Vince Aletti

A photography critic’s life in images

Detail from Vince Aletti’s The Drawer (SPBH, 2022).

One of what seems like only a handful of working photography critics today, Vince Aletti is also a prolific collector of print ephemera, much of it archived within a single massive filing cabinet in his longtime East Village apartment. Below, Aletti talks about his new photobook, The Drawer, which shuffles this matter into alluring, Warburgian juxtapositions of high and low, iconic and unknown. Mapped out over the course of a single afternoon, the book is a meditation on how images shape desire, a remedy to the cold calculations of the algorithm, and the wordless memoir of a great and grateful eye.

I’M DISMAYED by the general disinterest in printed matter—in the physical scrapbook, postcard, or magazine. There used to be four sources for magazines and the daily papers within five blocks of my apartment; none are left. But the magazine stands that remain are stacked with fat, vivid issues from all over the world; the death of print seems as unlikely as the death of the novel. I recently spent the better part of two days at Printed Matter’s New York Art Book Fair, so there’s obviously a lively and dedicated counterculture out there that values the book, the pamphlet, the zine, and the printed image in all its forms. I’ve seen some marvelous things on Instagram and elsewhere, but I can’t really appreciate a photograph intended for exhibition online, except as a reference or a reminder. A photograph, even one printed on a page torn from a magazine, is not merely an image: It’s an object with weight and scale, texture and presence.

I’ve always collected magazines, posters, invitations, and announcements, but couldn’t really accumulate much until I settled in New York in 1968 and, eight years later, moved into my current seven-room apartment. Now I save many more magazines than I get rid of, but nothing goes into recycling until I tear out the pages and covers I want to look at again. Most of them end up in one drawer of an antique oak filing cabinet in my living room, along with newspaper clippings, covers and ads from art magazines, film stills, publicity glossies, and pages from old museum calendars. At some point, most of these pictures were stuck to my refrigerator or push-pinned to a wall in my kitchen where images change constantly. I’ve lived with them, and now they need a rest. They add another layer to an image bank that’s constantly refreshed, occasionally weeded out. I never close the drawer without first shuffling everything on top into an arrangement that I’ll enjoy seeing the next time I open it. One day I shuffled it again for Self Publish, Be Happy publisher Bruno Ceschel, and we had the beginnings of a book.

Detail from Vince Aletti’s The Drawer (SPBH, 2022).

Except for twenty or so later reshoots, all seventy-some spreads in The Drawer were photographed (by the agile, unflappable Anushila Shaw) in a single afternoon. The process involved excavating material, layer by layer, that had been stored in that space for a long time, including covers of Artforum, tear sheets from ’70s Vogue, and photos of boxers and basketball players clipped from the Times. Eventually the drawer was removed from the cabinet and put on the floor so it could be lit from above. I leaned over and shuffled pictures until I had a mix I was happy with—one that juxtaposed a wide range of periods, styles, formats, and subjects, although images of men, all sorts of men, predominate. I hadn’t expected to find so many things that I’d had since the ’60s—things I’d brought here when I moved in in 1976, including a Rolling Stones centerfold from a teen magazine and Richard Avedon’s Ringo Starr portrait from a 1965 Harper’s Bazaar. The process was spontaneous and as quick as possible. I was conscious of raising or lowering the erotic temperature of the mix; I wanted it to simmer without boiling over.

No question, desire and obsession are the driving forces behind much of what ends up in the drawer, and they define, underline, or spark nearly every arrangement. These are pictures I want to look at again and again, pictures I want to rub up against one another, however unlikely that might be in any other context. This book is personal—these are the kind of pictures I might tuck into a journal to remind me of a mood or a moment—but not private. It’s expressive in a way I’m not always able to put into words. So the book doesn’t have an introduction, captions, or text of any sort. It is what it is: a picture book. I wanted to set up a conversation among images from very different sources and periods, but I didn’t want to interpret it. I’m indebted, in various ways, to Kurt Schwitters, Paul Thek, Richard Avedon, Jack Pierson, Zoe Leonard, Douglas Blau, and Steve Lawrence’s Newspaper, but I’ll leave it up to viewers to decide if The Drawer has anything at all to do with photography criticism. Most will recognize pictures they’ve seen before, so they’ll have points of reference along the way, but I don’t mind them getting a little lost.