Sean Kernan: A Labyrinth of Secret Books

Words: Larry Lytle

Sean Kernan’s series The Secret Books (transformed into a book published in 1999) comes directly from his well-developed mind’s eye. For Kernan, the idea for this bound selection of photographs and writings began with a moldering antique book (letterpress printed in Latin) and four smooth stones (their surface water-worn in Japan). Those two seemingly disparate objects—one made by the hand of a human, the other formed by the power of nature—might have revealed to us…nothing. But to Kernan, their connection transmitted a poetic impression that hadn’t existed before their joining. The simplicity of placing the stones upon the book and then photographing them was a revelation and was the first image in what became his unexpectedly complex project.

Kernan’s writing has been as powerful and creatively motivating a force as his photography. It’s not surprising then that his use of books as subject matter, though possibly a subconscious selection, became the foundation for this book/series. The choice to combine his growing imagery with the famed Argentinian writer Jorges Luis Borges’ prose and poetry became another unexpected element in the making of The Secret Books. (See the Q&A below.) Woven in between Kernan’s photographs are Borges’ short stories The Book of Sand and The Library of Babel as well as his highly regarded parable Borges and I; two complete poems, The Guardian of Books and My Books; and some excerpted writings. Ending the book is an essay by Kernan titled Borges (and I).

Kernan did not conceive of the images, which eventually constituted The Secret Books, as illustrations for Borges’ stories and poetry, but as sympathetic companions to the writings. This is a difficult line to balance upon, but Kernan succeeds in making a separate creative body of work while paralleling Borges’ powerful literary imagery through the use of his own recurring symbols, much as Borges returned to emblematic tropes such as labyrinths, Don Quixote, tigers, libraries and books.

We see in Kernan’s symbology the book, which acts like a protagonist and becomes the conceit supporting the other elements in each scenario. The presence of a book becomes the starting point for mythical, mystical, poetic linkages to the objects resting on, hovering over or sitting next to the book. Kernan’s added objects become the punctuation point for the image, and his return to some of those objects throughout the series offers us a vantage place to the meaning of his photographs: hands holding an object; birds, or parts of birds and their home; fundamental geometric shapes, corporeal and alluded to; astronomical symbols; writing, both legible and indecipherable; skeletal pieces; violence done to books and books that depict flayed human anatomy. The use of these props also reminds us that a book leads a dual life: as a physical object and as a mobile ossuary or in some cases a reliquary.

Books are for the most part rectangular with varying thicknesses; we rarely consider the metaphorical possibilities of their size and shape. However, Kernan’s photographs show us that books have possibilities as architectural, sculptural and allusive objects, separate from their main use as containers of information. One striking example of Kernan’s insight into the possibilities of a book’s shape is his repeated use of pyramids and simple geometrical shapes.

Pyramids have a resonance that few other shapes echo in our culture, existing in mathematics as well as in the realms of myth and magic. One need only think of the great pyramids in Central America or Egypt; both countries used the structures to pay homage to the gods, and to honor and entomb the dead. In modern times we associate the pyramid with arcane ancient knowledge that lies within it. Or in its shape, as in the eye atop the pyramid (the all-seeing eye of God) stamped onto the back of our dollar bills. Books are also containers of knowledge of the currently read and the disregarded artifact.

This leads us to possible allusions in Kernan’s photographs as metaphors for ossuaries or reliquaries, both in a figurative and literal sense. In two images, Kernan has placed a human skull and the bones of a snake upon the book’s pages. This seems at first a curious relationship, as we might wonder what bones have to do with books. If we think of a crypt, we might not necessarily think of the shape of a book, but books can be tombs of bygone thoughts, made moribund by an indecipherable language or a story that becomes dead to a culture that no longer has an interest in its telling. In regards to a reliquary, his placement of items from the natural world upon the open books makes us think of the vitrine tables at a natural history museum that display the sacred objects of a long-dead species. Birds, twigs, pieces of fruit become remnants of things martyred by a consumptive culture.

Kernan’s images are densely layered, and like a well-written book allow each viewer to find his or her own way along the trail of the story, to places unknown yet familiar. The one unambiguous truth about The Secret Books is that their visual stories concern the physical nature of books, and are stitched cover to spine to the literary stories of Borges, who reveals the unsettling effect of books on his stories’ characters and in the same measure, the reader.

Both authors’ tales swirl from the pages of this book into our consciousness. In reading The Secret Books might we not be entering a circular narrative with no end? The only hope of releasing ourselves from its Escher-like structure is the recounting of its stories to another, seducing them into taking the book from our hands and releasing us from its thrall.

