Catherine Opie
on bookseller Andrew Cahan

As part of Photography As You Don’t Know It (Aperture, Winter 2013), we asked three photographers to select a photography-world figure whose contributions to the field have been overlooked. Here, Catherine Opie recounts her first meeting and friendship with bookseller Andrew Cahan.

Andrew Cahan’s house and bookshop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Courtesy Andrew Cahan

In 1998, I was rambling around the country in a used RV working on my series Domestic, and North Carolina was one of my stops. I lived in the RV, plugged it into friends’ homes for power, and went in search of lesbian domesticity with my 8-by-10 camera in tow. Tammy Rae Carland was living in North Carolina and teaching photography at UNC in Chapel Hill. We had been friends for years, and Tammy Rae knew where to take me to blow my mind. We headed down a country road and pulled into a gravel driveway. The house had an amazing vegetable garden outside and treasures of unbelievable rarity on the inside: photographic monographs, manuals, exhibition catalogs—everything about the history of photography you would ever want.

I am a monograph collector. Books and magazines were my first teachers in the world of photography, and buying them busts my credit-card bill more often than buying cameras. I love the smell of ink, the feel of textured or smooth pages on my fingertips. As I walked through this unexpected oasis, I dreamt of wealth that would allow me to live with all of these treasures. That day I settled on Lee Friedlander’s American Monument and introduced myself to Andrew Cahan, the man with the amazing eye for rare and hard-to-find monographs. As we chatted, he pulled out beautiful Japanese monographs printed in the 1970s. There is something about ’70s-era Japanese photographers: their work has a raw feeling that not even Larry Clark could pull off—postwar sorrow and modernity tumbling around together. Thus began my long relationship with Andrew. He is no longer in North Carolina but in Akron, Ohio. I have yet to visit him there, but I scan his website regularly for that rare find.

Inside view of Andrew Cahan’s bookshop in Chapel Hill. Courtesy Andrew Cahan

Inside view of Andrew Cahan’s bookshop in Chapel Hill. Courtesy Andrew Cahan

It is hard to imagine not having my books, which are now in my office at UCLA so I can look at them when needed, and so my grad students can sit and look or read. In a world of Instagram and Facebook, I worry that people like Andrew will become as rare as the books on his shelves. My students don’t look at a book the same way I experience it: wondering about the end pages, the linen, how and where and when it was printed. Andrew can tell you everything about any book in his shop. That, and being able to hold each object in one’s own hands, will never be superseded by an online catalog.


Catherine Opie’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States, Europe, and Japan. A portfolio of prints from the 2011 book Catherine Opie: Inauguration will be released by Regen Projects in early 2014.

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