Ampersand, Portland, OR
While in Portland, Oregon recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet up with Myles Haselhorst, the guy behind counter at Ampersand Vintage, a nice place to find both new and slightly read photobooks, gallery, vintage printed material and photographs, and most recently, Ampersand published books. Here are excerpts from our conversation;
Hi Myles, it is really nice to meet you and have an opportunity to discuss your background and how Ampersand came about. Would you mind providing some details on your back story? I understand your degree is in lit, so how did you make the transition from school to a shop keeper for a photographic book store?
I started Ampersand in 2005, first as a home-based business, & now as a gallery & showroom in NE Portland that I opened in fall 2008. In essence, the business grew out of my love for literature, reading & the book as an object, but I’ve also always been drawn to photographic images & visual culture in general. The idea of owning a bookstore has always been with me, but when I really started to work toward that goal, finding & selling used books on the internet was becoming a viable thing. One effect the internet had on book selling was a dramatic reduction in the value of certain types of books. In response, I chose to specialize & seek out items that tended to be unique & thereby hold their value. Photobooks, for a number of reasons, tend to increase in value over time. Economics aside, photobooks were a draw because of their inherent narrative value. A good photobook can produce an experience equal to reading the richest of novels or a well-composed poem.
It appears that your current objectives extends beyond just the buying and selling of photographic books, to include vintage photographs and ephemera. Has that always been the case? What is the interacting dialog amongst these three genres; photographic books, vintage photographs and ephemera?
A large part of owning a business like Ampersand is scouting & hunting for new material. In the process of collecting like this, one’s eye can’t help but stray to other types of material such as the vintage snapshots & ephemera that I sell alongside photobooks. In general, it’s a reflection of my disparate interests, but as you’ve noted I’m trying to create a space where there’s a dialog between books produced by artists & the vernacular visual materials that our culture creates as a byproduct of existing. The connection between the two is strong & my hope is that Ampersand is space where both can be viewed in close proximity.
You have chosen to create a gallery space amongst your book stacks, did you originally envision a gallery or did this evolve? Interestingly a number of galleries how include a small book store, but for you, it appears that the books came first. These do seem complementary but adds another layer of complexity.
I’d say my passion for books came first & the gallery followed as an experiment. Again, I think it traces back to the diversity of my interests. It’s an engaging (& often exhausting) exercise trying to find work that relates to my book & vintage materials inventory. More importantly, I try to find work that relates to my interest in how pedestrian visual culture ultimately gets reproduced as art. In that sense, most of the work I’ve shown is derived from found materials of one kind or another, or it has been vintage material that I’ve found & formed into a show, sometimes successfully, often times not. The gallery is also a response to my opinion of galleries in general. Few people live in starkly-lit, white-walled boxes. Chances are that if one collects art, he or she also collects photobooks & maybe old photos, antique correspondence, arcane recipe books, etc. Collections of this sort & art coexist in our homes & apartments, which I find fascinating, so I wanted to create a space that celebrates this kind of interrelation.
Speaking of complexity, with your recent exhibition, Our Time, you have pursued a new venture in publishing a catalog. I have noted that a number of galleries have taken similar steps in self-publishing their exhibitions in a book form, so what was this experience like and what do you now foresee as your future in book publishing? Are you going to consider only exhibition catalogs or venture beyond this, and if so, where would you want to take this?
Our first book coincides with our current show, Our Time, which features paintings by Dan Gluibizzi. Though not a photobook per se, Dan’s work does address issues of photography in that all his watercolors are derived from anonymous digital photos people post on the web. In most cases the figures are nude—they are exhibitionist, nudist, amateur porn makers—& Dan’s work invites us to consider how digital photography & the internet has allowed for a proliferation of this type of photograph. As with all catalogs, the basic idea was to create a record of the show that provides context & also serves as an alternative to owning one of Dan’s works. We also wanted to create something that is collectible in its own right, hence the limited edition & our attention to design & production standards. Whether or not the book came out exactly as I envisioned it is arguable, but it does successfully convey the nature, complexity & character of Dan’s work, which was the primary goal.
I’ll continue publishing exhibition catalogs in cases where the work lends itself to reproduction & the artist wants to participate in the process. In fact, our next show features work by Portland photographer John Ryan Brubaker, who first showed me his photographs in the form of a small photobook he had made by hand. Over the year he made several changes & it eventually occurred to us to make a show that deconstructs the book & presents it as art pieces on the wall. Of course, the book itself will also be available in a limited edition, a few of which will come with original silver prints & others that will be completely handmade by Ryan.
Beyond that, I’d like to produce small edition books that further investigate the sheer abundance of found visual material that finds its way into Ampersand. Returning again to the idea of experimentation, small edition, self-published books allow one to experiment with papers, inks, printing & binding without much financial risk, which is exciting. A mistake in one publication can be refined & corrected in the next. In that, I guess the process is as paramount as the final product–it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it.