In the essay Partial Magic in the Quixote1 Borges meditates on the literary allusion of having a character or characters in a story retell the story they are in. This creates for the reader an interesting paradox that Borges sets forth thusly: “…these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.”

Kernan on Kernan
The images in the book originally came from your own writing, and began with the intention of printing them in book form. How far did you get into the series before using Borges’ writing “as an armature" for the photographs? Did that also change the way you visualized the images?

The Secret Books did indeed come from my own early impulse to write, and even further back than that from the constant flow of books into my early life. My Irish grandmother sent me children’s books by a friend of hers almost as soon as I could read. They were about the misadventures of a leprechaun called Brogeen, and I still have a few on my shelf. My American grandmother gifted me every Christmas and birthday with books from a series for young people of history and biography, all more exciting than the actual events and lives had been, I’m sure. Each book was a door into some other world, one much more interesting and exciting than my white bread suburban New York one. So books were magic objects to me, like a lamp that I’d rub and suddenly be lifted to another universe.

I was very well into being an image-maker when I decided to fulfill that old writing impulse, so I took a class in poetry at nearby Wesleyan University. During it I arranged a few things I had lying around the studio, an old book and some black stones. And I made a picture that was like a poem, in that it excited thoughts and emotions without explaining them. It knocked me out. Then I wondered: Could I do another that strong? So I did. And so I continued, one by one.

Gradually, it all became a stack of pictures. And one day I was showing them to the wonderful designer Lana Rigsby. I told her I was starting to think of them as a book of books, but didn’t have a text in mind. Then she said “Borges,” and I fell out of my chair. Of course!

Even as I went on and finished up the series I never tried to illustrate a Borges story or poem. I’ve spent so much time in advertising, narrowing visual ideas down to other people’s preconceptions until they were rather bland and harmless; I didn’t want to carry that over into the book work. I wanted to discover images, be surprised by them.

In the end, I feel that my pictures and Borges’ words met, had a genial discussion, and then went for a walk together.

Why did you make the images from Polaroid negatives?

Everything was shot on Type 55 Polaroid, a beloved favorite of mine that made both a print and a negative. I had started working with that material partly because I loved seeing what I was doing and being able to refine as I went. I was like a painter evolving the image stroke by stroke. Also, the film had perforations around the edge of the image that were meant to be snapped off. Instead, I printed them as part of the image, so that they make a transition from the image itself to the blank paper. This gives the print a presence as an object as well as an image.

Over the years Polaroid was very good to me, giving me cases and cases of film for various projects. Several of these images are in the wonderful Polaroid Collection, scattered as it is now.

Is there a particular visual narrative unfolding as the images progress through the book? If so, does the size of the photo on the page relate to that narrative?

I wouldn’t say there is a visual narrative in the way the images are laid out, but there tends to be a kind of rhyming that unfolds between the words and pictures as they ensue. It was arrived at by just looking and waiting. That kind of sequencing is something Minor White did, and it brings a musicality to a group of images. I think there’s a certain amount of the great designer Alexey Brodovitch in the flow too. I think this way of working is there in anyone who has any feeling for music or drama or fiction.

How did you go about selecting the Borges stories, poems and excerpts? How did you determine their procession or placement?

Looking for texts I went through pretty much everything Borges had written and pulled out everything that talked directly about books. Surprisingly, there weren’t that many. When it came time to arrange the whole sequence, I just laid words and pictures out on a table, looked for chords and resonances, and started pairing them up.

In the case of the stories I took my cue from opera and just let each one come downstage like a tenor and sing without any visual distractions. Then I went back to shorter groups of words and pictures together in sequence.

Can you share any observations or anecdotes about the process of making the book?

Somebody once asked the poet Charles Wright how he got ideas that he could then write out as poems. He replied that he never began with an idea for a poem. “I write to find out what I have to say.” And really, this whole project worked that way, as do all of my long projects and films. The act of working brings the material forward to say what it needs to be, and in the end this leads to a result that is larger than anything I could ever think my way to. When that happens, I am enlarged by the very act of making.

You can see more of Kernan’s work online at Prints are available at Gallery 19.21 (, Photography West ( and Iris Gallery (

1From the book, Labyrinths: Selected Stories & Other Writings, by Jorges Luis Borges, 2007 by New Direction Books. Partial Magic in the Quixote translated by James E. Irby.
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