I rarely ever see anyone's list of favorite bookstores in America which doesn't include Arcana in Culver City, California. I think it's one of the finest bookstores in the world and for fans of illustrated art, photography, and design books it features an unparalleled depth, making it arguably the best bookstore in the world for those categories. There is no way even the most seasoned collector won't find something new to them each time they enter. And good luck finding a bookseller more knowledgeable about his inventory than Lee Kaplan—the website says this: “We'll gladly search our extensive stock of over 100,000 items to help locate the titles you are seeking.” Whether it's your first or 500th time there, good luck as well leaving without buying something (though I'm sure Lee would most happily welcome more people leaving with more books, it IS a physical bookstore in our torrential streaming age of 2020 afterall...). It's been open since 1984, is located in a beautiful, airy, sunny space, and is a must when in LA. I think this might be the longest interview yet, so no more from me, here's Lee. - Wes Del Val
WDV: What are three future-classic photography books that have come out in the past five years which are still available and not ridiculously priced? That is perhaps until you mention them here…
1. Deana Lawson / Aperture / $85.00
This is an exceptionally beautifully designed and produced first monograph of the domestic portraiture of Los Angeles-based Deana Lawson, whose 2019 first printing quickly sold out. It presents a fresh, intimate, and dignified insight into the daily lives of Black Americans at a time when interest and discourse regarding such images runs high. Aperture has just produced a highly anticipated second printing that rivals the first, and is sure to sell out once again, so act quickly.
2. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance: Twenty-Five Years of Photographs, A Chronological Album / Aperture / $65.00
Todd Hido’s striking body of work has grown and evolved in unanticipated ways over the past two decades since 2001’s remarkable House Hunting from Nazraeli Press. Those lonely, dislocating images of a darkened suburban Bay Area have grown to incorporate wilderness, the open road, human interaction, the eroticized gaze, and autobiography—all of which are examined in the substantial Intimate Distance. Part monograph, part artist’s book, this 2016 Aperture publication is the first comprehensive overview of Hido’s entire output, one that contains his personal commentary and a striking design by the photographer’s frequent collaborator, Bob Awfuldish.
3. Who Is Michael Jang? / Atelier Editions / $65.00
“Who is Michael Jang? I don’t know if he’s a hipster or a nerd, a conceptual genius or instinctual savant. All I know is that he takes some of the best pictures I’ve ever seen.” - Alec Soth
The fascinating, and gratifying, story of Michael Jang is of a CalArts-educated photographer that went on to open a commercial photo studio in San Francisco that supported him for over four decades. All the while, Jang was shooting unseen images of the humorous and subversive universalities that unite us, as well as the pleasures and terrors of family. After four decades of laboring in darkroom obscurity, this labor of love from London’s estimable Atelier Editions documents Jang’s triumphant 2019 retrospective at SF’s McEvoy Foundation for the Arts.
Open up a mainstream interiors magazine and if books are shown cover-out in the photographs they’re very often Taschen, Rizzoli, Phaidon, and/or Assouline titles because they all publish bold-faced names and popular, stylish topics and their books are easy to find and can be readily used as affordable, attractive decoration.
Unsurprisingly it often makes for a lot of cookie-cutter shelves and tables which all feels very Professional Decorator 101. For people who truly care about books AND how their homes look, but may not specifically know much about illustrated books, what is thenext level of publishers they should always keep their eyes on?
There are certainly reasons for the frequency that one sees beautiful arrays of books from these particular publishers pictured, but much of it comes down to the fact that they all produce significant visually-oriented titles that one would naturally want to purchase and display in one’s domicile. Two of these in particular have made very deliberate inroads to marketing a type of aspirational “good life” that must include the right tomes on display, even to the point of having several of their own branded stores for their wares, but again, in most cases with these publishers, any fluff being produced is usually accompanied if not offset by significant titles from them as well.
As for alternatives, there is the tried and true French publisher Editions du Regard, whose monographs on Parisian decorators of the 20th Century are classics. The University of Chicago Press has produced a stunning four volume catalogue raisonné of Charlotte Perriand—whose scholarship is rivaled only by how immaculately elegant it will look in any décor—along with a slipcased set on architect Peter Zumthor. New York’s Acanthus Books have quietly producedsome of the most substantial tomes on the architects and buildings of the East Coast’s gilded age and old money set. And Santa Barbara’s Tailwater Press have recently produced monographic volumes on the significant early 20 th Century Southern California architects Gordon B. Kauffman, George Washington Smith, Wallace Neff, and Roland E. Coate that are must-haves. Birkhauser, Princeton Architectural Press, and Gibbs Smith are imprints always worth investigating each season for their design and architecture offerings.
