A visit to the bookshop is not only about looking at books, it is also about looking at the other customers, staff, and the bookshop itself. The kind of books the bookshop sells and how it is decorated tells you something about the shopkeeper’s personal taste. With so many people coming and going, and so many personal stories being created day and night, a bookshop is one of the best places to observe the lives of others.
According to Shuang Mien Chiao (Double-sided Tape), the owner of Orbital Books, the name “orbital” originated from the Archaic Chinese words 目圍 (mù wéi) which means “the area surrounding the eyes,” and in simple modern terms, it refers to “eye socket.” Orbital Books specializes in photography and is located in a quiet neighborhood close to a main road in Tainan City. Aside from apartments and buildings, there are only restaurants and convenience stores in the area. If you were to see an advertisement for the area, it would probably read like this, “Safe and quiet neighborhood. Convenient to Everything.” Although Orbital Books is far away from the major business districts and transportation hubs, its remote yet unique location might well be the reason that it can attract customers to pay a visit.
In Orbital Books, you can flip through a vast collection of prints from out-of-print photography books to local zines with only a hundred or so copies printed. They also have a unique “read-in” system in place that allows visitors to read every single print available in the bookshop. This makes it possible even for college students with a limited budget to take a glimpse at the bookshop’s rare collection. For a bookshop that does not sell coffee/clothing/lifestyle products, selling books seems to be the only way for it to survive. Why would Orbital Books establish the “read-in” system? Book shopping has become such a niche activity in recent years, especially for a bookshop that opened in 2018 and located in southern Taiwan where only limited government funding is available to arts and literary activities, that it is a wonder Orbital Books has survived this long.
Taking a macro perspective, photography to me is not merely about smartphones or film and digital cameras; it is actually a “way of thinking.”
OBSCURA: Hello Shuang Mien Chiao. My first question for you is, “Why did you establish the “read-in” system in Orbital Books?
Shuang Mien Chiao: Photography books are way more expensive than normal books, and the prices for some of those out-of-print editions are beyond imagination. To a certain extent, these books are not a “necessity” to general customers.
For example, most of the customers who come to our bookshop for the very first time would start flipping through prints in smaller sizes, like the independently-published zines. Even if I welcome them with “feel free to look at everything” when they first step inside the shop, they still feel a little embarrassed to pick up books in larger size, or in hardback (this is particularly common among younger customers). Therefore, how to pull the books and the customers together has become one of our highest priorities, and the “read-in” system was established for that purpose. We give tours to our customers and communicate with them to ensure they understand why and how photography books are more valuable than normal books. It’s an exchange of ideas. Instead of putting money first, we are more content to pull books and customers together mentally or physically.
OBSCURA: It is now very convenient to buy books online, and there are even free previews and excerpts to read before you buy. In that aspect, what are the differences in experience between doing everything online and visiting a physical bookshop?
Shuang Mien Chiao: Personally, I prefer to touch and feel the paper. Only by reading the entire photography book, which includes the often carefully selected choice of paper, the size of the book, and the method of binding, can I really understand the stories behind those images and what the artist wants to express. (I find that most people would not bother with information such as the book size and number of pages.) For online shopping, you can only see about five to ten selected images which are usually the official images selected by the publisher. It is similar to buying a record; you only get to listen to the main hits, but when you actually get the record, you might not like the entire album.
OBSCURA: It might sound a bit disrespectful, but I think that apart from bricks and mortar, the photography profession is also disappearing. In an era where everyone has a smartphone, photography became easily accessible and people take it less seriously than before. How do you feel about the popularization of photography?
Shuang Mien Chiao: Actually, I have a very open attitude towards the use of photographic media. I am currently teaching photography at a university and many of my students do not have a camera, whether film or digital, and therefore use their smartphones. The popularization of smartphone photography and the advancement in technology provide a new option to the presentation of photography itself. I am quite optimistic about the future and the changes it will bring to photography as a medium. Nothing is predictable. Taking a macro perspective, photography to me is not merely about smartphones or film and digital cameras; it is actually a “way of thinking.” Our creative mind shouldn’t be restrained by photographic media. It doesn’t even matter if one chooses to use multiple forms of media at the same time.
I think I have an obsession with things that are in rectangular or square shape (?) I love to buy CDs, vinyl, and, obviously, photography books.
OBSCURA: Could you tell us about your background? What did you do before opening the bookshop?
Shuang Mien Chiao: I have a major in accounting, and I worked in the accounting field for nearly ten years upon graduation. At that time, I was surrounded by friends who were into rock music. I would go take photos of their shows after work, and this is how I came into contact with photography. Later on, I started taking up shooting projects, and eventually turned into a photography professional. I am now running a photography bookshop. I didn’t like to read when I was young, not even comic books. But I started to buy imported rock music magazines (Q Magazine) and some others on visual and graphic design (The Face / iD) when I began to listen to rock music as a student. I only put my hands on photography books after I started taking pictures. I think I have an obsession with things that are in rectangular or square shape (?) I love to buy CDs, vinyl, and, obviously, photography books.
OBSCURA: Who is your favourite photographer?
Shuang Mien Chiao: I like a lot of photographers. For example, Robert Mapplethorpe, Daine Arbus, Joel Peter Witkin, Nan Goldin. In fact, somehow I am more attracted to the photographers’ spirit, or I should say, I am fascinated by their personal charm and unique characteristics. For example, I really like this quote from Daine Arbus: “it’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s…. That somebody else’s tragedy is not the same as your own.” Her words echo my work stripped: the feminine beauty in a way that we both realize we can never fully and completely understand the pain and suffering of another person.
雙面膠：英國的Richard Billingham出生於1970年，是一位對視覺藝術非常瞭解精髓的藝術 家。《Ray’s A Laugh》雷的一個微笑系列1996，是Richard Billingham多年來拍攝他的家 人。長期酗酒的父親Ray和滿身刺青的母親Liz。照片中表現出家庭貧窮與匱乏是Richard Billingham長大的寫照，但也因此造就這個家庭攝影專題。
Richard Billingham的作品中明顯透露出「性情急躁的顏色」和「不精準的對焦」，我覺得反 而替這系列照片的增加了真實性和坦率。因為我自己非常喜歡看紀錄片，真實感的影像。所以 這本書才會讓我這麼的著迷。
OBSCURA: Which book from your shop would you recommend? Also tell us why you would pick it out of the numerous books you have.
Shuang Mien Chiao: Richard Billingham is an English photographer and visual artist who was born in 1970. His work Ray’s a Laugh (1996) is a collection of family portraits that offers an intimate look into his poverty-stricken upbringing in his parental home shared with his alcoholic father, Ray, and tattooed mother, Liz.
One of the most famous images in this series is the one that captures the moment Ray furiously threw a cat into the air. The image is like an accident. A spontaneous snap with a sense of shock.
An awkward beam of sunlight lights up the messy and moldy household, and the furniture of various colors really set the stage for the flying cat. There is an inexplicable sense of harmony in the image. Richard Billingham’s work clearly demonstrates the “colors of impatience” and “inaccurate focus.” I think these all contributed to the authenticity and honesty of the series. I really enjoy watching documentaries because the realistic portrayal fascinates me. I guess that’s why I like Ray’s a Laugh so much.
No. 10, Alley 127, Lane 127, Nanyuan Street, North District, Tainan 704