Natasha D’Schommer was in the right place at the right time when she was visiting her aunt in Princeton in March, 1993. During the visit someone called her aunt, who at the time was working in Princeton University’s development office, and said, “We need a professional photographer immediately. Do you know anyone?”
Already an accomplished photographer, D’Schommer stepped in at her aunt’s recommendation to sub at an event being held at the Scheide Library, a private collection of rare books, associated with the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University and housed in Firestone Library.
Remembering the words of her professor at New England College in West Sussex, England — “If you ever see a Shakespeare first folio, steal it for me” — D’Schommer, who knew that the Scheide Library had one; she just hadn’t yet figured out how to ask to see it. (The library is typically open only to researchers and scholars.) A few days after the event, however, she received permission to photograph the Shakespeare text at the Scheide Library. “I thought it was going to be a one day ‘go in and photograph the book,’” she remembers thinking.
Soon after she arrived at the shoot, Bill Scheide, who was 84 at the time and had taken out the Shakespeare folio for her, left the room. D’Schommer then made a move that would have put a book conservator into heart failure. “Not knowing it was going to be a long-term relationship, I lifted up the book and smelled it,” she says.
Immediately she heard a scream from across the room and was terrified, but when she was able to process the words that accompanied the loud voice, she realized that they were inviting ones, from Scheide. He said, “If she smells books, she can stay as long as she likes.”
At exactly that moment D’Schommer’s project of photographing books at the Scheide Library began — a loving effort that continued twice a year for 10 years and culminated in the recently released photographic essay, “Biblio,” which features about 130 photographs of books from the library. D’Schommer gives a talk on “Biblio” on Friday, November 28, at Princeton Public Library.
Scheide always chose the books for D’Schommer, and “Biblio” is a reflection of his choices. “It is really his tour of the library,” she says, “a tour that would normally take a decade.”
She only saw one or two books per visit, she says, “because he wants you to get every nuance.” Quickly his choices began to also reflect D’Schommer’s interests. “He was picking books for me at a certain point because he knew I wanted to see colors; really fantastical illustrations; pages that were flawed — things a little out of the ordinary and not quite pristine,” she says.
Because the library had already been treated from a scholarly perspective in other works, D’Schommer’s idea was to treat these rare books as landscapes, or, as she explains it, “to show the beauty of a book, not just culturally, but as an object.”
Her own favorite is a musical piece. One day, three years into the project, Scheide asked D’Schommer, “Why haven’t you ever photographed Beethoven’s sketch books?” Her answer, of course, was “I didn’t know you had them.”
D’Schommer says that on the morning before she was to photograph them she was already feeling completely overwhelmed “to know I was going to see them and touch them.” Comprising about 30 pieces of paper in all, they were loosely rolled rather than being bound together. “Once I started paging through,” she says, “you could see just tons of scribbles, lots of x’s — obviously someone going through the creative process and not finding what they were going for, but page after page, still trying, a few pages torn out. It was like this temper tantrum of a journal.”
Musing that if she were to look at another composer’s notebook, she would probably not be able to see the creator’s personality, the Beethoven sketchbooks seemed hand in glove with his life. “They seemed very in touch with his turbulent creative process,” she says. “He really left his fingerprint on the book; he was really tormented, and in that way it felt so personal to be looking at it.
“My goal was to really look at the whole book as an object,” says D’Schommer. Her photographs show the books in all different positions: close-ups giving the sense of an abstract image or a landscape, and more straightforward. The eight photographs of the Beethoven sketchbooks nicely display this variety: “In some you see a close-up of his handwriting, in others the way the pages lay on top of one another. One photograph shows the tear, close up, and you can almost see him tearing the page out of the book because there was an arc to the tear.”
D’Schommer grew up in Minneapolis, where her father taught high school history, and her mother teaches women’s history and English at Augsburg College. D’Schommer started doing photography for a sports magazine at age 16. She photographed former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond in Minnesota in 1992, and she managed to get a summer job photographing the race for the Alsace bureau of tourism. “It was fantastic,” she says, but looking back, adds, “It is so funny now [to think about] shooting the Tour de France with film, which is incredibly slow.”
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from New England College in 1994. She says she was drawn to the British school because of its English literature program and because she was having trouble finding a college she liked in the U.S. She applied without ever visiting the school, but after she arrived, she says she fell in love with the English countryside. “I’m a sucker for a good view,” she says, referring to the fabulous view out her dorm window.
After receiving a master of fine arts in writing and photography from Vermont College in Montpelier, D’Schommer started interning with photography studios and then, over 10 years ago, opened her own in Minneapolis. “I do a lot of portraiture and really love photographing objects and still lifes, which is very much what this project is — photographing hopefully very sensual images of the objects.” She has also photographed other rare book libraries and has just started a new project at the University of Minnesota photographing the James Ford Bell collection, which features books about trade routes in the 17th century. D’Schommer sells fine art photography through galleries in Minneapolis, and samples of her work are available online at www.natashadschommer.com.