And which publishers for people who still care about using books as decoration, perhaps for their coffee tables, but want to go beyond those four commonplace publishers? I know if I’m looking through say Architectural Digest and see a title by for example Mack, or even Steidl, I’m more impressed and think the owner might actually know what’s on the inside of the book, rather than just have it out because they or their decorator like the cover.
Both Steidl and MACK are great publishers whose productions rarely disappoint on any level. There are so many others who could be mentioned here, but I will note that Yale University Press has quietly produced dozens of substantive, beautifully-designed, often scholarly books in recent years—including catalogues raisonné for John Baldessari, Eva Hesse, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Richard Diebenkorn—that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are intellectually engaging.
Yes, you’re absolutely right, Yale’s consistent high-achievements are often taken for granted, I guess because of the academic affiliation and its often stuffy connotations. Their Eileen Gray book designed by Irma Boom from earlier this year is beautiful! And don’t forget what Irma did for that fabulous Sheila Hicks book Yale did in 2006.
When is the last time you saw an image on Instagram or in a magazine of someone’s shelves and immediately thought that you’d love to get a chance to see more in-person?
Whitney, my lovely, talented, and complementary wife / partner at the shop takes on the tough task of spending time on Instagram and with World of Interiors, so I don’t have to. Of course, she does make me take a look at such things now and then, and my jaw drops and I ooh and aah just like everyone else. François Halard and Simon Watson certainly have an eye for consistently incorporating a stylish array of books in their standout images of interiors. In recent memory, we had a signing event at the end of 2019 for Nina Freudenberger and Shay Degges’ lovely Bibliostyle book from Clarkson Potter, and I must say there are too many enviable libraries pictured in there to count. Also, the portion of Unpacking My Library: Artists and Their Books devoted to Theaster Gates’ book room definitely caught my attention.
What are books you wholeheartedly recommend to read about photography, whether history of, biographies, critical essays, etc?
As ever, Susan Sontag’s On Photography and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida remain the thought-provoking cornerstones of this canon, and for good reason. In this vein I enjoyed Patricia Bosworth’s Diane Arbus biography, Luigi Ghirri’s The Complete Essays 1973–1991, along with the volumes of Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series, especially Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude.
Can we have some exciting tales of you going through piles of books and finding gems, whether it be unexpected autographs, documents, or rare, unusual titles themselves?
Well, despite the numerous stories I’ve heard from any number of colleagues over the years, I must dispel that old bookselling trope of buying a collection, opening up an insignificant book once you get back to the shop, and finding hundred dollar bills stuffed inside. For the record, I cannot remember ever finding any currency other than the occasional small denomination foreign bill used as a bookmark.
That noted, shortly after I opened Arcana in a one bedroom, ground floor apartment on Westwood Boulevard, I went on a day’s buying trip to bookstores south of here. In one of the grand old, but by then down-at-its heels shops, I walked to the front counter with a meager stack of finds that included a well-worn, not particularly rare paperback on Frank Lloyd Wright that was priced $2.95. The cashier, who was the daughter of the original founder, looked me up and down and asked “Are you interested in him?” When I replied that I was, sort of, she asked me to follow her back to what was a small, darkened and distinctly dusty room piled high with unimpressive-appearing stock. She opened a box containing two ancient-looking portfolios with Wright’s name on the covers saying “We just came across these, and are asking $200.00 for the set. You want them?” The portfolios showed some condition issues, but were filled with spectacular, large format plates reproducing the architect’s renderings—many using metallic inks or with tissue overlays. As I had no idea as to what I was actually handling, and that was a significant sum of money to me in 1984, I asked if she would please be kind enough to hold the set overnight while I tried to do some research. In the pre-search engine age this was not instantaneous, and while I could find reference to the books themselves, I found nothing as to what their value might be. So, summoning up my neophyte bookman’s gut feeling, the next afternoon I called the shop then got back in my trusty Volvo station wagon to go retrieve them.
For the hour’s drive, and even as I handed over the cash, I questioned if I was doing the right thing. After all, I had no client specifically in mind for them, and these things were so huge what shelves could even fit them? As it turned out, what I had purchased was a set of the first edition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe, the landmark 1911 document on his designs. In addition to being the magnum opus on Wright’s work, the majority of the sets were burned up or water-damaged in the tragic 1914 fire at Taliesin, so I had definitely made the right decision. In fact, I believe this became the first individual four-figure sale I made at that tiny shop!
