The bibliophile

Natasha DÂ’SchommerÂ’s photos reveal the beautiful details hidden in old books

"Tree of Life" by Natasha D'Schommer. Credit: Submitted image
"Tree of Life" by Natasha D'Schommer. Credit: Submitted image

FULTON — Who talks about libraries like this?

“When I’m in the library I feel like I’m on a type of safari or a treasure hunt.”

Or this?

“I think the library is the microcosm of the world.”

That’s Minneapolis photographer Natasha D’Schommer, a kindred spirit to archivists everywhere. And D’Schommer’s enthusiasm — especially for the mustiest corners of the stacks and for the brittle tomes shelved in rare book collections — is totally sincere. An experience in a library two decades ago pretty much set her life on its current course, including a stopover this spring at Gallery 360.

At the gallery, D’Schommer is showing photographs excerpted from three bodies of work, each a record of her explorations in a different archive: the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota; The Schubert Club Museum in St. Paul; and Princeton University’s Scheide Library, a repository of extraordinarily rare books from the private collection of alumnus William Scheide, which D’Schommer first visited as a college student in 1993.

The story has been repeated often enough in interviews that it’s taken on a mythic sheen, but during that initial visit — to photograph a Shakespeare first folio — D’Schommer was seized by sudden book lust and lifted the 1623 volume for a surreptitious whiff. Scheide himself spied the transgression and yelped — not in horror, but in giddy recognition of a fellow bibliophile.

D’Schommer recalled, “He said at the top of his lungs, ‘She smells books, she can stay as long as she wants!’”

Her photographs from the Scheide and Schubert Club collections have been collected in books, and a third book of her Bell Library photos is due in November. Clearly, as much as D’Schommer loves libraries, they love her back.

The photographs at Gallery 360 are something of an experiment for D’Schommer, a Washburn High School graduate who lives not far from her alma mater in the Tangletown neighborhood. She recently picked up an industrial sign maker, and has been using it to print her photographs directly onto aluminum, a technique that lends her images an appealing luster.

Beautiful details draw D’Schommer’s eye, like the engravings in a 1712 volume of natural history by the Parisian pharmacist Pierre Pomet from the Bell Library collection. She enlarges a fanciful illustration of a tree, magnifying the engraver’s finely crosshatched lines and emphasizing the craftsmanship involved in that era of printed books. But D’Schommer also makes the image her own, selectively blurring tree limbs to add depth and dimensionality to the illustration, and tweaking the colors so that the tree is porcelain blue with individual leaves and fruits picked out in pale gold.

The colors in a painted illumination from a circa 1400 encyclopedia, another Bell Library find, are intensified into vibrant jewel tones. The scene appears to be a group of robed scholars gathered around an open book, a wittily reflexive image for D’Schommer that, on its aluminum backing, practically glows with splashes of green, blue, yellow, pink and a fiery orange-red resembling a particularly daring shade of lipstick.

Even the mottled sepia tones of 200-year-old sheet music — brown, pearl and beige — seem richer in D’Schommer’s photographs. A detail from a handwritten draft of a Mozart piano sonata, found in the Scheide archives, emphasizes the composer’s fluent script, evident in both the notation and his jottings at the top of the page.

An invitation to shoot The Schubert Club Museum’s holdings presented D’Schommer with a new kind of challenge, to turn her camera on pianos and violins instead of books and manuscripts. She was drawn to a collection of wildly eccentric instruments crafted in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s by the self-taught luthier Arthur Ferris, many of them odd hybrids like the unwieldy looking harp-violin.

D’Schommer’s black-and-white photograph of a Ferris violin meant to be played by two people at once zeros-in on a touching detail: a heart-shaped bridge where two sets of strings come together. It’s completely mad, but poetic.

“I feel so sorry for him, because I wish he could have just been a sculptor,” D’Schommer said.

Most recently, D’Schommer has been photographing Americana, and on a recent trip back to the Scheide Library she photographed a set of letters penned by Abraham Lincoln. But you can bet she was eyeing the bookshelves.

“I just keep coming back to the book,” she said. “It’s a subject I’m continually surprised by.”

“Possessions …” runs through April 14 at Gallery 360, 3001 W. 50th. St. 925-2400. gallery360mpls.com