Nearly twenty years ago, artist Adam Putnam came across the photographs of Alfred Cook in the archives of the Frick Collection. Recently, he edited together a selection of Cook’s images for ASMR4, a publishing project Putnam launched in collaboration with fellow artists Dan Torop, Victoria Sambunaris, and Katie Murray. Here, Putnam and Jennifer Krasinski discuss the mysterious Cook, and why these photographs have haunted him for so long.
JK: What is known about Alfred Cook?
AP: Almost nothing. Susan Chore, an archivist at the Frick Collection, sent me as much information as she could find, but all we really know is that he was a footman for the Frick family and that, at some point, he also served as a watchman. We know that he lived in Woodside, Queens, and from the papers she sent to me, we also know that he was trained to use a camera by the Frick photographers. There were also some letters of recommendation in the file, because he was trying to get a job at the American Museum of Natural History. But otherwise, he remains a mystery.
JK: Why did his images stand out to you?
AP: A lot of reasons, but one was the idea of a space in transition. Cook was taking pictures of the Frick family home as it was becoming a museum. One of the things that I love about these images is that they’re not just these forgotten, beautiful photographs, but they also sit at the intersection of black-and-white photography and beautifully designed objects. For example, a lot of the light fixtures that Cook happened to photograph were designed by a very well-known company at the time called E. F. Caldwell & Co., and a lot of their designs were responding to the switch over from gas to electric light. Caldwell designed fixtures for civic buildings, and museums, as well as big mansions along Fifth Avenue, adding electrical components to chandeliers, wall sconces, and candelabrums. A lot of the photographs were shot with a large-format camera, which requires a little bit of maneuvering, so the images are taken looking down, looking up, and from other odd perspectives.
JK: How do these kinds of discoveries expand our understanding not just of the history of photography, but also of what it means to be a photographer?
AP: For me, I think the job of photography, in part, is to reposition what a photograph can be, and what a photographer’s job is. It so often gets talked about in terms of very conventional categories, like documentary versus fiction. But I think that there’s still a lot of undiscovered territory. I think of someone like Moyra Davey, who, in some ways, is a conventional photographer, except she makes work that pushes up against photography’s ceiling, asking questions like “What do I photograph?” or “Why do I photograph this?” In this way, Cook’s archive was inspiring because I could tap into his thought process, like watching someone awakening to a medium for the first time.
JK: So, what did Cook photograph, and why?
AP: Apart from the light fixtures, there are a lot of images of the Frick’s basement in ruins. There are pictures of pieces of furniture with drop cloths thrown over them, some illuminated only by a flash. But while some of the images are eerie, others are really pedestrian, so it could have been that he was simply documenting everything in the house. There’s one photo in which Cook is holding a light fixture in front of the lens, so his hand is in the frame. To me, many of his images are accidentally beautiful. But at the same time, there’s another photograph of a sculpture that was part of the building’s facade, and Cook captured it just as a beam of light was hitting the figure’s face. Clearly this person, whoever he was, was thinking about making an image, so in fact it wasn’t just documentation. And looking through archives, through volumes and volumes of his images, patterns emerge. For instance, a lot of the light fixtures he photographed only have one lightbulb.
JK: How did your book on Cook come about?
AP: It’s part of a book project I’m doing in collaboration with three other photographers: Dan Torop, Victoria Sambunaris, and Katie Murray. We all approach photography from very different avenues, but one night we were sitting around talking, drinking, kvetching about life, and at some point, we all thought, “Why don’t we just put our money where our mouths are?” The project is called ASMR4, because at the time, I was really enamored with ASMR videos of people turning the pages of books or of whispering. The spirit of the project has to do with that quivering excitement over simply turning the pages in a book, or flipping through archives. The first four books in the series were sixteen-page signatures, with each one devoted to our own work. This Cook publication is volume five, and it kicks off a second series in which all the images will be either found photographs or pulled from archives. The next volume, Del Rio, will be out in April and will be presented by Victoria. The book will showcase archival photographs from the ’50s of the female matador Patricia McCormick. Our publishing project is on a very small scale—each book funds the next—but it is expanding, and I am excited to see what comes next.
Adam Putnam's edited volume of the photographs of Alfred Cook is published by ASMR4.