we seeing images of images, we are witnessing the making of the book’s preliminaries.

From page “48” through page “54”, the photographers alternate views of blank paper advancing through the typewriter. By pages “55” and “56”, the typewriter has moved out of the frame. Look carefully at page “56”, however, and you can see the impression of the typewriter’s rubber holders on the paper. As a book’s preliminaries come to a close, there is often a blank page or two before the start of the book, which in this case is page “57”, showing a record player.

Zimmermann notes that, at somewhere near the book’s midpoint, the images turn upside down, and that readers who then happen to “flip the book over and start paging from the back soon realize that they are looking at images of images produced by the two-sided system, and indeed the very book that they are holding in their hands”. He notes this as another mind-bender added to the puzzlement of the two-sided system with which the book begins. Yet the prelims foretold us that the upside-downness, back-to-frontness and self-reflexivity of images of images were on their way. Without doubt, Cover to Cover is an iconic work of book art.

Further Reading

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018).

Langford, Martha. Michael Snow: Life & Work (Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2014).

Macken, Marian. Binding Space: The Book as Spatial Practice (London: Taylor and Francis, 2017).

Michelson, Annette, and Kenneth White. Michael Snow (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019).

Zimmermann, Philip. “Book Show: Fifty Years of Photographic Books, 1968–2018“, Spaceheater Editions Blog, 3 February 2019. Accessed 16 December 2020.

But as the scene “progresses,” an action is not completed within the spread, but loops back in the next one, so that the minimal “progress” extracted from reading left to right is systematically stalled each time a page is turned, and the verso page recapitulates the photographic event printed on the recto side from the opposite angle. This is the disorienting part: to be denied “progress” as one turns the page seems oddly like flashback, which it patently is not; it might be called “extreme simultaneity.” Two versions of the same thing (two sides of the story) are happening at the same time. Zimmerman.