It’s May 16th—happy Biographer’s Day! This day pays homage to the first meeting between Samuel Johnson (the 18th century British author of the Dictionary of the English Language) and his biographer James Boswell. This fortuitous meeting (in a bookshop, no less) would eventually lead to the publication of Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791, considered by some to be the greatest biography ever written. To celebrate the authors who honor the world’s most notable figures, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite unconventional biographies. These books memorialize some of history’s more unique individuals, from Frida Kahlo to Buckminster Fuller to Louis Armstrong. However, these biographies have taken the art of life-writing one step further, incorporating a strong visual design element along with more traditional means of storytelling. Take a look at these exceptional books about these exceptional people, and let’s hear it for Biographer’s Day!
Satchmo: The Wonderful Life and Art of Louis Armstrong by Steven Brower (Harry N. Abrams, 2009)
It’s not easy to take on the life of a momentous cultural figure like Louis Armstrong, but Steven Brower does it with skill and creativity. Rather than focusing on the Louis Armstrong the public saw, Brower takes a look Armstrong’s self-reflective side. Armstrong would record his musings on art, love, and life on tape in the privacy of his New York apartment and store these tapes in boxes he decorated with pictures of his family, friends, and interests. These collages serve as a unique backdrop and framing device for Brower. In effect, the book itself becomes one long, melodic tape capturing the thoughts, feelings, and life of Ambassador Satch.
Frida Kahlo: Face to Face by Judy Chicago and Frances Borzello (Prestel, 2010)
What does it mean to be a female artist in an art history almost entirely made up of men? This is the question central to Judy Chicago’s sumptuous opus on the work of Frida Kahlo. Focusing on Kahlo’s unflinching self-portraits, Chicago examines how Kahlo’s life informed her art, and vice versa. But Judy Chicago doesn’t stop there—a prominent feminist artist in her own right, Chicago uses Kahlo’s life and oeuvre to explore the woman’s experience in a more general sense, both in art and in the world. With the help of art historian Frances Borzello, the work of these three women takes Frida Kahlo: Face to Face beyond the traditional confines of the biography, much like Kahlo went beyond the social confines of her own time.
Buckminster Fuller: Poet of Geometry by Cole Gerst (Overcup Press, 2013)
Buckminster Fuller was an original and unconventional man, a free thinker who did things his own way. How can you pay homage to a man’s life in a traditional biography if he never played by the rules when he was alive? Cole Gerst (with the help of his friends at Overcup Press!) decided to approach Fuller’s life in a different way, just as Fuller approached his own inventions. In dazzling, full-color pictures that depict Fuller’s life and work, Gerst really proves that a picture is worth a thousand words! Described as “One of the most beautiful books about a designer, ever” by the website SolidSmack, and silver medal winner of a 2015 Nautilus Award, Buckminster Fuller: Poet of Geometry definitely delivers, both as a biography as well as a work of art in its own right.
Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham (AMMO Books, 2011)
Renowned New York designer Todd Oldham examines the life and work of Charley Harper, an underrated “minimal realist” from Cincinnati, Ohio. Harper’s design style influenced countless artists during his six-decade long career, and Todd Oldham does a wonderful job capturing Harper’s playful nature with the pieces of art he chooses to showcase. AMMO Books spares no expense honoring this artistic visionary, and this high-quality collection of images can be yours for a cool $200. But don’t fret just yet—AMMO also released an abridged “mini edition”for $29.95 for those of us who can’t celebrate too hard this Biographer’s Day.
Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal by John M. MacGregor (Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002)
Let’s end on a surreal note! Henry Darger encapsulated what we know as an “outsider artist”: someone not professionally trained as an artist, but rather driven to create by pure instinct and desire. Born in Chicago in 1892, Darger spent his entire adult life modestly, making ends meet with janitorial work. Shortly before his death in 1973, Darger’s landlord discovered 15,000 pages of writing and art written in hundreds of notebooks in Darger’s apartment. This body of work would come to be known “The Realm of the Unreal,” and its spirit is captured here by John M. MacGregor. As eerie as it is mysterious, MacGregor acts more as a curator than a biographer. MacGregor’s power as a biographer lies in his ability to refrain from over-explanation: he presents Darger’s work as a narrative in its own right, and these pictures tell a powerful story.
These are only a handful of some of the amazing examples of biographies in the literary landscape today. If you think we missed anything, or have a few to add, please let us know in the comments section below!