a thrill, finding that rare classic
WHILE most of my schoolmates were busy preparing for the A levels
during the last months of my junior college, I remember reading
over and over Don McCullin's book on photography, Hearts Of Darkness.
When the results were released months later, I did not do as well
as my peers. But maybe not.
My favourite haunt was the photography section of the Marine Parade
branch library. There were some 50 different titles and most were
instructional in nature. They ranged from books on how to photograph
buildings to winning photography contests.
It did not take too long before I realised why friends raised their
eyebrows when they found I was hanging out in the photography section.
Hidden in many of these books were pictures of scantily clad women
and nudes. A look at the check-out records and the general condition
of these titles confirmed their popularity.
McCullin's book stood out because it was one of very few not vandalised.
The title also seemed out of place.
When I should have been understanding the relationship between demand
and supply, limestone and carbon dioxide, I was learning, from McCullin's
images, the meaning of life and death.
Those dark images of war scenes from Lebanon to Cambodia scared
me initially, but the fear soon became inspiration. I decided: ''I
want to make powerful pictures like Don McCullin.''
I kept the book for more than two months and entertained the possibility
of not returning it, but gave it back after realising that a good
book must be shared.
The next year, I stumbled on another book that changed my life forever.
At the Kinokuniya bookstore in Liang Court, I found The Best of
Photojournalism/13, a collection from the annual Pictures of the
Year contest. In this, I learnt about the contest co-organiser,
the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and its photojournalism
Believing that I would get the best photojournalism education and
be around the best photojournalists and editors, I started communicating
with the professors, eventually enrolling as a full-time student
In the United States, I discovered the world of great photography
In the middle of Mercer Street in Soho, New York City, is a place
called A Photographers' Place, otherwise known to me as a cash vacuum-cleaner.
Walk into the shop and you can be guaranteed happiness, while being
relieved of your cash, of course.
Here I found a pristine copy of Hearts of Darkness, my favourite
book, beautifully-wrapped and kept in a cabinet. It now sits nicely
on one of my shelves.
In one of those crazy moments, I sent out form letters to several
book sellers with a request to find some books. Because I declared
myself an ''avid collector willing to pay high price'', I received
replies more promptly than when I was trying to sell a computer
at knocked- down price.
On my list were Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment, Gilles
Peress' Telex Iran, Robert Frank's The Americans and W. Eugene Smith's
A dealer in Massachusetts wanted US$500 (S$700) for a ''so-so''
copy of Cartier-Bresson's and US$50 for a ''slightly-worn'' Minamata.
The Americans, I was told, was permanently out of stock and a first
edition sold for US$4,000 recently.
A few months later, Aperture, a publisher of fine photography books,
announced it had found several boxes of Frank's book and sold them
at US$40 each.
Collecting photography books is no different from collecting stamps
or antiques - the rare and good ones fetch good prices.
Just like other collectors, those who collect photography books
are also familiar with phrases like, ''You should have been here
an hour earlier'', ''I just sold a copy last week'', or ''Leave
your contact number and I'll call you when I come across one''.
And, of course, we have endless tales about our hobby to share.
A friend claimed she has two copies of Minamata, one bought from
a library sale for 25 cents. I am still waiting for her call with
news that she has found me a copy.
A picture editor from Sacramento, California, claimed he always
took a copy of James Nachtwey's Deeds of War, when he went to photojournalism
workshops and conferences with the hope of meeting the photographer.
Another friend gave up a copy of W. Eugene Smith's rare Let Truth
Be The Prejudice as part of his separation settlement.
A good friend received no less than 20 offers from me to part with
another one of Smith's rarities. His answers, despite being in dire
straits financially, have so far been: ''No,'' ''No way,'' ''Never,''
While visiting a friend in Monroe, Michigan, recently, we discussed
the possibility of a project to document the meaning of love in
our respective cities. The idea came from a book on marriage rites
by Abigail Heyman. I remembered the book and the images but not
The very next day, while touring the University of Michigan campus
in Ann Arbor, we popped into a bookstore just to see what was available.
Amazingly, I found among the small selection the much-discussed
Heyman's book, Dreams And Schemes. I also found two other books
I had wanted for years - Harold Evans' Pictures On A Page and John
Collier's Visual Anthropology.
I bought all three and promptly gave Heyman's book to my friend.
Several years ago, I gave away a copy of The Family Of Man, a book
published in 1955 in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museum
of Modern Art. The exhibition, of 503 pictures from 68 countries,
was created by Edward Steichen.
It was considered one of the most important shows of all time and
I later realised the mistake of giving the book away.
Last June, I paid $10 for another copy.
Not all adventures involved out-of-print books. Sometimes, the pursuits
involve new releases. Collectors are equally eager to be among the
first to own new offerings.
This time last year, I walked more than 50 blocks in New York City
in search of a set of three books from a new exhibition on immigration
in the United States.
When I finally reached the shop that stocked the books, it was closed
and I had to go to the city of Rochester the next day.
Rochester is home of Kodak and the George Eastman International
Museum of Photography. Much to my delight, the museum sold the books
I wanted and was holding the exhibition they were based on.
In Singapore, where rare books are as rare as used bookstores themselves,
the adventure is more or less restricted to those new releases available.
Although not comparable to the joy of finding classics, it is fulfilling
enough to walk into any bookstores here to find a title you thought
could only be available through special requests.
Occasionally, there is a surprise. Wanting to prove how bad service
is in bookstores here, I once asked a sales supervisor in Kinokuniya
for a copy of Minamata. He found a Japanese edition on his list
and got it for me in a month. I am proud to own a mini-classic.
At least for now.