What are your thoughts about photography and Photobooks here in Portland and generally in the Northwest?
There’s an active photography community here in Portland. Galleries like Charles Hartman & Blue Sky continue to exhibit great shows. The Newspace Center for Photography provides an excellent platform for photographic eduction with juried shows & incredible resources. The new Curator of Photography at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan, has thus far been very active in engaging the community from her position as curator. Plus we have Nazraeli Press here in town & photographers like Raymond Meeks (we showed his work in April), who is active in making photographic artist books. & there’s Photolucida, the portfolio review that takes place every two years & brings a large influx of photographers, gallery owners & curators to the community. All that said, I’d say that serious buyers & collectors of photography & photobooks here in Portland are still rare birds. But in general the photobooks are selling well, even without listing online, & I’m optimistic that local interest in photography books will continue to grow.
As you are actively buying, trading and selling photobooks, what trends and future do you foresee in photobooks, which seems to be a hot button in photographic conversations on the web and elsewhere? What are your thoughts on the increasing quantity and varying quality of self-published books?
The sheer abundance of photographic books being made is remarkable. As a buyer for a store, it’s difficult keeping up with everything that is available. I’m sure collectors face the same problem—making sense of what & what not to buy, especially when edition numbers are often low & certain books sell quickly. That’s why online resources such as yours, Jeffrey Ladd’s blog & The Indie Photobook Library are so important. Which is all to say that beyond the books being published by the main photography publishers, there’s this rich culture of independent, self-published & small press photography books. So, that’s one obvious trend.
To be honest, I really haven’t decided what my role as a bookstore should be in relation to this type of book. By & large, it’s a type of media that has been facilitated & fertilized by the internet. That’s not to say that the books are created because of the internet, but rather the internet has created a community of distribution & commentary that allows the books to be viewed, discussed & ultimately purchased. At a basic economic level, a bookstore may question carrying a title that collectors can in most cases buy direct from the artist. That said, independent books that I do carry sell best when there is a strong relation between the content & the design of the book. That’s an obvious statement, but it’s actually something that’s very difficult to achieve. An example of a recent title that did achieve this is Firework Studies by Pierre Le Hors, published by Hassla. At surface it’s an understated & simple book, but it invites one to perceive multiple layers of meaning. In a way, it’s kind of taxonomy of fireworks & the word “studies” lends to it this sense of scientific pursuit, so, appropriately, the book has the shape & feel of a field manual. I sold several copies out of the store & in each case the buyer’s were drawn as much to the design of the book as its content. Hassla always seems to produce nice books, so it’s a sure bet ordering in their titles. How to judge the quality of all the other books out there is difficult. Perhaps I should invite photographic bookmakers to submit examples so that I can consider selling them at Ampersand.
The impulse to create photographically illustrated books & documents is obviously not new. Though “trend” may not be the right word to describe it, more & more attention is being paid to photographic books & albums that were made by anonymous persons or commercial entities in the past. Aperture recently published a book titled Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography & there are others like it. While it’s engaging reading books of this kind, it’s even more rewarding collecting examples of the albums & books they investigate. Though abundant, it’s not always obvious where to find them & when you do, chances are you may own the only copy that exists. Among the examples that I’ve found recently is a stapled book of photographs & text documenting the working procedures & machinery of a Japanese wire rope manufacturer. Beyond the pleasure of seeing a very specific form of industry, the book is remarkable in that it was so obviously handmade—looking at it, you really get a sense of the design decisions made by its creator. So, that’s one aspect of Ampersand that I’ve always tried to cultivate, this notion of finding examples of photographically illustrated books, albums & documents that are one of a kind & say a lot about our impulse to use photographs to convey & illustrate information.
Myles, this was a great discussion and I appreciate the opportunity to spend this time with you. Are there any other thoughts you want to share in closing that perhaps I missed?
Thanks for showing interest in the space & proposing the interview. It’s been fun. I’d like to add that one thing I take for granted owning a space like this is the small community of regular customers that has developed over time. It really makes coming here everyday an enriching experience. Small galleries & bookstores become hubs for dialog & conversation in ways the internet can’t quite reproduce. Everything I have here at Ampersand is carefully selected; I have a personal attachment to it. As a result, buying something from Ampersand is not just an act of paying for & acquiring a thing, it’s a way of participating in the act of curation, in the dialogs & creative impulse I hope the space encourages. There are places like Ampersand dotted all over the world; at the risk of sounding preachy, I really encourage readers of your blog outside of Portland to seek them out (if they have not already) & patronize them.
Myles Haselhorst with Douglas Stockdale
Note: Ampersand has expanded their bookstore and gallery in late 2011.
Excellent interview about a very special bookstore and its creative and knowledgeable proprietor. I make it a point to visit Ampersand Vintage a couple of times when in Portland and always look forward to seeing Myles and looking through (and purchasing) photobooks. It’s a great store for those who love photobooks and related media! Plus Myles is a great resource.