The only autonomous collection of Jack Smith’s photographs to appear during his lifetime, The Beautiful Book comprises nineteen hand-tipped black-and-white contact prints (2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches), originally published in an edition of 200 copies. The photographs were produced mainly during the course of extended shooting sessions in Smith’s Lower East Side apartment. Most date from the winter of 1962, although a few are earlier, including the final “signature” photograph, a portrait of the artist on the steps beneath the Brooklyn Bridge taken by filmmaker Ken Jacobs. Nearly half the photographs feature the artist Marian Zazeela, who provided the design for the book’s silk-screened cover. Smith and his associates assembled the books during the late spring and early summer of 1962, before shooting began on Flaming Creatures. Published and distributed by Piero Heliczer’s press, The Dead Language, The Beautiful Book was originally priced at “4 dollars or 16 nouveau francs or 24 shillings,” and advertised with filmmaker Ron Rice’s statement—”we studied these photographs with keen eye discovering new & more beautiful images hidden in every dissolve & curve of the draperies & silks which ran through these masterpieces like some long lost mysterious fume from Byzantium.”
Individual copies of the original The Beautiful Book exhibit minor variations. All photographs have been printed from the original negatives with the exception of the sixteenth photograph in the series. As the original has been lost, a copy negative was generated in 2001. The quality of the cover printing is uneven and there is some inconsistency in the color of the ink. A later, pirated version of The Beautiful Book occasionally surfaces, with its provenance unknown. Although it is likely that this version has its variants, we are primarily aware of and sure of one with a black cover and eight prints. Noting the scarcity of this title on the rare book market and its absence from many prominent collections (not to mention the chaotic subsistence circumstances under which it was produced), it is likely that considerably fewer than 200 books were actually finished and distributed. Several of the other models, including Frank di Giovanni (a/k/a Francis Francine), Joel Markman, Rene Rivera (a/k/a Mario Montez), and Arnold Rockwood would also appear in Flaming Creatures.
The 2001 Beautiful Book is a true facsimile produced by Granary Books in collaboration with the Plaster Foundation, Inc. New prints have been made from the original negatives and hand-tipped onto Canford Buttercup paper. The covers are silk-screened in two colors on Tweed weave paper and saddle-stitched. The printing and arrangement of the photographs, choice of materials, and nature of the binding are consistent with the four copies of the book given by Smith to Marian Zazeela in 1962. The 200 copies in the present edition are numbered and authenticated by the Plaster Foundation, Inc. Sixty copies are hors commerce; 140 copies are for sale.
You can purchase the recreated The Beautiful Book here
An exhibition passed by my knowledge last year in the Courtyard Gallery at Summerhall, Edinburgh consisting of each page of this book enlarged for display and the book in a cabinet after curator Paul Robertson found an original copy for a measly £20. You can watch an interview with Robertson here.