Reading Matters

Library Photographs by Mickey Smith


Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 1549 x 1041 mm.

Mickey Smith loves libraries. So much so that she takes her camera to them, on a kind of safari, shooting not big game, but incidentals. She finds details amongst the shelves, often overlooked by the public at large, lost in the clamour of videos and computer terminals, as libraries engage in an eternal rebranding exercise. In 2018 Te Tuhi published her photobook exploring the legacy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who funded 18 libraries around New Zealand in the early 1900s. Her new series of large photographs focuses on the spines of bound magazines, inscribed in-house and allowing the reading matter to be stored on the stack shelves, in an orderly, chronological, catalogue-friendly way.

Highlighting details from the darker corners of libraries feels spookily like a political act in 2020. The once-trustworthy keepers of our culture are attacking, undermining and destroying them: Auckland’s university removed its specialist libraries during 2019 (fine arts, architecture, music), dismantling its own worth in the process, and now the National Library, in pursuit of some kind of nationalistic or regional idiotic rigour, is halfway through the process of culling 600,000 international volumes. In times like these, photographs that explore the nature of a library are innately celebratory.

With wit and an ironically dispassionate lens, Smith’s focus reaches far beyond the aisles and shelves of the basement of your local library. POWER is a magazine that serves the global energy industry, but on Smith’s shelf it morphs into a commentary on race relations. TIME is an old favourite (as a theme in art galleries and a news magazine on supermarket shelves) and here it appears to be well read, and more than a little worn; time, it seems, is its own worst enemy. Just change could be the exasperated exhortation from an exhausted protester, or, with a change of emphasis, a movement for judicial improvement.

Mickey Smith moved from New York to New Zealand ten years ago. Her photography qualification comes from Minnesota State University Moorhead and she has recently gained a Diploma in Jewellery Design from Hungry Creek Art & Craft School in Auckland. In New Zealand, Smith discovered libraries often create magazine bindings themselves, handwriting directly onto the spines, a practice she has not seen anywhere else; she relishes the DIY ethic of New Zealand librarians. Two local publications sparkle under the gaze of Smith: Library Life really is varied, in colour, orientation and font; and local rock ’n’ roller Rip It Up fails to conform to any rules—each of the three spines differs in some way from the other two.

By focusing on the minutiae of the magazine stacks, and blowing them up, Smith heralds the benefits of open minds and a democratic tradition. It is more than just educative to watch her read rather than judge a book by its cover.

Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 1200 x 800 mm.

MICKEY SMITH Just change 2020
Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 780 x 525 mm.

MICKEY SMITH Library life 2020
Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 525 x 780 mm.

Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 525 x 780 mm.