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Major Collection of Photobooks Destroyed in California Wildfire

Dutch curator and photography collector Manfred Heiting’s massive holdings of photobooks, vintage photographs, posters, ceramics, and Art Deco furniture have been lost in a deadly wildfire that raged across Northern California for two weeks earlier this month. The British Photography Journal reports that Heiting’s world-renowned library comprised more than 36,000 volumes of photobooks from Europe, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Japan.

Heiting, who is based in both Malibu and Brussels, told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad: “On satellite photos I can see that everything in my neighborhood has disappeared. Two or three houses may have survived. The rest was pulverized in a ten-minute fire storm.” The area in which his house was located is still a restricted zone, and Heiting has not been allowed to return to his property. 

A former director of Polaroid’s international division, Heiting is a scholar who produced significant works on the history of photography in Germany, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Japan. When he began collecting in the 1970s, he first focused on prints, but in 2002, after selling the majority of his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), he shifted to photobooks. Since then, he had acquired a collection that traced the history of photobook publishing from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. In 2012, the MFA acquired about 24,000 of the books. While a few thousand items had already been transferred to the museum, the majority was supposed to stay at the collector’s home for research purposes until 2023.

“It’s just a tremendous loss for the history of photography and artist books,” MFAH Gary Tinterow told the Houston Chronicle. Photography curator Malcolm Daniel and the MFAH’s head librarian, John Evans, visited Heiting’s home above Pepperdine University on several occasions and intended to return in December. Commenting on the collection, Daniel noted that the “quantity mattered, because it allowed you to learn about a range of material. For example, he didn’t just have a first edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans. He had every edition, in all twenty languages, in mint condition, so you could see the differences.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Woolsey fire, which consumed Heiting’s home, started on November 8 and killed three people, engulfed more than 96,000 acres, and razed more than 1,500 structures before firefighters were able to contain it on Thanksgiving Day. California’s deadliest fire on record, the Camp fire, which began in Butte county on November 8 and has killed eighty-four people, still burns.