Judge a Book by It’s Cover

Kent Rogowski’s work might not be considered photography in the traditional sense but the final product is undoubtedly an image. He is using photography for the perspective it offers; in this case, photography is not the art but is the vehicle for the creation and perception of the art. His formal training in photography allows him to be successful in this process, even though most of the actual art is sculptural.

Abigail Smithson: What inspired the project Everything I Wish I Could Be?

Kent Rogowski: The inspiration for the project came kind of randomly. I initially started thinking about using the self-help books and motivational books when I was in a bookstore and realized that the self-help section was one of the larger sections in the store. Looking at the bookshelf was like looking at an encyclopedia of human struggles. I was interested in making work about how people deal with transitions and make changes to their lives so the books seemed perfect for that.

But when I started the project I had a very different direction planned. My original idea was to look more at how people had interacted with the books. I would buy used books with notes and other writing in them. The first few were interesting, but after that it felt flat. The images felt like you were reading someone’s diary. There wasn’t a real transformation from the object to the image. Eventually, I realized that this approach wasn’t going anywhere. Once I gave up on my original idea, it opened up other opportunities. At that point, I had already purchased a lot of books and started to wonder if there was anything else I could do with the them. I started looking at the titles and realized that it was the language that I found most interesting. This led me to think about making photographs that basically told you what they are about as you read them;  photographs of language. That’s when I started building narratives using the book titles.

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “Am I the Only One”

AS: As you transitioned from your original idea, was this ever a dead project?

KR: I did almost give up on it and move on to something else. I tried to take the project in one direction and it just wasn’t happening. I’d been very rigid about I was looking for and wasn’t exploring other possibilities. At that point it felt like a dead end.  So for a while, I did put the project aside, but I still had it in the back of my mind and when I came back to it, I had a fresh perspective and direction.

I think it’s important not to treat your ideas like they are precious. I’ve learned that if I hold on to an idea too much, I will just keep repeating the same things and not make much progress. I think ideas should be starting points that change and evolve as you explore them.  Once I opened up and started to think about the books in a different way, I was able to move the project forward. It’s rare that my work progresses in a strictly linear progression.  Rarely do I have an idea, execute it and then it’s done. Usually it will be that I have my idea, it doesn’t work out how I planned it and I have to think about what else I could do.

AS: How long did it take you to realize this was your work process?

KR: It took me a long time to realize how I work and what works best for me. Deadlines are really important for me. I understood my artistic process much more after working as a commercial photographer. Frequently a client will say, “We want this image.” “Here are the elements and this is what we want.” I would set up the shot and realize that what they wanted wasn’t going to work for one reason or another. But I had a deadline and needed to give them something that would work. So I would quickly try out the initial idea and then move on. I would have to ask myself “How can I make this work?” I would need to identify what the client was trying to communicate and quickly figure out another way to do that. After doing this for my clients, one day I realized that I wasn’t doing this for myself. I would get an idea and if that didn’t work out, I would drop it and move onto something else. Now I will try to explore the idea in different ways if I get stuck. I try to trust that there is something drawing me to my original idea and that initial impulse is what is important, not necessarily the literal idea.

AS: How did you choose the themes for each image?

KR: I looked at the different books that I had and what was available and tried to find patterns in the titles and common themes. So, some of the images came from one or two books that I had, while others were inspired by a topic. “From Birth to Death” came about after I found several books that had specific ages in the titles. It is constructed linearly in a way that mimics the passing of time. Whereas an image like “You and Me” came about in a different way.  I wanted to make an image that focused on relationships. After I figured out the theme, I tried to find some way of unifying the image. I decided to look for books that had “You and Me” in the titles. But there isn’t a linear narrative. It is more like a free association of all the things that can happen in a relationship.

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “You and Me”

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “From Birth to Death”

The visual style of the images developed after I tried photographing the books in a variety of ways. I wanted it to be visually appealing but the form of the image was really just a practical decision. The closer I can get the titles together, the more books I can fit into the image. I didn’t start the project with a visual style in mind. That really developed organically through some practical decisions as well as trying to find a visual way to draw the viewer in, so that they would read through the images.

