What prime projects could be inspiring so many people to rifle through art-supply and stationery stores in search of esoteric glues and perdurable paper?One might have thought that concocting elaborate scrapbooks was an art largely lost—a sentimental and vestigial diversion belonging more to the age of ocean liners, private railroad cars, and expatriates in Paris than to our own desperately digital era. Not so. We will always have, it seems, the desire to sit with a scrapbook in our lap and turn the pages, reining time in, reliving a period of our own life, or lightly inhabiting someone else's. Much energy and many moods go into the making of such a book, but only one mood goes with leafing through it—reflective.
The best scrapbooks possess something beyond private meaning. Indeed, a scrapbook—its pages flung open—is a medium through which we externalize our lives. In this sense it is the exact opposite of a diary, which traditionally consists of thoughts and experiences set down in secret.
A scrapbook is not a picture album either, and this is where most of us go wrong—we proceed as though it were. Scraps, not pictures (although many scraps are pictures), are the tissue of the scrapbook. And the material is everywhere at hand, for there is no thought too fragmented, no object too trivial, to include: a bus ticket, a remark tossed off by someone who just sat down next to you, a foreign newspaper clipping (if you're interested in what it says on both sides, paste in only the top, so it can be turned over at will), a restaurant bill (it may look like an ordinary piece of paper now, but it won't in 20 years—it will have an aura fond and furrowed, and the meal will seem so inexpensive).
For most of us, scrapbook-making is reserved for the trips we call vacations: those times that we set aside, our sensory receptors primed, for seeing the world in a way that has nothing to do with our everyday lives. To commemorate a European Wanderjahr undertaken at the turn of the last century, an upstate New York burgher and his wife assembled a scrapbook that, now at the threshold of another century, stands confidently as a classic of its kind (they themselves considered it such a triumph that they presented it to the New York Public Library, where it remains in fragile condition but available for viewing). A photograph of the SS Furnessia, on which the couple sailed from New York to Glasgow as "saloon passengers," gets the book off to a salutary, not to say saline, start. Studding its pages are the calling cards of friends they made on the high seas (through which we glimpse the artistry of engravers of the time), a full passenger list, a cabin ID sticker, and a chart tracking their route across the black Atlantic. The couple were artful enough to let these pieces of paper breathe, angling them cleverly and often unpredictably on the pages—clearly they knew that nothing is more boring than neatly arranged material that looks like a high school yearbook or, worse yet, a book of mug shots.
We learn that breakfast on Saturday, April 16, 1898, queasily consisted of "fried tripe with onions and boiled hominy" and that dinner the next night ended with a scrumptious "Scotland's pride pudding." The Furnessia parted the waves successfully, for suddenly we're in Glasgow, represented by both a dentist's card and the list of fish that landed on the couple's plate at Mrs. Peacock's Restaurant. To hear them tell it, they were served practically every species in the North Atlantic: "boiled cod with mussel sauce; filleted haddock; whiting, flounder, Lady Leigh, John Dory, and skate; curried haddock: and as we were driving home the driver stopped to show us a celebrated fish market, as if we ever wanted to see fish again."
Everywhere on the Continent that they proceeded to go they were big on little menus that could be carted off, not to mention indigenous napkins, fold-up maps, hotel brochures, railroad tickets, and Western Union cables. But a jolt lies in store for the volume's unsuspecting peruser: these solid citizens soon reveal themselves to be highly skilled pilferers. What's more, they did it not for God and country but for their scrapbook, which must by then have assumed the status of some higher good. At first we are charmed to see, pressed in the st," and "a piece of a chair [in all probability pried] from the top of the Eiffel Tower."
As the list of the couple's borrowings grows ever more astonishing, there comes a point at which we seriously wonder whether we are going to find an arm of the Venus de Milo welded to the next page. Indeed, if this couple could have succeeded in swiping the smile off the Mona Lisa, they no doubt would have pasted that in their scrapbook too.
Photographer and adventurer Peter Beard has been making scrapbooks since he was 15 and already obsessed with the past. Complex ensembles of often alarming beauty, they have been admired and even aped by such avatars of art as Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. "I've always had this compulsion to hold on to things that would otherwise evaporate," he explains.
Beard regards most of his scrapbooks as chronically unfinished—in fact, as underpaintings. "You start them while you're on location—what you want to do is snag the atmosphere of a particular day," he says. "You can embellish the hell out of them later on, by covering and re-covering any remaining white space with dates and other bits of information till you have what I call the great coming-together of the page. And I highly recommend real ink—you want to keep everything flowing."
In the throes of his eerie art, Beard has been known to spill all manner of liquids, his own blood included, onto the startled page, which may be further singled out with singeing or scratching—"whatever it takes" to produce the desired texture. He's gone so far as to dry a frog he ran over and press it into his book. "Chameleons flatten out rather nicely, too," he advises. So do underpants, like the ones he borrowed from a supermodel friend and stuck in an album. The exotic nature of much of his material notwithstanding, Beard insists you don't have to be a photographer or artist to make a great scrapbook. "Everyone has a scrapbook in him."
