Book Review: Push Butt, Receive Bacon, Hand Dryers, by Samuel Ryde

Hand Dryers
By Samuel Ryde
Unicorn Publishing Group
Distributed by the University of Chicago Press Books

In the appropriately senseless year of 2020, Hand Dryers, by Samuel Ryde, was published. With that, every possible book had at last been printed, and nothing would ever make sense again.

Primal drives run to the four Fs: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and fucking. I’d add a fifth, filing, the need to collect and categorize as strong a impulse in some folks as the desire to feed, breed, or engage in a melee.* Gatherers and gleaners have always been with us, secretly or openly assembling objects and data and curating them for their personal museums.

The combination of cameraphones and the Internet these past decades has spawned, or perhaps spored, an inundation of banal digital Wunderkammern, their collectors capturing, classifying, and cataloging every last damn item, act, or moment. Want to see formidable hoards of condiment packets, air sickness bags, or bellybutton lint (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate on that last one)? It’s all there.

Instagram is an especially fertile field for pathological collectors. Certainly it accommodates human vanity’s need to record and display one’s every meal, selfie, outfit, or hot dog leg shot. Hosting a profusion of photos of every example of small-town vernacular architecture between California and Maine, it is a godsend to preservationists. So too we see myriad snapshots of the humdrum urban objects that enter our vision but barely register in our minds. Sidewalk stamps have a place in Instagram (1,244 posts), as do parking meters (14,628 posts), fire hydrants (156,738 posts), and manhole covers (Jesus wept, 414,238 posts). That every manmade object above ground, and more than a few below, has been recorded somewhere on Instagram appears a flabbergasting possibility. But why record the commonplace at all?

I get it. I do. Personally, in the old, expensive film days, I photographed hydrants, parking meters, lampposts, and Siamese fire connections I came across in other cities. When I lived in Chicago proper, I had an infrequently blogged art gallery of toilets. Not just toilets. Toilets in Chicago’s alleys, unceremoniously dumped there after being constantly dumped in for decades. Why? Because the internet is a vast gaping museum of nonsense, and there’s always room for more. As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius stated, “A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, ‘And why were such things made in the world?’”

Oh yes, the review.

Of the book.

About hand dryers.

Samuel Ryde’s bio describes him as a British documentary photographer who lives in London. Hand Dryers is his first book. We all have to start somewhere. Ryde runs the @handdryers Instagram account, where one can eye-gorge as many free hand dryer pictures as one desires.

Per his introduction, Ryde took his first hand dryer picture at the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh. No date is given, though he was attending the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with his father, seeking acts for dear dad’s theater in Wales. Ryde spins a familiar tale of affected eccentricity and sheepishness. How the other loo visitors looked at him askance as he photographed his first hand dryer. How his father looked skyward and shook his head at perhaps the least odd thing his son could’ve done with camera in a public toilet. As if stranger acts haven’t taken place in most of the pub, club, and public pissoirs he visited before and after he made hand dryers his muse. As if in this day and age the sight of a shutter-bugging collector commemorating non objet d’art on Instagram is peculiar.

His take is familiar. Why hand dryers? The introduction serves as a artist’s statement, but offers few surprises or insights. Something, something, design everywhere, something something. Seeing the remarkable in the unremarkable. How art and design are all around, if we would but look for them. He states, presumably in all seriousness, “Isn’t design just art that people use?” That sort of thing.

But while Marcel Duchamp ready-made a urinal into an artistic movement, Ryde just takes nicely composed photos of hand dryers. He misses a step by omitting, or perhaps not knowing, Warhol’s epiphany that when the normal is replicated, it becomes strange, the same way words lose all meaning when you—stoned or otherwise—repeat them. Funnily, Ryde’s hand dryers become less unusual en masse.

The book’s design does the photos no favors. The desire to cram in as many hand dryers as possible in such a small book (6″ x 8″) demanded smaller images, leading to three-by-three thumbnail layouts on 24 of its 72 pages. These grids lack the immediacy and clarity of the larger pictures. In his intro, Ryde opines about social media being presented as grids, and our lives being “organised” (sic, because he’s British) into grids, but this comes to very little in explaining the micronization of 216 photos. Shrinking may not have done too much damage. Most look a bit drab. Dull tile backgrounds. Poor lighting. An abiding brush metal grey or institutional white coloring. The most striking are those clearly in well-used and abused lavatories, surrounded by graffiti or savaged by stickers. There are stories here, obviously, but they aren’t found in Hand Dryers. The book  gives the impression that each time Ryde visits the head, he likely does his business, washes his hands (one hopes), and snaps a shot of the air dryer, paper towel dispenser, or continuous cloth towel roll machine affixed to the wall before moving on. The Instagram site is a bit livelier, each post accompanied by a brief observation or tidbit. Minimal, but it’s often something personal. Hand Dryers, mostly starved of text, resembles a product catalog with artistic pretensions. Woe.

The book is rife with missed chances to explore a not so much secret world as an overlooked one. We know nothing of the venues hosting these hand dryers. We don’t know what takes place on their stages, much less in the stalls that the dryers are, pun intended, privy to. We don’t even know how the dryers work, necessarily, or if they work (excepting the bare few decked with “out of order” signs). Ryde’s introduction—alongside a product-plugging paragraph-long foreword by Sir James Dyson, whose company built the ominous Dyson Airblade—provide a bit of hand dryer history—a wee, tiny, minuscule bit. But there are no stories here. What have these dryers seen? How do they work, or not work? What is their greater context in society is not the history of the world?

What is the ultimate point of bringing a website to print? Hand Dryers is a book. Of photos. Of hand dryers. Solid but lacking. The Internet’s perceived vastness provides an illusion of substance. A endless, vaporous, but exhaustive museum of the mundane. Out of context, in the pages of a book, an idea that’s amusing on the Internet reveals its flimsy ridiculousness. Does Hand Dryers serve a purpose? No. No. Absolutely not. The book is an object of strange, beautiful uselessness.

In his novel The Library of Babel, the author Jorge Luis Borges describes a library as large as a universe; a stack of infinite hexagonal rooms filled with every possible book (following a specific size and character count) ever written or that will be written. Entire shelves are devoted to books of gibberish: a single letter repeated; a single letter repeated, save one; alternating letters; an occasional surrealistic phrase surrounded by textual noise; and so on. As the blind author who saw further than most wrote, “for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.” Generations of librarians, reduced to sleeping upright and defecating in water closets between the stacks, when not attending to a library of apparent infinite nonsense, are driven insane by the place’s purposelessness and the hope that one true comprehensive book exists in its stacks.

Hand Dryers would be at home on that library’s bookshelves. If only it made more sense.

Hand Dryers is available in bookstores and through the University of Chicago Press website.

*Yes, pedants, it is pronounced “may-lay”. Fooey, on you, from me.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.

One comment

  1. Thank you for the Warhol quote. Been looking for that one. The most comprehensive review I’ve had, thank you for taking the time. Would you like some internal shots to include?

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