A Mycological Foray was the Charcoal photobook of the month selection for July 2020, and it’s one of the more unique and niche books to come to me thanks to my long-running subscription.
The book is made up of two (or, in the case of the Charcoal edition, three) parts: a new, smaller format, reprint of John Cage, Lois Long, and Alexander H. Smith’s Mushroom Book, a set of 10 loose pages, printed on one side with Cage’s handwritten, chance-determined poems, and on the other side with Long’s color lithographs of 15 mushroom species, with a single, translucent page featuring Cage’s poem and a discussion of the pictured mushroom species by Smith, housed in a sort of folder; and a bound book with Cage’s short essay “Music Lovers’ Field Companion,” a long-ish mushroom-focused biography of Cage, Kingston Trinder’s “Where the Whippoorwill Sound and Morel Lay,” and a text/score for Cage’s Mushrooms et Variations.
A special edition, and the Charcoal edition, came with Every Mushroom is a Good Mushroom, a set of postcards featuring mushroom recipes from Cage and photographs and other artworks by Cage, Isabelle Bucklow, Francesca Gavin, Jason Fulford, Polly Geller, Erik Kessels, Phyllis Ma, Katty Maurey, Michael Pollan, Thomas Sauvin (Beijing Silvermine), David Shrigley, Mike Slack, Alec Soth, Sissel Tolaas, Ester Vonplon, and Lars Wannop.
Together, it’s a fun, if rather esoteric Cage document, somewhat less interesting than his Silence or recordings of Indeterminacy, and really only for hardcore Cage enthusiasts, and I’m not surprised to find that copies of the trade edition remain available (at time of writing, nearly a year after publication, anyway).
Given my background in Art and Art History, given the time period during which I undertook this study and the instructors and sources I read, I’m well acquainted with Cage. I have a recording of Indeterminacy and have actually listened to it many times. Even before I went off to art school, back in the last millennium, I acquired a copy of the I Ching and attempted to use it to perform chance operations in some early art experiments. I wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to find it valuable, and don’t really know where I first encountered Cage, but I’ve had a long history with his writing, thought, and works. And while I appreciate A Mycological Foray, I had no plans to buy a copy and it wouldn’t be in my library if not for Charcoal.
Now. There is no question of the long, illuminating shadow John Cage left over the avant garde in the last century (and now). How many artists and writers cite him as an influence? And I have no problem with this sorta specialized book. My problem lies in its selection as a Charcoal photobook of the month…
Sure, Charcoal calls itself a “Book Club,” not a “photobook” club, but its tagline and press is all photobooks all the time. And A Mycological Foray, as interesting as it is, and despite being filled with some excellent photographs, just is not a photobook.
Cage was not a photographer. He was a music theorist, writer, performer, instructor. He collected a few photographs of mushrooms (and some of these appear, sprinkled throughout the “Where the Whippoorwill Sound and Morel Lay” essay), sure. And many photobooks are, quite simply, archives. But A Mycological Foray isn’t really an archive either.
It seems to be, primarily, a good vehicle for reprinting the Mushroom Book, which was initially printed in an edition of 75. (The scans all feature hand-numbering by Long that reads “63/75.”) Given the art-book nature of the Mushroom Book, and its scarcity, the reprint is welcome. The ancillary material—the really rather excellent essay and the score for Mushrooms et Variations—are welcome, of course, and more or less worthwhile. But still. Why was this sent out by Charcoal?
I mean, there are some great photographs in the book, mostly by uncredited photographers.* One in particular, Cage and some friends at a picnic in some mountains in Spain, was made by someone with at least a memory of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and will stick with me for a bit. But the photographs are resolutely not the point of the book. In fact, A Mycological Foray seems to mostly resemble The Beatles 40th Anniversary boxed set/book thing: text, photographs, archival materials, collected together with, in one case, new remixes of classic recordings, and the other, a reprint of a very rare art object.
Again, I’m privileged to be a long-term Charcoal subscriber, and hope to continue my subscription for years to come. After however many years now (3 or 4), I’ve been sometimes disappointed with books, but mostly always found something interesting or useful or beautiful about all of them, well, until this one anyway.
I sorta like the postcard set, sorta: Cage’s recipes seem interesting and maybe tasty, and I’ll try to remember to try one the next time we have some decent mushrooms in house; the two entires from Thomas Sauvin (from his Beijing Silvermine collection) and one from Alec Soth are pleasant, though not worth the price of admission; the three from Isabelle Bucklow, who hunted the mushrooms she then photographed beautifully, are nice-enough, Instagram ready studio portraits. The most interesting and fun cards are two mushroom-scented scratch-and-sniffs from Sissel Tolaas, and they might make the whole thing worthwhile, both the two-volume, slipcased book-and-reprint and the postcard set. And given that the postcard set is long gone, well, again I’m thankful to be a Charcoal subscriber, though I really did think about swapping this one for something else. I’m glad I didn’t, as I enjoyed revisiting the younger me’s interest in Cage and all that, though I sorta wish I hadn’t merged my art books with my photobooks, as A Mycological Foray is definitely not a photobook.
So who is A Mycological Foray for? Cage completionists, for sure. Charcoal subscribers (those who were subscribed in July 2020, anyway). Beyond that? Well… Um… Amateur mycologists would benefit from a real field guide; those new to Cage would do well to listen to some of Indeterminacy or maybe read some of Silence or Cage’s diaries. This is just too specialized and niche, I think.
Copies remain available direct from publisher Atelier Editions (and at other retailers), and your mileage may vary.
*Photographers, where known, are credited in the Index at the end of the book. The “le déjeuner sur l’herbe” photograph was made by James Klosty.