[ BOOK LIVES ] What a thrill, finding that rare classic

Just like other collectors, those who collect photography books are also familiar with phrases like, ”You should have been here an hour earlier”, ”I just sold a copy last week”, or ”Leave your contact number and I’ll call you when I come across one”.

WHILE most of my schoolmates were busy preparing for the A levels during the last months of my junior college, I remember reading over and over Don McCullin’s book on photography, Hearts Of Darkness. When the results were released months later, I did not do as well as my peers. But maybe not.

My favourite haunt was the photography section of the Marine Parade branch library. There were some 50 different titles and most were instructional in nature. They ranged from books on how to photograph buildings to winning photography contests.

It did not take too long before I realised why friends raised their eyebrows when they found I was hanging out in the photography section. Hidden in many of these books were pictures of scantily clad women and nudes. A look at the check-out records and the general condition of these titles confirmed their popularity.

McCullin’s book stood out because it was one of very few not vandalised. The title also seemed out of place.

When I should have been understanding the relationship between demand and supply, limestone and carbon dioxide, I was learning, from McCullin’s images, the meaning of life and death.

Those dark images of war scenes from Lebanon to Cambodia scared me initially, but the fear soon became inspiration. I decided: ”I want to make powerful pictures like Don McCullin.”

I kept the book for more than two months and entertained the possibility of not returning it, but gave it back after realising that a good book must be shared.

The next year, I stumbled on another book that changed my life forever. At the Kinokuniya bookstore in Liang Court, I found The Best of Photojournalism/13, a collection from the annual Pictures of the Year contest. In this, I learnt about the contest co-organiser, the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and its photojournalism programme.

Believing that I would get the best photojournalism education and be around the best photojournalists and editors, I started communicating with the professors, eventually enrolling as a full-time student in 1989.

In the United States, I discovered the world of great photography books.

In the middle of Mercer Street in Soho, New York City, is a place called A Photographers’ Place, otherwise known to me as a cash vacuum-cleaner. Walk into the shop and you can be guaranteed happiness, while being relieved of your cash, of course.

Here I found a pristine copy of Hearts of Darkness, my favourite book, beautifully-wrapped and kept in a cabinet. It now sits nicely on one of my shelves.

In one of those crazy moments, I sent out form letters to several book sellers with a request to find some books. Because I declared myself an ”avid collector willing to pay high price”, I received replies more promptly than when I was trying to sell a computer at knocked- down price.

On my list were Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, Gilles Peress’ Telex Iran, Robert Frank’s The Americans and W. Eugene Smith’s Minamata.

A dealer in Massachusetts wanted US$500 (S$700) for a ”so-so” copy of Cartier-Bresson’s and US$50 for a ”slightly-worn” Minamata.

The Americans, I was told, was permanently out of stock and a first edition sold for US$4,000 recently.

A few months later, Aperture, a publisher of fine photography books, announced it had found several boxes of Frank’s book and sold them at US$40 each.

Collecting photography books is no different from collecting stamps or antiques – the rare and good ones fetch good prices.

Just like other collectors, those who collect photography books are also familiar with phrases like, ”You should have been here an hour earlier”, ”I just sold a copy last week”, or ”Leave your contact number and I’ll call you when I come across one”.

And, of course, we have endless tales about our hobby to share. A friend claimed she has two copies of Minamata, one bought from a library sale for 25 cents. I am still waiting for her call with news that she has found me a copy.

A picture editor from Sacramento, California, claimed he always took a copy of James Nachtwey’s Deeds of War, when he went to photojournalism workshops and conferences with the hope of meeting the photographer.

Another friend gave up a copy of W. Eugene Smith’s rare Let Truth Be The Prejudice as part of his separation settlement.

A good friend received no less than 20 offers from me to part with another one of Smith’s rarities. His answers, despite being in dire straits financially, have so far been: ”No,” ”No way,” ”Never,” and ”NO!!”

While visiting a friend in Monroe, Michigan, recently, we discussed the possibility of a project to document the meaning of love in our respective cities. The idea came from a book on marriage rites by Abigail Heyman. I remembered the book and the images but not the title.

The very next day, while touring the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, we popped into a bookstore just to see what was available.

Amazingly, I found among the small selection the much-discussed Heyman’s book, Dreams And Schemes. I also found two other books I had wanted for years – Harold Evans’ Pictures On A Page and John Collier’s Visual Anthropology.

I bought all three and promptly gave Heyman’s book to my friend.

Several years ago, I gave away a copy of The Family Of Man, a book published in 1955 in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition, of 503 pictures from 68 countries, was created by Edward Steichen.

It was considered one of the most important shows of all time and I later realised the mistake of giving the book away.

Last June, I paid $10 for another copy.

Not all adventures involved out-of-print books. Sometimes, the pursuits involve new releases. Collectors are equally eager to be among the first to own new offerings.

This time last year, I walked more than 50 blocks in New York City in search of a set of three books from a new exhibition on immigration in the United States.

When I finally reached the shop that stocked the books, it was closed and I had to go to the city of Rochester the next day.

Rochester is home of Kodak and the George Eastman International Museum of Photography. Much to my delight, the museum sold the books I wanted and was holding the exhibition they were based on.

In Singapore, where rare books are as rare as used bookstores themselves, the adventure is more or less restricted to those new releases available.

Although not comparable to the joy of finding classics, it is fulfilling enough to walk into any bookstores here to find a title you thought could only be available through special requests.

Occasionally, there is a surprise. Wanting to prove how bad service is in bookstores here, I once asked a sales supervisor in Kinokuniya for a copy of Minamata. He found a Japanese edition on his list and got it for me in a month. I am proud to own a mini-classic. At least for now.