LEANNE SHAPTON | The Ghosts Are Aghast

by Miles Griffis

HERMÉS     dress.

HERMÉS dress.

The epigraph in the beginning of Leanne Shapton’s latest graphic novel, Guestbook: Ghost Stories, out via Riverhead Books in March of this year, was penned by her late friend and prolific writer Adam Gilders—“A geist/ A gust/ A ghost/ Aghast/ I guess/ A guest.” 

Full of unconventional storytelling in the form of photo essays, poems, paintings, profiles, blueprints, make believe Instagram grids, prose, wrapping paper, and spooky 35mm photographs tucked between the pages, the work’s 33 chapters explore the presence of unknown presences—the past as a present paranormal guest.

 “With these stories, I wanted to experiment with how a reader emotionally reads a picture and metabolizes a picture. And I wanted to use photography in a way to show how dark and powerful I think it is,” Shapton says from a Times Square highrise on an icy Friday afternoon, “I think it’s where our ghosts are centered now.” 

These ghosts of our past selves in polaroids are not unlike the ones lurking in the narrow hallways and bright sitting rooms in the book’s photo essays “The Dream” and “Lago”, nor are they dissimilar to the found photographs of icebergs, like the one that presumably dismantled the Titanic, floating ominously in the fog of the North Atlantic in the chapter “The Iceberg As Viewed by Eyewitnesses.” 

The book, Shapton’s tenth, follows in the parade of her innovative works like 2009’s “Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry” that details a four- year love affair between a couple as told through 335 auction lots as well as 2016’s Was She Pretty about jealousy for current lovers’ ex-lovers featuring witty resentments and charming drawings. 

Aside from the success of her books, Shapton is also an accomplished artist and illustrator with past client collaborations like Aesop, Tory Burch, and Rachel Comey. Her creative eye has also led her to the role of art director at a variety of publications, and her knack for storytelling shines in her journalism, with bylines in The New Yorker andThe New York Times Style Magazine. 

While much of Guestbook is serious, like the chapter “Billy Bryson” that deals with imaginary friends, trauma, and burn-out, Guestbook also has wonderful moments of humor that remind us that just because we are being haunted, doesn’t mean we can’t laugh. 

In “I Will Draw A Diagram of Her Movements” we’re told that sometimes it actually feels nice to be watched by unseen eyes, “The creepy creeping. The okayness creeps.” And in “Public Figure/ Beauty Lover/ Digital Talent / Traveler / Spinario / Parma / Abu Dhabi” a humorous poem displays lavishly mundane online flirtations left below a photo we cannot see— “My dear, so elegant, so confident, I’m in love with your feed”, “Oh wow looks so dreamy”, “Ahhh I love this looks amazing”, and “This is goals.” 

The poem reads like Instagram comments from strangers you don’t want to meet. Sad, shackled, and wandering. 

Speaking of the grid, in “Natura Morta,” vintage photographs are mixed with a modern photos of a woman— driving in a convertible, backstroking in a lagoon, a (clothed) crotch channeling a ray of light, a topless mirror selfie, and many others. Underneath each photo are arbitrary “likes” that peak at a modest 267. 

“There’s a lot of trust that happens with photography that I don’t think should happen with photography,” Shapton says, “ It’s just lies and lies and sadness. I was telling a friend the other day that every time I post on Instagram it’s because I’m feeling sad, and lonely. It doesn’t come out of a place of security, in some ways, it’s kind of a cry for help.” 

Guestbook’s ghost stories are not ones tracing our most storied ghosts like The Flying Dutchman, Thom Thompson, La Llorona, nor is it an investigation of the literary ghost, like Hamlet’s father’s wraith or the ghoulish sailors of Coleridge’s “The Rime of Ancient Mariner”—Shapton’s visitants are us, disappearing from our present to live as apparitions on the feeds of our past. 

Photographed by Lauren Hemmick

Styled by Morgan Vickery