AS: There is some social commentary that is coming out of these images. What are your personal feelings towards self-help books and the market?

KR: You could look at the work and see that there is a skeptical point of view. And I think that is true. But when I look at the work I think that it is a starting point that hopefully branches into something else. Hopefully, you start looking at the images and think about those events or emotional states that each book represents. Hopefully some of the book titles resonate and bring back a memory or feeling. I hope to engage your own memories and doubts through the work.

Some of the books are very humorous, some are very sad, some are hopeful. All of them combine in a way that doesn’t make it so clear-cut.  You could look at one part of the image and think it’s really funny and go over a few titles and maybe the next one has a little more poignancy. I like to position my work where all those things kind of meet, so that when you are looking you have a conflicted view of things. With the “Rainbows”, it’s incredibly hopeful but there is some cynicism in the image and when you look at the titles, they are not the most hopeful.

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “There is a Rainbow”

As I was working on this project, I was surprised by how my interpretation or reaction to the images would sometimes change. There have been a few times when I was having a bad day and I looked at one of the images and thought “Oh, that is exactly how I feel,” but it wasn’t something I was thinking about when I made the image. This made me think about how and when a particular piece of advice can resonate and that maybe the reason why there are so many books is that sometimes it might take something said in many different ways for it to finally make sense. Really there is a limited amount of advice that can be given for most situations.  I find it fascinating that many of these books most often repeat the same advice by changing the tone, so that it will appeal to a certain demographic or to someone at a particular time in life.

AS: Personally, I have never read a self-help book. But I find some comfort in knowing that they are there in case I ever need one. Do you any similar feelings?

KR: Yes. Maybe I get comfort from having hundreds of them in my studio. One thing that I find so interesting about the books is the stigma that is attached to them.  There is a sense of embarrassment or shame in reading them. Or that reading a self-help book is an admission that something is wrong with yourself and a sign of weakness. I am sometimes suspicious of the advice and the industry as a whole, but there is something very democratic about them. I respect the fact that they make advice accessible.


© Kent Rogowski “Life is a Lonely Place”

AS: Do you consider yourself a photographer?

KR: I think about this question a lot. I think that what it means to be a photographer has changed a lot and now encompasses a variety of practices. I don’t always see myself as a photographer and definitely don’t see myself as a traditional one. However, all my training is as a photographer and I can only assume that this influences how I make art. So I might not see myself as a photographer, but a painter or sculptor probably would. My process usually revolves around collecting and building things and is very hands on. I often have to think about what would be best for the work, to show a photograph or the original piece. Usually a photograph allows me to control how the viewer sees the work or transforms it in some way. With this project, the books were built for the perspective of the camera, so they wouldn’t look or feel the same if I were to show the books as they were.

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “Yesterday”

AS: How about a poet?

KR: (Laughs) I’ve never thought of myself as a poet. But this project was very much about language.  I had to think a lot about how you can make language a visual experience. How do you make an image that someone will want to look at while they also have to read to get any of the meaning? I thought that the titles of the books stood in so well for certain feelings or moments because we use the same trite expressions and phrases to describe how we are feeling. In some ways putting pieces of all of the titles together made so much sense to me because it seemed to relate to how we naturally pull words and phrases from this web of language that we all share and use to communicate with one another.

Series: Everything I Wish I Could Be

© Kent Rogowski “Beginnings Without End”

AS: How much help are these books offering you?

KR: I’m sure there is something therapeutic, just in making the work. I wouldn’t read any particular image as being autobiographical. But there is a reason that I made the work and was drawn to the subject matter and I did choose to use self-help books over some other form of media. So, in a round about way, I guess the books have helped me understand a part of myself, through the process of making the work.

To see more of Kent’s work, please click here.

Images from Everything I Wish I Could Be will be exhibited at the Festival Internacional de Fotografia in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.  Please click here for more information.

His work has also recently been included in the book The Age of Collage.