There’s a place in Los Angeles called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. As the name might imply, it isn’t a museum in the traditional sense, but more of a collection of exhibits presenting what may be fiction as fact in a way that makes even fact begin to seem like fiction. When we’d gone through the whole thing, a friend pointed to a pigeon outside and asked, paranoid, “Is that even real?” The museum had recalibrated his sense of his place in reality.
Reading Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook: Ghost Stories was a similar experience for me. A collection of stories, vignettes, found photographs, and the artist’s illustrations, this book, like many ghost stories, blurs the line between what can be absolutely known and what cannot. The writing and images are equal parts funny, spooky, and devastating, and by the time I was done reading I felt haunted myself.
Based in New York, Shapton was born and raised in Canada. She is also an artist and publisher at J&L Books, which she cofounded with Jason Fulford. Shapton is also the author of several other books including the award-winning Swimming Studies.
If I had gone with my original instincts, my first question to Leanne would have been, “How am I supposed to interview you when I loved this book so much?” Instead, we talked about the presence of the photographer in photography, the power of objects, and, of course, ghosts.
The Rumpus: I’m interested in your inspiration and process in making this book. You use found and original images with the written text—photographs, watercolors, architectural plans—did you find yourself writing to images, finding or creating images for the text, both, neither? How do you see them relating to one another?
Leanne Shapton: Both. My technical training, if I have any and if you can call it that, is as a graphic designer and art director, so when I work I use Adobe Indesign. I’ll place images and text at the same time. I often “see” a page in my head, at the same time as I “hear” the story, and imagine how it reads and sounds. So when I submit a draft, it’s a layout.
In some cases—for example in “Gymnopédies”—I wanted to illustrate how my grandmother, who was losing her mind and speaking to relatives who were long dead, might see and navigate familiar spaces. The idea of the plan views where rooms appeared twice and some are blocked off came first. I love looking at plans and this form is something readers immediately know how to “read.” I messed with old house plans and made them impossible (I had the story of the famous Winchester house in mind) in order to approximate my grandmother’s experience, then looked for the writing. My mother made notes when my grandmother was staying with her, and her point form observations chimed with the ones I found in old “ghost hunting” accounts.
Sometimes the image comes first, sometimes text. In the case of “Middle Distance” the text came first and I wasn’t sure what I’d pair it with.
I wanted to do something with advertisements of mirrors where nothing is reflected back. They’re everywhere: in catalogs and images of rooms… I find them spooky. So I tried the layout. At first I had some contemporary Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware images in that story, but then found some old illustrations of mirrors from the ’50s that gave the story a different tone.
Rumpus: Do you know the website craigslistmirrors.com, which aggregates photos of mirrors for sale on Craigslist? It’s also an advertisement for a mirror, but made by an amateur, so that the spookiness comes from the snippet of image—usually unintended—that you do see.
Shapton: Yes, I know about this. I think there is also one for televisions, or I’m thinking of Lee Friedlander’s photographs of televisions… I think the spookiness also comes from the accumulation of absences.
Rumpus: Your work, specifically Guestbook and Important Artifacts…, seems concerned with the lives and meaning that haunt particular objects. For instance, in “Sirena de Gali,” the dresses pictured seem to be haunted both by the women who wore them and the women who designed/made them, while “At the Foot of the Bed” serves as a record of presences sensed or seen from particular beds. Can you tell me about the relationship, in your mind, between these objects and their stories/the people whose lives they’ve encountered? In other words, are these objects haunted by the lives and events lived in, near, or on them, or do the objects themselves do the haunting?
Shapton: Such a fun question. I see objects and things as reliquaries that can hold stories. Like little transmitters. Depending on who encounters them, they are either haunted or haunting. Who hasn’t thrown something away because it is haunted or reminds us too acutely? And who hasn’t kept something by the same logic? I’m interested how banal things can contain multitudes and meaning to one or two people, and glance off everyone else. Objects, clothes, things, can be so private and secretive, or be meaningless. A friend recently said, offhand, “the negligible is all that really matters,” and it resonated with me.
In the case of “At the Foot of the Bed” I was interested in the way beds are photographed, with the camera usually taking the position at the foot, where many people see ghosts.
Rumpus: The photographer as the ghost in the image—the presence we know is there but normally isn’t included in the photograph—is an underlying theme in many of these stories. Can you talk a little more about that?
Shapton: I’m happy you picked up on that—it’s about two sides: visible, invisible, embodied, disembodied, love, hate, truth, lies. Everything having an equal and opposite reaction; I’m very interested in that balance, or binary—where what we see has a corollary: what we don’t see. We think we can trust what we are shown, but it’s only half the story. It’s devastating to be misled, but it happens so easily. Photography asks us to trust, it’s almost a metaphor for trust. But it’s so unreliable, the truth is controlled. In Death in Venice there is a camera on the beach in the last scene—in both the film and the book. This tiny detail really struck me.