Including sisters Jacqueline Onassis and Lee Radziwill, back when they were Bouviers. In 1951, their mother and stepfather treated them to a summerlong grand tour of Europe. The girls didn't just take the trip and run; they shared it with their parents in the form of the bursting-at-the-seams scrapbook they compiled, a kind of transcendentally elegant thank-you letter. Much was made of the book at the time, and then it was put away—only to be discovered by their mother, in the attic of Hammersmith Farm in Newport in the early 1970's. By then, of course, the sisters had become the world sovereigns of style and taste. Like most things Kennedy-related, their scrapbook was eventually published, as One Special Summer.
Originally assembled to preserve the ephemeral, it remains not only alive but awake and even witty. The girls functioned as their own social reporters, chronicling—by means of Jackie's clever sketches and verses and Lee's peppy prose—their infatuated experience of monuments and museums, shopping and scenery, road trips and boat trains, beaux and fancy balls. Its deluxe exuberance aside, the album has the quality of surprise, the sense everywhere of limits being tested.
Sarah Peter, a self-described book artist, decided to mark the various stages of a nine-month trip around the world with a conceit as creative as it is contrived—she would illustrate her diary with the pastries of each place she visited. Ransacking assorted bakeries, candy stores, and street vendors' carts, she ended up sketching 107 desserts (representing some 15 countries and 50 cities), including Mandelkipfel from Munich, a manju from Kyoto, an Oreo from New York, and a meitung from Hong Kong. "One day," she recounts, "my older son said, 'Mum, your drawing's good enough, let's eat the cake already.'"
When it comes to his scrapbooks, the acclaimed architect Richard Meier, whose recent triumph is the Getty Center in Los Angeles, sees himself as a kind of quilt maker. "Originally, I just wanted to document where I went and what I did," he recalls. But in no time he, too, was introducing anarchic elements in order to make a cohesive patchwork of his life on the road: passport photos, vaccination certificates, photographs of his son and daughter, lecture schedules, his own sketches of ancient temples, and even tear-outs from an antique book of German pornography. "It's got to the point where now, every time the mail comes, I sift through it with my scrapbooks in mind," he confesses, adding, "sometimes you have to save something for ten years before it lands in the right place."
Meier buys sketchbooks off the rack and, since he spends a disproportionate amount of his time aloft, prefers a size that can fit comfortably between the arms of an airline seat. He labels the finished scrapbooks by date. "I always travel with a box of bits, the way Duchamp did," he says. "On a typical flight from L.A. to New York, I can get four to five pages done." Meier is content to keep his scrapbooks for himself, since his main art is his buildings. "These books aren't to put up on the wall or to sell or to try to be the new Kurt Schwitters. I just really love making them."
Jinx Gooch, a Boston artist, does her scrapbook captioning in the field, leaving blanks for the yet-to-be-developed photographs: "Sunday, Scotland, sat in middle of pasture and had sausages and coffee with sheep and minister." She shuffles and reshuffles her bag of scrapbook tricks before sitting down to paste in the various menus, tickets, itineraries, newspaper clippings, museum stubs, gum wrappers, mineral-water labels, bits of raw spaghetti, and—shades of our light-fingered couple of 1898—hotel keys. She also takes care to make practical notations, for instance that "24-A & B are best seats in Swiss Air Business Class."
Gooch ended a recent scrapbook with the note she found from her bird-sitter upon returning from Provence. Left on the kitchen table, alongside the bill, it began: "I am very sorry about Pete. He died very late Wednesday night. I saw absolutely no indication of any wrong. He was eating, chirping, and jumping around the cage, and I took good care of him as always. . . ." Gooch penned a plangent coda—"I came home to an empty nest"—and then went on to dedicate the scrapbook to Pete.
Marc Lacaze, a Paris-based painter and illustrator, began his serious scrapbook sketching on a visit six years ago to New York. The first things he memorialized were a vintage taxicab, the Chelsea Hotel, and the Chrysler Building. "Then I bought old paper and old photographs and postcards of New York and really went to town," he recalls. Back in Paris, at a flea market, he bought a bunch of 19th-century sketchbooks with virgin paper—"very hard to find, very good to draw on." Lacaze's subsequent stays in Istanbul, Cairo, China, Mongolia, Oman, Italy, India, and his native Morocco live on in their pages.
"Sometimes it's dangerous to draw in situ," Lacaze says. "In India I was surrounded by dozens of bodies within minutes, and it got so crazy I had to stop drawing." In Mongolia, he found himself sketching out of necessity: there was no other way to communicate with the nomad families he lived among for two months in a yurt near the Gobi Desert.
Whatever his destination, Lacaze crams his satchel with paints, paintbrushes, scissors, pencils with "real erasers," and pens with "real ink." On his return to Paris, he repairs to his studio to assess the postcards he's bought, the Polaroids he's taken, the voluptuous stuffs he's collected. "I like to include things you can touch," he explains. "Maybe some bits of old ribbon or antique silk. In my Indian book I put spices, such as cardamom. And in the one on Oman I put some teeth from a shark I caught." So it goes, at least with the committed scrapbook maker, who clearly must function as fisherman (or dentist) as well as anthropologist, ethnographer, and archaeologist.
There may be a conflict, however, when April rolls around and your accountant asks for those colorful receipts that you've already gone and pasted into your scrapbook. Never mind. The scrapbook itself is an investment. After all, you're betting that your experiences will turn out to have been interesting—even those that didn't seem remarkably so at the time.