"J.L.B." (2011)

In one of the most famous phrases in the history of criticism, the Roman poet Horace included in his Ars poetica this somple lapidary injuction: “Ut pictura poesis”.

In other words, we must consider a literary text to be as worthy of critical discernment as is a picture. In staking out the rights of literary expression to be held to the same hig critical standards as painting the were, Horace sought to under mine the dominance of painting as the ultimate and most sublime form of art.

“Ut pictura poesis” came to my mind immediately when I first saw Michele Alassio’s gorgeous book, J.L.B., a copy of which he was kind enough to send me after its first printing. As that time I was the President of The New York Public Library, whose magnificent Rose Main Reading Room appears in two of the twenty-one highly poetic images that Michele included in the book.


I immediately wrote to Michele to thank him for his beautiful present and to compliment him on exceptional qulity of his photographs. The Rose Reading Room, especially since its restoration in the late 1990s, is one of the most frequently photographed rooms in New York. But I cannot recall ever seeing images of it that are as arresting, as subtle, ora as mysterious as Michele’s. And so I am flattered and deeplt honored to have been asked by Michele to write a few words for this, the second printing of J.L.B. catalogue.


That Michele’s inspiration for these images of the New York Public Library, and indeed for all twenty-one images in J.L.B., are the works of Jorge Luis Borges is not surprising. Borges’ poetic evocations of libraries are some of his most familiar texts and the ways in which Michele Alassio uses them as points of departure for is own poetizing photographs of the Rose Reading Room puts us, as readers and viewers, immediately into the situation that Horace advocated 2,000 years ago: to know that each form of expression, pictorial and verbal – Borges’ and Alassio’s – can attain the highest levels of artistic perfection. Although, in this instance, it is the text that precedes the picture. The text first inspires the image Alassio creates. And, in the final product, J.L.B., Alassio again makes texts precede his published images, thus reversing for the reader the aesthetic hierarchy that Horace was arguing against – picture superior to text. This inevitably puts a key question before the reader/viewer: Can Alassio’s pictures rise to the same level as Borges’ texts?


I have to admit that here, in J.L.B., I find that Alassio has the advantage over Borges. Perhaps that is because the latter’s work is so familiar and Michele’s is so fresh – at least on this side of the Atlantic. I find that Michele’s images are imbued not only with the sense of mystery that is a leitmotiv in Borges’ citations that he has selected to accompany them. That mysteriousness gives them great beauty. But it does so beacuse of the formal perfection of Michele’s work, where he is evidenetly in such complete control of light and tonalities and textures and their manipulations that he achieves prints that are simply exquisite.


Were he with us today, I can’t but believe that Jorge Luis Borges would be delighted to have inspired work of such compelling originality and beauty.

Paul Leclerc
President Emeritus, New York Public Library