Rumpus: In “A Geist,” the same man—Edward Mintz—appears in photographs taken at events all over the globe, all on the same night. Some of these photographs are with people I recognized—or think I did!—though they’re given different names, and all of them seem to be real, as in not-photoshopped or otherwise fabricated. So I guess my question, if you’re willing to answer, is who is this man and where did you get these photographs? And who, to you, is Edward Mintz?
Shapton: This story was fun to make. I cast my friend Paul Marlow, a tailor and designer, as Edward Mintz, and found locations for those forty-six parties. I then asked people I knew to dress up as guests on different days. I fed them canapés and drinks and gently directed them. I then asked two photographers, Jason Fulford and Gus Powell, to shoot Mintz with the guests in hard-flash, party-picture style.
I’m interested in how people use and read photographs socially, and also how violent these images can be—as proof of inclusion and exclusion, as missing out or belonging. These sorts of photos can carry reassurance and celebration, but can also be so cruel, and I wanted to create this tragic character, a person who accepts every invitation he’s offered and thus becomes a geist instead of a guest.
Rumpus: I’m also wondering, in general, about the people who appear in the photographs in this book. Some are more recent, some are older, some are from very long ago. In a way, these people haunt the book twice—as the people they really were, and as the people they become through the narrative you build. Where did you find these images? Are any of them photographs of people you know personally, or family members? Do you know the identity of every person who appears in these images? Did you have any qualms about including images of real people here?
Shapton: Most of the pictures in the book are of people I know, taken by me, or by my family, used with permission. Others are part of photographic series I made. Then a handful are from stock agencies or found photographs from flea markets, eBay, and Etsy. I did not have qualms, but we did go over every image with legal counsel.
Rumpus: Specifically, in the story “Natura Morta” you create what look like Instagram posts, complete with “likes,” out of photographs of yourself and someone I would guess is your mother. What, to you, makes this series a ghost story? How does social media fit in here?
Shapton: I think selfies are ghosts. Effigies, fakes. At first I was going to cast and shoot a woman taking typical selfies to illustrate this controlled presentation and representation of the self, of vanity. Then I looked at instances when I had taken pictures of myself to send to other people, pictures I would hesitate to post on Instagram, but wouldn’t be out of place there. I’m as vain as the next person, maybe even more so, but I wanted to see what it would feel like to use myself, and not directly satirize Instagram. I interspersed these pictures of myself with ones of my step-aunt’s stepmother, who was a beauty queen, photographed regularly in the ’50s and ’60s. I wanted to compare how the idea of the “photogenic” has evolved to include everything, most alarmingly, ourselves. We have increasing control and transmission of what we think are our “good sides.” And shelfies reveal more about a person than selfies.
Rumpus: “A Haunted House,” which is a single-page list of illustrations of Asham House that don’t actually appear in the book, is dedicated to Leonard Woolf. I had never read Virginia Woolf’s very short story, also titled “A Haunted House,” but found it in researching for this interview. The story reminded me, in many ways, of your book. Can you tell me about what the story, and Asham House and its history, means to you?
Shapton: Well, I like the practice of describing of photographs, and that publishing convention of listing plates of illustrations, usually after the table of contents. When you read those descriptions cold, our minds provide images. I wanted to contain the story, or account, to that form.
Virginia Woolf’s “A Haunted House” is one of my favorite—short and ghost—stories. I like that her ghosts are content, the house beats softly, gladly, the ghosts are of love. I thought about her marriage. I found an article in a Country Life magazine from the ’90s, about the real Asham House in Sussex, where the Woolfs lived from 1911 to 1919. It already had a reputation for being haunted. It has since been demolished, but I imagined its history had it not been. I imagined the ghosts that the Woolfs experienced, who they were, and the ghosts they themselves might have left.
Rumpus: Some of these stories are told to the narrator at a party or by a friend. Were any of these ghost stories told to you in similar situations?
Shapton: There is a tradition of ghost stories being told secondhand. The Turn of the Screw, for example. Or there is someone who has a story and is reluctant to tell it. These pieces were my nod to that set-up, a story served from a slight remove.
Rumpus: Do you believe in ghosts? What is a “ghost,” in your mind? What makes a story a “ghost story?”
Shapton: I do believe in them, though I’ve never seen one. I think we conjure the ones we need, or sympathize with. I think they are sympathies or memories. Barry Hannah said all stories are ghost stories. This book was my attempt to push the form of the ghost story, and short story for that matter, into something that involves how we read pictures literally and emotionally, and how photographs are both ghost and horror stories.
Rumpus: I love this book’s epigraph. Can you tell me about it, and about Adam Gilders?
Shapton: Adam was a close friend and writer, who died in 2007. In 1995 he stayed in my parent’s guest room. They have a funny little hardcover guestbook for people to sign, but rarely do. After Adam died I was home and flipped through the book and found an entry he’d made. Which is the epigraph. He had actually signed it “Burt Lahr.”
Photograph of Leanne Shapton © Derek Shapton.