Michael Lorenzini's Bookcases

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday February 27, 2020

DART’s “Pimp Your Bookcases” continues with Michael Lorenzini, a photo archivist / curator / author / photographer / educator who has been surrounded by photo books his entire professional life. 

Peggy Roalf: When did you realize that books were a drug of choice?

Michael Lorenzini:  Not sure, I was always collecting things, and I had an aunt who worked in publishing in New York. Every Christmas she would show up with bags of books for my brother and I and a couple of bookish cousins. We would dig through them and divide them up. Not sure if they were review copies or what, but it certainly set me on a path. 

At that time, mostly I was interested in literature, fiction. I don’t think I bought my first photo book until I was 18. In college, in Massachusetts, I used to come to New York with some friends and I would always hit the Strand bargain bins; that was my budget. I also had a pretty bad comic book habit for a while but quit that in my 20s to concentrate on photography.

PR: What is the longest you have gone without acquiring a new title—and why?

ML:  Oh, I definitely slowed down after downsizing from a loft to a one-bedroom railroad apartment, but I regret not buying a lot of the titles released since that time that are now too expensive for me. Now I try to collect more smartly, reading up on new titles and selecting the must-haves, rather than just stumbling upon them.

PR: What do you like most about your bookcases?

ML:  I built my shelves specifically to hold my art books, so they really suit my needs, but I just need more of them. When I was in a loft, they were much taller and I had a ladder to access the top shelves, but I had to shorten them for my current apartment. I was gifted another set of shelves from a friend. I think they were from Home Depot, but I replaced the shelf brackets they came with for more secure brackets. 

PR: Are they everything you every hoped for or is there room for improvement?

ML: They work okay for my other books and for odd size things like Mitch Epstein’s Recreation, which is a challenge to shelve anywhere. I’m planning on building another set of shelves over my desk for books and print files of projects I’m working on.

Q: What went into your choice of bookcases — any research?

ML: Built them myself, lots of research, but in the end, it was a design that developed as I went along.

Q: What went into your research and design process when you decided to build your own?

ML: I had had a series of cheap bookcases that could not hold the weight of my art books, so I knew I needed something sturdier. I looked at a lot of readymades but dismissed them as too expensive. And I knew I wanted something industrial looking. I had seen a bathroom shelf at a friend’s made of steel piping and thought that was a good look and would be sturdy. I didn’t want wooden shelves though because I thought it would be too dark looking, so I went with plexiglass shelves made from something called glass-edge plexi, which reflects light to look green on the edge, like tempered glass. I think it is the most expensive plexi you can buy, and then I still needed steel bracing under the shelves for support, and all those steel pipes and joints add up, so in the end I spent way more than if I had just bought readymades.

PR: Have your shelves ever collapsed under the weight of your books? Or have your photo-and-artbook caused any other type of disaster caused by big heavy books?

ML: Definitely; my previous shelves collapsed; they were pressboard and just bowed until they were resting on the books below.

PR: How do you organize your photo books?

ML: A few years ago, probably after going to library school, I alphabetized all the monographs by artist’s last name, but separated out some due to unusual sizes. But since then I have acquired more books and they are sadly just scattered around where I can find room. So, I need to reorganize and I need to update my catalog too.

PR: What do you do when you run out of shelf space?

ML: I have weeded my collection a few times over the years, purging the books that “don’t bring me joy.” I’m now getting rid of all my CDs to make room for more books (and vinyl). I also moved a lot of my New York history and crime photography books to my office a few years ago and at some point, when I retire, I’ll need to reintegrate those, which is a frightening thought. It’s probably 20% of my collection. It is very eclectic what I have chosen to keep though. Why, after three moves and several purges, do I still have three different editions of Bellocq’s Storyville portraits? No idea, maybe because I identify with the story of [Lee] Freidlander discovering the glass plates; but I like having them. 

PR: Have you ever had to move your library? What are the best and worst things about moving this kind of collection?

ML:  Three times since it became a substantial collection, but the last time was ten years ago. I don’t think there is any best thing about it except it forces you to weed. The worst thing is the weight. For the second move I hired movers and I think I had 50 boxes just of art books that they ended up charging me extra to move. The last move my wife and I did ourselves, but we just did a few boxes at a time over a week with a rental car. Still, we are in a fourth-floor walk-up, so it really starts to make you rethink your collection.

PR: What is the first photo-or-artbook you ever bought and why did it catch your attention?

ML: I’m not sure if it was the first artbook I bought, but I know I bought the [Garry] Winogrand catalog to the 1988 MOMA show. It was at the Strand, probably in 1988 or ’89. I don’t think I saw the show, but I loved his work and it was discounted, so it appealed to a broke student. Around the same time, I also picked up Richard Misrach’s first catalog from 1979 (signed!) for a $1 in the Strand bargain bin. It had some minor water damage on the cover but is still worth a lot. Those were the first serious books I ever bought and pretty good choices for an 18 or 19-year-old photo student. 

PR: What was the last photo book you acquired?

ML: The last photo book I bought with serious intention was Gregory Halpern’s Omaha Sketchbook. I think it was the only book I bought at the last NY Art Book Fair. There were others on my shortlist, but in the end, I just thought that it was so beautifully produced and something special. The most recent book I picked up is this oddly beautiful and violent book Control by Turkish photographer, Çada Erdoan, who has been persecuted by the Turkish government for his work. It was a spur-of-the-moment buy from a 10x10 Photobooks weeding sale, but I’m very happy with it. 

PR: What are the best bookcases you have ever seen and what do you envy about them?

ML:  Not sure if they still have them, but the MOMA Library had some really classic looking built-in cases. Oh, and the Morgan Library bookcases with the secret hidden staircases. It would be hard to beat that for a home library.

PR: Can you advise the readers on anything you feel should be avoided in the planning and construction/installation of bookcases?

ML: From a preservation standpoint wood is problematic. New wood, and oak especially, off-gas acetic and formic acid. Most plywood and particle board have glues that off-gas formaldehyde. With older bookcases it is not really a problem, but something to consider when building from scratch. Wood looks beautiful though.

Michael Lorenzini  is an archivist, curator, writer, and photographer. He has worked at the New York City Department of Records since 1997, currently as Operations Manager, and prior to that as Curator of Photography and Deputy Director of the Municipal Archives. He is an adjunct professor at NYU and Queens College. Before working in archives, he was a book editor at Aperture. He is the author of  New York Rises  (Aperture, 2007), about the photographs of Eugene de Salignac, whose work he discovered and whose life story he uncovered. pimp_bookcase
Instagram: @mflorenzini

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