Off the Shelf: A Conversation with MANUAL (Ed Hill / Suzanne Bloom)

Juliette Bianco

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom have been partners in life and art for 40 years. Their collaborative work, under the nom d’artiste MANUAL, has consistently pushed artistic and practical boundaries, subverting conservative notions of purity of mediums by combining painting, photography (both analogue and digital), video, audio, and computer programming. Their most recent work has focused, with exceptions, on creating photographs with books. Each of the 100 works in their three series (Books I, II, and III) is a compositional and technical masterpiece that centralizes the unique objectivity of the book while delving into the book’s content, sometimes literally and sometimes as indicator of deeper human connectivity.

                                                                                   —Juliette Bianco


Juliette Bianco: How does your collaborative partnership work: how do you make decisions about starting a new work? Does the process change from photograph to photograph, series to series? Do you have any defined roles?

Suzanne Bloom & Ed Hill: On the technical side, our collaboration has been very fluid, and we each sometimes do take on specific tasks. But in terms of creative and conceptual input, our collaboration is completely non-hierarchical. Ultimately, the decisions about what artwork makes it out of the studio always is shared, and we each retain veto rights.

JB: Do you know when a book first appeared in any work of art by MANUAL? What was it?

SB & EH: In 1975 we made a 4-by-5-inch black-and-white photograph titled Art History Lesson. In the photograph an apparently nude woman is pointing to a reproduction of the painting Odalisque with Slave by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. The book, an Abrams monograph of the artist, is positioned on a table saw facing the viewer. The blade is up, threatening to cut the book in half. It’s one of a dozen photographs in our series, Art in Context: Homage to Walter Benjamin (1974–79).

JB: The books in your photographs are not always photogenic—I never feel like I am looking at a portrait of a book because the book is not presented as object so much as idea. You capture the cerebral processing that happens when one is reading a text (the physicality of the printed words create meaning only in our minds) and make that happen for the beholder of your photograph. How do you describe the activity of reading, and how does that relate to your work?

SB & EH: We’ve always been mindful of the difference between looking at and reading a work of art. Our collaborative name, MANUAL, is most often used to qualify the word “labor”—and we do think of art-making as both a physical and cerebral act—but it’s also a description of a particular type of book, a manual or guide to or for something. If our photographs are like books, as you suggest, then we think they must be seen as primarily “literature,” rather than, say, reportage. We don’t intend the book photographs to be didactic as is typical with manuals. There is no one meaning connected to any of them. Instead, we attempt to make each a rich, informed experience, both visually and conceptually, so that return viewings will be rewarded as they should be with second readings.

JB: You have said, “The book is not so much the subject of our project as it is the object.” If books are the objects of your series, what is the subject?

SB & EH: Bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? Our photographs of books are both subject and object, presenting a kind of “double face.” They picture an object that has content, which is impossible to “pictify” through one image. Trying to deal with the philosophical subject-object problem in a photograph is an ironic, near-impossible challenge having to do with the issue of “words and images,” which is exactly what we love about it. There’s a wonderful saying by the American painter, R. B. Kitaj: “Some books have pictures and some pictures have books.”

JB: How do you identify and consider a particular book as object for a photograph?

SB & EH: A short answer as to why we choose a book is substance and appearance. A book has to engage our minds because of its content, history, or title, and then strike our visual sensibilities because of its material attributes and physical being. At the start, many of our pictured books were familiar objects, part of our personal library or on loan to us by friends. But since 2011 we’ve gone to bookstores and the internet to find particular books. For example, after reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, we searched online for copies of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things and found a 1743 two-volume set with broken boards. It was a wonderful discovery. The pair has so much physical character, which helps signal the ancient history and import of the book.

To read the rest of this interview, purchase issue 27.2 here.