by Donata Lucifora
Abbey Library: London, 1977
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

The emergence of shell-bearing molluscs, the opening line of the book declares, was one of the first stages in the evolution of the animal world. Shells, then, go back to the very origins of life. Marvellous World of Shells, however, is a 1977 product through and through. The text introduces conchology as a serious site for scholarship as a sub-branch of zoology, but the book’s scientific credentials are scanty. Technical information is given in abundance, but in print so small that it seems designed to be unread. Perhaps as a result of the text’s translation into English, there are clunky turns of phrase from the title onwards, with its absent definite article (the book also exists as Le Monde Merveilleux des Coquillages and Die Wunderbare Welt der Schnecken und Muscheln). There are also some rather clumsy observations. "Shells are often colored", one short sentence bluntly notes. The real purpose of the book, as is evident from the illustrated pages, is visual pleasure. The introduction, for all its vocabulary of operculum and dextrogyrus, betrays its aesthetic interests. In choosing examples, the author confesses, "we have been guided primarily by the beauty or originality of shapes, patterns and colors".

And what beauty! Not the shells: these are, of course, lovely in their sandy and pearly way, piebald and skewbald, tiger-striped and leopard-spotted. It is the backgrounds that are the making of this book’s deliciousness. Its subjects are displayed in the hues of the sweetshop or the cocktail bar. In a dramatic rejection of naturalism and in a wanton celebration of the artificial, shells are photographed as objects in isolation on single colour grounds like Warhol portraits, using the distinctive shades of the period. There’s the burnt orange of Abigail’s party dress, the sunset yellow of food colouring E110, and a Biba-like purple that can only be described as puce. The history of photography is full of shell studies, from early accumulations in the encyclopaedic tradition by Henry Fox-Talbot in the 1840s, to the sensuous formalist monochromes of the Edwards, Weston and Steichen, in the 1920s, with rich grey-scale shades emphasising gloss and curves. Marvellous World of Shells is from another place and time; it belongs to the plastic world of Verner Panton interior environments. The results look good enough to eat, in a Fanny Cradock kind of way.

Museum guidance for neutral object photography advises that the main premise is to take an accurate representation without shadow or shine. The recommended angle is straight-on, and images should include a scale bar to ensure that the object’s size is recorded accurately. The Royal Photographic Society’s particular specification for natural history subjects indicates that specimens should be photographed in their natural settings. In both cases, to be photographically scientific is to meet set standards of objectivity and authenticity. There’s no sense of scale in Marvellous World; this is in part what makes it marvellous. Its shells inhabit an unnatural space. Another pearl of wisdom from the book’s creaky narrative reads: "All species, which are exclusively marine, are small". By contrast, all depicted shells are scaled-up, with many taking the full height of a page. Tiny items become foot-long. The harsh lighting results in long shadows, making some examples loom large as monoliths. Others float free of any sort of context. Cyprea shellfish are superimposed onto a peach tint that evokes 1970s bathroom suites. Scaphander Ligarnarius is presented horizontally on a sky-blue backdrop, where it orbits as if at a great distance like the starship Voyager.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

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