As for things being secreted away in books, this next story seems implausible, but is absolutely true. Again, shortly after we opened, I was pulling books from the new arrivals cart at one of my favorite haunts and found a copy of the The Arensberg Collection Modern Art catalogue from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Walter Arensberg was the primary American collector and patron of Marcel Duchamp, and so that book is an important Duchamp reference. I was just starting my own collection of books on the artist, and as this copy additionally had the bookplate of one of my very favorite graphic designers, Merle Armitage, I made the decision to keep this one instead of selling it at the shop. While in line waiting to check out, I saw that one of the Duchamp plates had a pretty nasty adhesive ghost on the back. I wondered why someone such as Armitage would tape something inside a book, and as I turned the page to take a further look, a small blue sheet of paper fluttered to the ground. I picked that up only to be shocked that it was in fact a double sided, handwritten letter from Duchamp to Armitage in response to the designer’s earlier request that the artist send him a set of “Optical Relief” discs! Duchamp clearly did not know Armitage personally, seemed taken aback by the request, and sent this copy of the Arensberg book as a token response in lieu of the discs. I shoved the note back where it came from, and tried to be as nonchalant as humanly possible as I paid the bill in hopes that the salesman would not open it and make the same find. It remains one of my most prized possessions for both its connection to the hand of the artist, and its serendipitous discovery by me that day. Even crazier is the fact that years later I came across a copy of one of that same dealer’s catalogues from the sixties comprised of offerings from the library of Merle Armitage. The Arensberg book was in there, meaning that it had seemingly passed through the bookseller’s hands, been catalogued, sold, re-acquired years later, and sold again, to me—allwithout that letter being noticed until I dislodged it that day. That’s got to be better than finding a hundred-dollar bill, right?
Yes, both stories are just a bit more colorful and memorable than finding a note of currency, especially the twist at the end of your Arensberg one and the letter remaining in the book all that time.
What are evergreen titles customers have been buying from you for decades?
That’s such a long list! In our early days, art book collectors were passionate about nicer titles on Picasso, Miró, Dalí, and Chagall. More interesting books on Andy Warhol - the Index (Book) in particular—have always been in demand here. But, tastes certainly change generationally!
Now, with certain exceptions, we rarely see much if any interest in those earlier artists. They have been replaced by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois, John Baldessari, David Hammons, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Richard Prince, Christopher Wool. And of course, there is Ed Ruscha! We were the last retail shop Ed would wholesale his artist books to in the eighties and nineties, and we have sold well over a thousand books on or by him over the years.
There are of course the perennial photobooks such as Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, Robert Frank’s The Americans, Slim Aarons’ A Wonderful Time, Ugo Mulas’ New York: The New Art Scene, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Larry Sultan’s The Valley, and Ed Templeton’s Teenage Smokers that seem to be constantly rediscovered and in demand.
I know we started this interview with future classics, and since we just touched upon forever classics, which is a title from 2020 by an unfamiliar photographer that excited you?
One of the pleasant surprises so far this year has been Rick McCloskey’s Van Nuys Boulevard, 1972 from Switzerland’s Sturm & Drang Publishers. While technically dark, fuzzy, and grainy, it is a truly charming document of “Cruise Night” in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, where kids and cars from all over Southern California turned up on Wednesday evenings to see and be seen, and to show off your ride. Think American Graffiti meets Dazed and Confused as photographed by Joseph Szabo. And its rather small first printing is now all but sold out.
Which photographers had/have personal libraries which most impressed you?
I don’t travel very much at all, so unless said photographer is a client based in Southern California, chances are I haven’t seen their library in real life. The first such library I was really impressed by was that of photographer and photographic entrepreneur Jeff Dunas. Jeff was a publisher of photography books early in his career, and has always been serious about acquiring both the canon of classic photobooks as well as trading new releases with his friends and colleagues, so his collection is startlingly comprehensive. And much of it is signed by the photographers.
While I have never visited their many outposts, Bruce Weber and his partner Nan Bush are grand acquisitors with engaging taste and at least four libraries to keep stocked! Bruce and Nan have always been a great supporter of a number booksellers, and are amongst our oldest clients. The pictures I have seen of their homes reveal just the tip of the iceberg, but have given me pause for thought and admiration.
Todd Hido’s craftsman home in the Bay Area hills is a shrine to his love of books—and his many, varied interests. It is filled with so many great and obscure titles that the last time I visited there was no room left to set a place on the dining room table!
