Monday, 18 June 2018

Highway west

This is one of two fold-outs in the book.

Steve Fitch has been roaming the Plains and far west for years searching for examples of vernacular commercialism before it disappears. His first book 'Diesels and dinosaurs' published in 1976 set the scene with fifty shots of what could be seen from the highway and this new book continues the theme with 127 color photos.

It's an interesting journey with the photos of centuries old traveller way marks and more recent examples of signs for motels and farms, most of the hand painted signs, which have now seen better days, probably will have gone when Fitch returns to their location. These images morph into the essence of the book: motel signs and drive-in movie theaters. The motel signs deliver forty-three wonderful photos of giant arrows, angled poles and irregular shapes bursting out of the ground and painted in contrasting colors. (It's interesting that the word motel is always in capital letters with other words in lower case.) These signs come alive at night with neon lighting up their immediate area, look at the book's front cover for an example of this. Fitch says that many of the signs which he photographed in the eighties and nineties have now gone and this also applies to the drive-in movie theaters, eighteen examples are shown.

Though the book is concerned with vanishing vernacular in the commonplace landscape I wasn't prepared for the last photos in the book: twelve quite extraordinary photos of radio masts. You might wonder how a slither of metal lattice work could generate such creative images but Fitch photographed these uprights in a totally flat landscape at dusk with a background of an almost rainbow colored sky. I found it interesting that although the masts might seem very similar they are different with round communication dishes attached at different points on each mast. Nicely the complete mast is shown in each photo.

Fans of commonplace Americana will enjoy these photos, the book is a handsome production (three hundred screen printing on a lovely matt art) with one photo a page and generous margins. My only (very minor) complaint might be the comprehensive photo captions on eleven pages at the back of the book require a lot page flipping backwards and forwards.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

EXTRA! See all about it

Weegee's most famous news photo with the original (left) including the three people who are always trimmed in printed editions.

The expanding collection og Weegee books.

A new book about Weegee is always welcome and this Hirmer edition really delivers a super helping of New York's greatest news photographer. The 361 photos cover what was happening in the city from 1936 to 1945 as far as the tabloids were concerned. Not just the crime, murders, suicides, fires, car crashes, floods and heat waves but several of the thirteen chapters cover less familiar Weegee subjects: Extra! Fine looks at high society arriving and departing from events; Extra! Help shows the police and emergency services giving a helping hand during some citizen's personal crisis; Extra! Friends has twelve shots of cats, dogs and birds (not really newsworthy as such but the tabloids loved to combine human interest and pets).

The book's inside cover blurb suggests that most of the photos are published here for the first time, I don't think this strictly true as I've seen many of them in other Weegee books published over the last few years. His best work was printed in the left-leaning, ad free New York paper PM Daily (one of twelve papers published in the city) where he was a 'special contributing photographer' rather than part of the full-time staff so he could sell his work to other titles if PM didn't use a photo. It's worth remembering that his New York work was taken for reproduction in newspapers where high-speed printing and cheap paper didn't allow for subtle shades of grey, instead he delivered gutsy black and white images mostly taken at night.

His most celebrated picture, 'The critic' (on page 179) was commissioned by PM but not used. It shows two society ladies arriving at the Metropolitan Opera in October 1943 and looking at the camera with a disdainful, ordinary woman 'critic' looking at them. Weegee's shot also included three people on the left-hand side of the photo which are always cropped out of any printed version. He set the shot up with friends from his favourite Bowery bar, Sammy's, got them slightly drunk and took them to the Opera for this planned photo.

The book's landscape shape gives a good showing to the photos and someone had the bright idea of reproducing the caption strips pasted on the back of all the photos before they were hand delivered to the newspapers but, as other reviewers have noticed, these strips have unfortunately all been reduced from their original size to something much smaller making most of them rather unreadable. A real shame because to read what the caption writers said in newspaper style of the time gives the photos an extra feel of realism.

Despite the annoying caption problem I thought this was a excellent book about Weegee and his most creative years.

Friday, 15 June 2018

"All aboard!"

The UK edition (right) has this rather dull cover when compared to the US edition.
 Canadian illustrator Pascal Blanchet has a wonderful distinct style to his work, with its flat areas of color and a simple construction to the overall illustration, a rather retro feel that combines great graphic sophistication. I bought the book to enjoy his work as well as the interesting page design.
It is, though, a rather odd children's book (it was originally published in French) because the illustrations are not the usual style that would be found in a title aimed at a younger readership. The small amount of text relates to a story by train starting in Canada then to New York, across the States, back into Canada and finally down the west coast to Los Angeles. The journey mixes historical facts about railroads, cities and geography presented in bite size chunks on each spread. A nice touch is a stylised ticket with the names of the fourteen cities visited on each relevant spread and the conductor punches out a hole.
For me this is a beautiful book of very graphic illustrations that probably visually aware adults would enjoy more than children.