Sunday, 18 February 2018

A fresh take on NYC

The Big Apple delivers yet again some rich pickings in the best Photo League style of busy street photography. Todd Webb (1905-2000) took most of the book's pictures during 1945/6, when he returned to the city after active service in the South Pacific. Many of the 167 photos capture the working class street environment, especially straight on shots of houses or store fronts with windows full of signs and products which sometimes spill out onto the pavement.

Pages four and five has an eight exposure shot of Sixth Avenue between 43 and 44 Streets (part of it is on the cover) the exposures were joined together to create a stunning wide photo. I particularly liked the many photos that included lettering and Webb seems to have sought locations with signs, rather reminiscent of the FSA photos from the Depression years, in fact there aren't too many photos that don't have some sort of lettering within the frame. The editors have included a few interesting architectural shots of New York including row houses with skyscrapers rising behind them, the Empire State at night and the Brooklyn Bridge.

The first pages have an illustrated essay by Sean Corcoran about Webb's life and during the late forties he was friends with several photographers of the period: Berenice Abbot; Harry Callahan; Ansel Adams; Alfred Stieglitz; Gordon Parks; Helen Levitt and Lisette Model. Daniel Okrent contributes an essay about changes in the city shown in the photos and today.

This is a good looking book with a lovely matt art paper for the two hundred screen printing which reveals, once again that the Big Apple is a mythic city for photographers.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Steidl way with books

I thought this was a fascinating documentary with movie director Carlos Saura, Hans Meinke and Gerhard Steidl planning and creating a photobook. It starts with Meinke (Saura's friend, fluent in German and Spanish) and Steidl visiting Saura in Spain to look over his photos taken in the late fifties of ordinary Spaniards, away from cities and Franco's authoritarian regime. Several of these wonderful photos fill the screen and it's clear that he has a good eye for a composition and subject matter.
Steidl is convinced that there is a photobook here and then most of the film takes place in the publisher's offices and print works in Gottingen, Germany. An initial selection of four hundred photos slowly get reduced to less than three hundred. While discussing the book's size and pagination Steidl makes this interesting comment:
"I think that the book or book production that we are doing should not be a very high priced book. So the book, for me, is a democratic object which is for anybody around the globe and it is relatively cheap, so a high quality book that is beautifully printed for twenty, thirty, forty euros is not an expensive object, it is not a luxury object" (It struck me that this is the opposite of what some other publishers might say, they believe a beautifully printed, short run art book, should be highly priced).
Saura's photos are reduced to playing card size and laid out on a long table to work out the sequence and further reduce the number. I found the sequencing operation interesting because, despite being in this digital age, the best way to do this was to physically handle small prints of the photos so they could easily be re-arranged, added to or reduced to get the best flow as the reader turns the pages. This would be difficult to do on a pc screen.
Later the photos are digitally examined and any flaws removed and printing plates made, there is some discussion about what grey to use for the printing, black provides the basic image but the addition of light or dark grey inks give the photos that extra sparkle on the page. The documentary ends with a brief visit back to Spain where Steidl presents Saura with his book of photos, beautifully printed of course.
The box has two DVD's, an NTSC and PAL version so it can be played anywhere. Also included is a forty-eight page booklet with an illustrated multi-language essay about creating the photobook. Oh yes, one other thing, the documentary doesn't have any annoying background music.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The affluent's snapper

The book is a celebration of where the affluent escape to, whether it's surf, snow, pools, sand, isles or parks (this is the chapter sequence). Gray Malin takes to the air for most of the photos throughout the book but I thought his shots rather bland, especially when compared to the superb aerial work of Alex MacLean (his Over book was also published by Abrams). People enjoying the surf and snow don't come out too well when photographed from a great height which means the images lack a focal point for the viewer. Parks from the air are more positive because they include buildings and vegetation.

Despite the book being a rather lavish production with matt art paper for the two hundred screen printing (and when was the last time you saw blocking on the edges of a title, in this case it's silver on three sides) the layouts and sequencing seem very haphazard and unimaginative. The photos that introduce the chapters have headings on them making the type unreadable, captions are frequently on photos despite being surrounded by plenty of white space, descriptive text on grey panels are butted into images.

A very disappointing book of photos but I think the readership it's aimed at will enjoy it despite its shortcomings.

Print in paradise

The design of the printed ephemera contents of the book are very typical of socialist countries who couldn't afford (for ideological and financial reasons) to be part of global trade in past decades. Trading just with other state run countries meant that design creativity was generally of poor quality. The same look of food packing, for example, was very similar in North Vietnam, Albania, China or the Soviet Union. Perhaps an exception was Cuba which always had a lively print design culture before the 1953 revolution.

The author's collection of DPRK print is of interest though because of its broad range, illustrated are cigarette packs, sweet wrappers and boxes, tickets, can labels (lots of these) postcards, stamps, beer labels, wrapping paper, packaging, comics, badges and more. There is an intriguing set of stamps issued in 1982 to celebrate the birth of Prince William showing Lady Diana holding the baby. All the material has a simple, bland look and as the author says none of it is designed, in the western sense, for a hard sell. The contents also look dated because they were collected up to 2005, I don't know but I assume since then print is designed on the pc even in this people's paradise.

The eight chapters all start on a spread, each with an interesting essay about various aspects of North Korean life, especially as it's lived in Pyongyang, as the city is stuffed full of bureaucrats perhaps it's not very representative of living in the DPRK.

I found it an interesting book and Phaidon have added their bit by printing it on fairly course paper like most of the examples shown throughout the pages.