Ed and Deanna Templeton have a cute, suburban home on a non-descript Huntington Beach cul de sac in which no one would imagine such a large, cool, and idiosyncratic collection of photography and art books both inspirational and by colleagues.
Then there is/was the photobook library of Martin Parr, which was recently acquired by the Tate. His was the near-infinite, encyclopedic standard by which others were measured. Again, I never visited, but my incomplete understanding of its contents is still mind-blowing!
Last, and certainly not least, there is Manfred Heiting. Manfred is primarily known as a photo-historian, one with an abiding love for the photobook. Visiting his fortress in Malibu was an eye-opening experience, as it housed over twenty thousand examples, both common and impossibly rare, all in immaculate condition. Combining scholarship, connoisseurship, and a penchant for commerce, Manfred spent five decades assembling a working library that was tragically consumed in its entirety in the 2018 Woolsey fire. He has of course started buying, sparingly, once again.
My heart just sank. I DID NOT see that coming.
I would especially love to see Bruce and Nan’s collection but each you mentioned would no doubt be utterly fascinating.
Since so many books have passed through your hands in your lifetime what are some which you’d be very happy to receive as a gift?
Having owned a bookstore for nearly forty years, I’ve been very fortunate to have the ability to amass a rather sizable library of the books I’ve admired that have passed through our doors in that period...
Just in this instant, I am impressed by handling once again my copy of Jesse Alexander’s spectacular At Speed. Published by Bond/Parkhurst Books in 1972, it is a massive, graphic summation of the sixties’ glamorous international motorsports scene. I liken it to the book equivalent of John Frankenheimer’s cinematic tour-de-force Grand Prix. As my father was a weekend SCCA sports car driver when I was growing up, this world was a source of fascination, and ever since I discovered At Speed—via Bruce Weber as I recall—it has had a specialresonance for me. If I did not own it, this would be the gift I would covet!
What sections in your store do you never tire of looking amongst?
I find myself straightening and organizing the graphic design, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, and African-American Art sections from time to time simply because I enjoy reacquainting myself with the contents on an ongoing basis. Not that I typically spend a lot of time alphabetizing here at the shop... :) Truthfully, I have so little time to devote to the actual hands-on process while down in the stacks that I liken it to my Dad’s joke from so many years ago about his own business requiring him to constantly be like Lee Iacocca having to go down to the manufacturingfloor to make sure all is running smoothly. How’s that for a dated, distinctly non-bookish reference?
Ha, yes, I think it’ll go over the head of most people under about 45…
I think we need to up that by at least a decade.
You get to swap places with any other bookstore owner for a year and run their shop. Whose would be most enticing to you?
Dagny Corcoran of Los Angeles’ ArtCatalogues played a crucial early role in the path that led me to open Arcana. She has more contacts with longtime artists, collectors, curators, and gallerists than can be imagined, and has tons of material, like myself, that never sits out on the open shelves. I suppose if I had to choose a “Trading Places” scenario, that would allow me to finally see all of the treasures that she has amassed that I’ve always wondered about. Plus, I could still stay in town!
What are important books to you that have zero photographs in them?
As a young reader, I voraciously consumed speculative fiction, with Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, and R.A. Lafferty being my favorite authors; none of whom utilized photographs. These days, I spend what little free reading time I have rotating mostly between non-fiction biographies and histories. As I write, I’m currently bouncing from Shoshona Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism to Lili Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A. to Pauline Butcher’s Freak Out: My Life With Frank Zappa. Full disclosure though, while all three are purely text-driven, the last two do have a smattering of photographs.
To make all of us book-lovers feel good right now can you share some favorite stories of fabulous sales you’ve made over the years? You of course needn’t name names or give dollar amounts, but I think we all always like to hear of others who equally (or more) value bringing books into their lives.
I have learned to try to err on the side of discretion, and not “kiss and tell” so much. One of the still-enjoyable aspects of maintaining an open shop after nearly four decades is putting the right book in the right hands at the right moment. This may all seem purposely vague, and is not intended to be self-aggrandizing, but we have had a nearly invisible hand in the ultimate look of countless commercials, music videos, feature films, fashion shoots, and the like. We have put artists and photographers in touch with publishers and gallerists that have impacted their careers, books in the hands of designers that have informed their output, etc. The cultural butterfly effect of this radiating out into the greater world cannot be understated, and it may be what I am proudest of as far as Arcana goes.
That IS a lot to be proud and you have many fans around the world who would agree. Thanks Lee!
Lee Kaplan at Arcana Books