© Kent Rogowski
The impulse to improve one’s lot in life is central to photographer Kent Rogowski’s new fine-art project, “Everything I Wish I Could Be,” a series of still lifes he created by amassing, arranging and photographing hundreds of self-help books.
Rogowski became interested in photographing self-help books as a way to consider “how people deal with moments of change in their lives,” he says. The project also fit into Rogowski’s practice of taking objects or images common to popular culture and presenting them in a way that causes readers to reconsider their significance. For his series “Love = Love,” for instance, he found a way to combine pieces of jigsaw puzzles of landscapes and floral arrangements. For “Bears,” he turned teddy bears inside out and made photographs of them on white seamless—making them look at once cute, frightening and delightfully grotesque.
Initially he set out to find and photograph the notes that people made in the margins of the books, which showed how people “take something intended for this mass audience and interact with it to personalize it for themselves.”
Finding books with readers’ notes in them proved difficult, though. Used booksellers didn’t accept books that had been written in, and Rogowski’s friends were reluctant to let him photograph their personal notes. He took to buying lots of books on eBay hoping that among the dozens of books he bought he’d find a few with writing in them.
After amassing a significant self-help book collection, he began to notice the language of the titles. “I realized that there was really a book for every moment in life and I could build a portrait of an emotion, of an event or of a person’s life that is told through the titles,” Rogowski says. “They started out very small, just one or two or three books, and then I realized that I could build something much larger just by trying to find a pattern or trying to find a theme that I could look at.”
Some of Rogowski’s photographs have linear narratives. For instance in one image, viewers can see an entire life in the titles of the books. “I really like that the story of a lifecycle could be told through books that were meant to either heal or propel you forward,” Rogowski says.
In another of the photographs, which tells the story of a relationship, if a viewer reads the book titles left to right the relationship ends, but if they read right to left it continues. Another image is comprised entirely of books whose titles use the words “beginning” or “end.”
To create the images, Rogowski spent days arranging and rearranging collections of books on the floor of his studio. Once he was happy with the story, message or idea suggested by the arrangement of titles, he used a laser level to fine-tune the setup, placing the books on whatever he could find so they created an essentially flat surface. He then made two exposures with a medium-format digital camera, which he mounted to the ceiling 15 feet above, and tiled the two images so he could print the images at life size for exhibition.
Rogowski acknowledges that there is humor in this work—“I do see humor in some of the titles and ultimately in some of the experiences we all go through,” he says—but his real goal is for people to look at the photographs and consider their own experiences. “I want someone to look at [the photographs] and reflect on their own lives,” Rogowski says. In doing so, viewers will also recognize commonalities between their own lives and those who’ve read the books in Rogowski’s photographs.