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Faking It: Real Monographs, Fake Artists, Part 2

At first—and possibly second—glance, The Archive of Bernard Taylor (Understory Books, 2021) looks like a pretty normal, if unusually handsome, photobook. It’s a lovingly produced volume of rather formal b&w photographs taken in and around Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, based on a group of prints that a lucky guy named Peter Ward bought at an estate sale for $40. Bernard Taylor’s photographs are mostly of trees and suburban landscapes, and they are full of subtle rhythms and symmetries which suggest that the photographer saw hidden meanings in his subjects. On the opposing pages of many of these photographs are finely-worded unsigned texts on grand topics like nature and vision. The book also includes a few vintage photographs and old maps of Hastings-on-Hudson for context. There is an “Editor’s Preface” written by Ward in which he briefly tells us how he purchased the photographs and describes his passion for these images and the region they depict. Ward’s discovery of Taylor’s photographs will undoubtedly remind many people of the story of the posthumously-famous Chicago-area nanny, Vivian Maier, whose storage locker full of previously unseen photographs and negatives was auctioned off for non-payment of rent.

Ward participated in an email interview with the British photo-scholar Eugenie Shinkle at her online journal C4, who wrote, somewhat mysteriously, that “my short interview with him raised more questions than it answered. . . I’m reluctant to share what I know, because it may well change the meaning of this book for subsequent readers.”

The unsigned “Publisher’s Afterword to the second edition” (which can be read here) at the end of The Archive of Bernard Taylor should begin to plant some doubts about the existence of these two characters—Bernard Taylor and Peter Ward—and should send warning signals to the careful reader that something is amiss with this book. The Publisher admits he has never met Peter Ward (“Wherever he is now”) and opines on Ward’s “lack of clear and focused editorial practice.” After initially planning to do a greatly revised second edition, the anonymous Publisher ultimately could not bring himself “to undermine the experience” of the first edition and so for the second edition he reprinted the book just as it stood.

So in the end I decided that this new edition should merely reproduce Ward’s original book, free of any changes. It is a facsimile of a phantom.

In what may be my greatest mistake as a publisher, I have left it alone, and I ask you to forgive what I feel compelled not to explain.

Spring 2024

Note that the date that is three years in the future from when this book was actually published.

A piece of paper slipped into the book like an errata sheet says it is “for the benefit of taxonomical specialists, [and] is best discarded by the reader.” This list identifies the source of all of the quotations that appear in The Archive of Bernard Taylor, quotations that have been excerpted from a wide range of authors and notables, such as Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Werner Heisenberg, plus a number of more obscure names.

If you found The Archive of Bernard Taylor in the wild, you would not be able to discover who actually produced it and who took the photographs without some serious digging. You could do some lucky Googling or you could get inventive and go to the website of the copyright holder and publisher, Understory Books. There you would finally be able to deduce that the person responsible for the book is Tom Lecky, a publisher, photographer and rare book dealer. He was formerly the head of the Printed Books & Manuscripts Department at Christie’s auction house in New York where he managed to have been involved in some of the most historic book sales of the past quarter century. He now runs Riverrun Books, an online bookstore that “specializes in rare, antiquarian, and unusual books & literary manuscripts of all periods, with an emphasis on illustrated and artist’s books, the fine and decorative arts, photography, architecture, design, fine literature, travel & exploration, science & technology, and Americana.” But the only way to really discover that Lecky is actually the photographer behind Bernard Taylor’s images is to follow the link for one of the book’s blurbs to an interview Lecky gave Kim Beil for Bomb Magazine.

Bernard evolved out of photographs I had been making of my hometown, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, over the past several years. When lockdown began last year, my photo itch really intensified. About a month into this intensive exploration of the local, Bernard materialized, and I suddenly could look back through all of the images and see his work as distinct from mine. There were Tom photos, and there were Bernard photos. Getting rid of “Tom Lecky” allowed the work to be free to play and experiment without the burden of attribution. The textual accompaniments to Bernard’s photos—all quotations appropriated from other authors—emerged out of various associative strategies with an emphasis on layering American history and literature with the history of the book and book design, and to scratch at the relationships of objects to people, architecture, and literary history.

“The Multiple Becomes Unique: Tom Lecky Interviewed by Kim Beil

Lecky, it would seem, decided to give his some of his own photographs over to a fictional character, partly because he saw a different aesthetic evolving in certain images, but also, I think, so that he could create a mostly fictional bibliographical entity. What more fun could a rare book dealer and collector have than to toss a little puzzle into the system? The author doesn’t exist, the photographer doesn’t exist, and even the first edition doesn’t exist. That’s just delicious.

In Part 1 of Faking It, we looked at several examples of real monographs that were created depicting the lives and artworks of fake artists. In this post, we are dealing with a real artist deliberately hiding behind a fake artist.

Before disappearing completely, “Peter Ward” issued a pamphlet-sized addendum publication, Hillside: Further Selections from The Archive of Bernard Taylor (Understory Books, 2020), which consisted of photographs made solely in Hillside Woods and Park, Hastings-on-Hudson.

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