Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The best of Canadian deco

A beautiful celebration of this exuberant architectural style across Canada. The book has an interesting chapter arrangement: Life at work; Life in the community; Life at home; Life as a shopper; Life on the move; Life of leisure. Within these there are one hundred and fifty buildings selected and nicely it's not only ones in big cities but small towns also. I thought the real strength of the book is it's comprehensiveness. Obviously the well known city office towers are here but also factories, government buildings like a post office or police station, schools, exhibition halls, bus stations, airports, gas stations, bridges, movie houses and of course plenty of private homes.

At the start of the book the author provides a succinct ten page illustrated essay defining art deco architecture, useful because as I looked at the photos I was curious about this or that aspect of a building, there is a three page Glossary at the back of the book that really should have been included with this essay.

Each building is named with its address (very handy is you use Street View and want to see what it looks like now) architects and year it was built. There are contemporary exterior color photos with plenty of close-ups of interesting detail. Interiors are featured especially lighting, floors and furniture. The Life at home chapter has some wonderful deco apartment blocks and individual homes including the stunning Loane House in Kelowna, British Columbia, there is a photo of a doorknob with its back plate and a one of a cupboard hinge which are fine examples of the style right down to the speed lines and step-backs.

Churches are not normally associated with art deco but seven are included. Ste. Philomena of Rosemont Church in Montreal has a remarkable interior with beautiful sconces, the cloister of the Benedict Abbey of Saint Benoit-du-Lac has an extraordinary floor of colorful glazed tiles in a deco pattern. The last chapter, Life of leisure includes several theaters where architects have used the maximum deco styling options to create a distinctive presence on a street.

Tim Morawetz, in this book with 420 color and 100 mono photos, has written the definitive book on Canadian art deco from the twenties to the fifties. My only disappointment is why is it so expensive? His previous book on the deco structures of Toronto is equally costly.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A few dull covers

The book has a sixteen page bibliography, twenty-eight pages of notes, references galore to mid-century culture and especially pop culture and for what: a visual analysis of almost 150 dull LP covers that the two authors have salvaged from record store bargain bins and second-hand sellers. Very few of these covers are worth a second look as they are just a bland confection churned out by record company marketing departments. Even the ones from the giants of the industry like: Columbia; RCA; Capitol are very poor examples of their output if they are meant to reflect mid-century living.

Capitol, in particular, put out quite stunning covers in the fifties and sixties. They were well designed with quality photography or illustrations combined with creative typography that made their covers sparkle and their backs were the best looking in the industry. The only Capitol one in the book that I would consider well designed is Tone poems of color with Frank Sinatra conducting Gordon Jenkins Orchestra (musically it's nothing special though) designed by Saul Bass. Some of the covers do have some professionally taken photos but usually ruined by hopelessly unimaginative typography. A lot of the covers could well be included in those websites that feature the world's worst LP covers.

The bulk of the book are spreads with a good reproduction of the cover (reduced down to 6.5 inches) on the right-hand page and some text on the opposite page. The authors sort of come unstuck here because most of this text just describes the cover image which the readers can see anyway, making a lot of the copy more or less redundant. I think it would have made sense to have chapter about how companies marketed LPs decades ago to a middle-class audience. The majors had huge back catalogs of tracks and it was necessary to come up with plausible ways of selling and reselling this material. For example RCA did a twelve album set called For hi-fi living featuring easy listening orchestras from the US and UK, all the tracks would also work for Columbia's Music for gracious living. The cover photos for both these LP sets were just generic images. A lot of the covers are from budget labels with a bland musical content bought for next to nothing within the music industry, photos from image libraries are used with the LP title and tracks just dropped anywhere on the photo. Luckily we don't get to see just how bad the backs are.

I'm surprised that the prestigious MIT press published this book of bland covers but that is not to say the theme of the book is wrong, it could have been interesting if there was a much more objective choice of covers, primarily from the major labels, budget ones had no interest in putting across a message with their output.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

A tasty slice of the Big Apple

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) was one of those photographers who took wonderful pictures but in a quiet way, she never acquired fame in the sense of taking art photos like many of her contemporaries. One of her specialties was photographing a city in conjunction with a writer, during the fifties and sixties there were books on London, Florence, Dublin, Washington and country ones covering Mexico and Spain. She took photos for the 1965 New York proclaimed, written by V S Prichett. I haven't seen that book but I assume there are several in this Steidl edition that appeared in the Prichett one.
This new book has ninety-three photos (twenty-three in color) which show off the city between 1963 and 1981 and I thought some of the exterior architectural ones were particularly good (helped, of course, by 175 screen tritone printing to capture the detail) either rows of houses, office blocks, skyscrapers, roads and bridges. Hofer does a wonderful line in portraits, too, beautifully framed with the subject looking at the camera in a relaxed way whether it's an elevator man, garment delivery boy or a cop.
There are plenty of New York photo books but Hofer's pictures join those special few titles that capture the feel of the city with imagination and honesty.