Bill Scheide graduated from Princeton in 1936 with a bachelor’s degree in history. His father graduated in 1896, while the school was still called the College of New Jersey. Scheide’s grandson graduated in 1997. Although most of Scheide’s progeny are artists of one sort or another, his oldest daughter has an extensive collection of history and law books.
The story of the rare-book collection he owns goes back to his grandfather, William Hurd Scheide, who started as a telegraph operator in Pittsburgh and used to watch oil barrels in barges float down the Allegheny River. The first oil well was drilled in 1859 and in 1869, when Scheide was 20, he decided to prospect for oil. He made his way to Oil City, in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, near Titusville, PA, found oil with a partner and went into business. When John D. Rockefeller came through to buy up oil wells, he hired Scheide’s grandfather and put him in charge of pipelines all over the country for Standard Oil.
Scheide’s grandfather then moved his family to Titusville, which was not quite so rough and tumble as Oil City. He had two children, the oldest being John, Bill Scheide’s father. Scheide’s grandfather worked until age 42, when he had accumulated sufficient money and Standard Oil stock to retire. Always a book lover, he started collecting. At that time few people were buying old books, and he would find them in European markets, bookstores, as well as through dealers. The elder Scheide died in 1907, seven years before his grandson William (Bill) was born, and left the collection to his wife, who in turn left it to Bill’s father, John, in 1921, when she died.
John Scheide built a library in his home, where his son, Bill, first got involved with the books. John Scheide, like his father, worked for Standard Oil but developed tuberculosis and had to stop working to convalesce. His first wife and baby died, but a few months later he married Bill’s mother, who worked with unwed mothers in New York City through the Presbyterian Church. When the couple married, she was close to 40, and Bill, their only child, was born the next year.
John Scheide purchased at least half the books in the collection. By the late 1920s he felt that he needed a special library with a locked vault for his most precious books, such as the Gutenberg Bible. He built an addition onto the family home for the library. After his father (John) died in 1942, Bill left the library intact while his mother continued to live in the house.
When John Scheide died, his son, Bill, was in graduate school at Columbia University, hoping to become a music professor, but instead he returned home to handle the family finances. By then he also had a wife and baby. Trained as a musician, Scheide founded the Bach Aria Group in 1946 and served as its director until 1980. Consisting of five musicians and four singers, including at one time Eileen Farrell and Jan Pierce, the company traveled all over the United States as well as in Europe, Israel, and South America. The group’s mission was to bring the arias from the Bach cantatas — which were virtually unknown, even among the music loving public — to a new audience.
In 1959, after the death of his mother, Bill brought the books, furniture, vaults, some bookcases, and windows to Princeton and built an addition, designed to look just like the original library in the Scheide home, at Firestone Library, where the books reside today.
When Scheide retired in 1980 from the directorship of the Bach Aria Group, he started collecting in earnest. Except for a Wagner that his father bought for him when Scheide was a student, the library’s music collection, which includes Bach, Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven, was all Scheide’s doing. But his favorite acquisition, says Scheide in a phone interview, is the 1457 Psalter, because the type is so beautiful. The Psalter is a Latin volume containing the Book of Psalms and ranks among the finest and most important of all early printed books because it is the first to be printed with two sizes of type and the first to be printed in color throughout.
Other items in the remarkable collection that appear in the book include: a New Testament from Antwerp, dated 1538; Galileo Galilei’s dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo; a Psalter dated 1320-1340; a 1455 Gutenberg Bible; and Emily Dickinson’s recipe for chocolate pudding, dated Amherst (MA), 1872.
Quite coincidentally, D’Schommer’s aunt, Judy, who had developed a friendship with Bill Scheide through the years, married him in 2003. About four years ago Scheide decided he wanted to put D’Schommer’s photographs into a published book, which he did with the help of Princeton’s communications department, under the stewardship of Mahlon Lovett and Laurel Cantor.
Probably the biggest technical challenge that D’Schommer faced over the course of the project was storing the images and then having to go through them and make selections. The actual shooting, though, was pretty straightforward, because the Scheide Library was the perfect studio for D’Schommer, who uses a 35-millimeter camera with film, and likes to shoot in natural light.
Her technique allowed her to be relatively inconspicuous at a time when cameras were not necessarily looked upon favorably in a library setting. “I think the sense of coming into a scholarly zone and looking at things from a visual perspective — at that time those were two clashing ideas,” she says.
But those attitudes have changed over the last decade or so. “I think it is more accepted that books can be more than one thing,” she says. “They can be culturally important and visually significant. They don’t have to be just scholarship. There can be an important story in just looking at historical objects.”
Now that she has told the story of the Scheide library, D’Schommer is pleased. “I’ve been looking at these photos for so long as individual pieces,” she says. “I really like to see them together in this way; I feel like it explains the experience I’ve had over past decade.”
Rare Books and Musical Scores, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Friday, November 28, 2:30 p.m. Unveiling of “Biblio,” an intimate look at Princeton resident Bill Scheide’s unique collection of rare books and musical scores, photographed by Natasha D’Schommer. Schiede offers a limited number of hand-signed copies. Adjournment in time for Palmer Square’s tree lighting at 4:30 p.m. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.