James Henkel photographs books as everyday objects that are rich in visual possibility and cultural meaning. With a keen sense of humor, he reveals a books identity as a notebook or textbook without disclosing it’s title. He does not hesitate to make his hand seen-he marks and alters his subjects in ways that would cause a bibliophile to shudder.
Henkel became enamored of books as subjects for his camera in the late 1970’s while living above a used bookstore where he regularly browsed shelves and leafed through dusty volumes. At first he simply opened the book and added a few pertinent objects before photographing the two page spread, As his engagement with books deepened, however, he became more aggressive, marking his subjects with light, mud, sand, and other materials. Henkel's markings are usually decorative and suggestive rather than specific. His doodles in mud, for example, seem worm-like or reminiscent of musical scores. When he projects light onto his subject, he infers the changing and uncertain nature of knowledge while alluding to the photographic medium itself - light writing. That the artist studied drawing and painting, before turning to photography helps to explain his compulsion to alter and manipulate his raw materials.
Henkel concentrates on textbooks and notebooks because of both their connections and differences. In notebooks students record important information garnered from textbooks. Neither type of book is usually saved nor considered collectible, as the content will soon become obsolete. Notebooks are personal and incomplete, whereas textbooks are objective and authoritative.
Henkel lights his weighty textbooks in a way that subverts their authority – either by severely over-lighting them or by effecting unexpected reflections and shadows. His careful manipulation of light renders the text unreadable and emphasizes the books physicality. A notable exception to Henkel's typical practice of obfuscation is Ballast, in which he elucidates the book’s subject – shipbuilding – with a literal illustration of a book being held under water by a rock. Ballast exemplifies a recurring wit in Henkel's photographs. He likes to have fun with his subject matter and to make visual jokes with his camera. Those who take the time to investigate his understated imagery will appreciate the seriousness of his play.