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Review: Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, by Leanne Shapton

Photography by Jason Fulford, Kristin Sjaarda, Leanne Shapton, Michael Schmelling, and Derek Shapton.

What is the value of a memory?  What is the value of a single moment shared between two people?  Does the worth of an affectionate gesture outweigh the cost of a petty unkindness?  When does the price of love become too high?  These are the central questions of Leanne Shapton’s inventive second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, a book in which each moment in the affair of two lovers comes with a price-tag clearly affixed.

Important Artifacts takes the form of an auction catalogue, the shared and individual possessions Lenore Doolan and Hal Morris splayed out, photographed, organized, and appraised with an unsentimental eye; we are to witness the posthumous dissolution of Love’s estate.  Is the first known snapshot of the couple, taken at a Halloween party in 2002 worth $25 – $30?  Is Doolan’s hand-drawn Valentine’s Day dinner menu worth $50 – 60?  To whom?

The plot is not worth discussing—two people meet, then fall in love, then share each other’s lives for a while, then go their separate ways.  This is known from the beginning, and there are no tricks or surprises along the way. The challenges these lovers face are as mundane as they are insurmountable—she is a food writer for the New York Times whose life and livelihood reside in her kitchen; he is a world-traveling photographer with a fondness for hotels.  We aren’t here to find out what happens, what grand events transpired.  We’re here to pick apart the minutia, and to witness how those minutia ultimately add up to the success or failure of love.  The clues play out slowly, and are subtly presented—LOT 1104, a collection of birthday gifts from Doolan to Morris, which includes “A gift certificate, unused, for Italian cooking lessons at the Culinary Institute.”  Unused.  The other gifts in the set are clearly thoughtful, carefully chosen gifts, but it is that one word that stands out.  It might as easily have said “unappreciated,” or “unwanted,” or simply “rejected.” 

Not every moment in the book is so elegantly achieved.  The bulk of the photography is perfectly executed, neutral depictions of well chosen artifacts that put the characters’ tastes and personalities on display with little need for elaboration: her collection of vintage dresses and antique salt and pepper shakers, his tweed suits and collection of hotel room keys.  As successful as these indirect depictions are, where Shapton sometimes falters is in her attempts at the characters’ direct communication.  There are frequent notes between the characters; some, like their postcards and their brief scrawled exchanges on the backs of playbills can seem quite natural.  Their longer notes—frequently notes of apology—are less successful.  LOT 1104 again, also includes a handwritten note from Morris to Doolan: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it.”  Morris’ ingratitude is compounded, but in a far less interesting way.  It feels expository rather than authentic.  And what’s more, it’s unnecessary—Morris’ rejection not just of Doolan’s effort, but of her attempt to share her personal interests with him was already so clear that this letter can only diminish the effect.  It is as though Shapton’s confidence in her concept (or her audience) wavered.

The lovers’ personal snapshots also occasionally feel a bit too on-the-nose.  LOT 1108, “A photograph taken at a farewell party for Doolan’s coworker” shows Doolan and Morris at an office party.  Doolan is engaged in conversation with her coworkers, while Morris sits beside her, but turned away reading a magazine, in blatant disinterest of the people around him.  This is a painfully unsubtle image—so much so as to call attention to the fact that it’s clearly staged.  It is a considerable chip in the book’s otherwise impressive authenticity.

Despite this occasional unevenness, Important Artifacts is an interesting concept cleverly executed.  What’s more, it taps into something instinctive—who doesn’t examine their friends’ and acquaintances’ knickknacks and bookshelves for clues to their private lives?  This book embodies the pleasure of investigative voyeurism like no other, making it an eminently worthwhile read for any snoop, peeping tom, or busybody—as well as anyone merely interested in a novel approach to pairing words with pictures to tell a story.