Sunday, 28 December 2014


 Carrying case, book and the sixty page pensioner's holiday scrapbook.

The eight chapters are finger-tabbed.

Some spreads in the book showing the pensioner's holiday scrapbook.

A quite remarkable book using 2500 images to reveal daily life in East Germany.  The collection is from the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, established in 2002 to study visual and material culture in the country (what is in these pages is about one percent of the museum's collection).  You might think how can a book sum up something as complex as a modern Nation.  Fortunately the east part of the divided Germany only existed from 1949 to 1990 and I thought the book gave a very credible look back to these years. The eight chapters cover it all: Eat, drink and smoke; Home; Design and fashion; Entertainment and recreation; Travel and transportation; Labor and education; Political life (with 269 pages the longest section) Iconoclasm and counterculture. 

Because the East was right next door to the West it developed a lifestyle for its citizens far better than other socialist bloc countries and certainly better than the USSR.  The countries leaders convinced themselves that their Germany would eventually overtake the western part and just looking at the range of consumer products in the first four chapters it's easy to see how they fooled themselves.  The chapters on Labor and Political life reveal why it all came unstuck: the inflexible central planning; a non-convertible currency; regular shortages; the ever present and pervasive state security departments (brilliantly summed up in the 2006 movie The lives of others).

Taschen have done their usual excellent job with this look behind the wall.  A big heavy book, which comes in a carrying case, first class design, paper and printing.  There is an additional sixty page book (9.5 by 8 inches) included, a pensioner's scrapbook from 1966 showing their travels around the resorts of East Germany (worth checking that it's included if you buy a non-new copy of the book).   I found this big book a wonderful visual survey of a gone country.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Some classics, some less so...

Two other books that show Life photos at their best.

Published over a quarter of a century ago this is a very typical book of how Life exploit their massive photo resource. Aimed at a mass market rather than those who are interested in art photo books it does a reasonable job of reproducing some images that could now rightly be called classics but there are also a lot of what could be called just mildly interesting images from a certain time and place. Of course, all of them are John Loengard's personal choice. Of the 102 photos in the book thirty-one are from sources other than Life.

The advantage of the book now is that you can pick up copies in reasonable condition for less than the postage to get it to you. A teacher friend bought six copies to use in her school visual arts class. I suppose they could also be used in a writing class for students to write essays about what the photos say to them. With work from Andreas Feininger, Cornell Capa, Loomis Dean, Dmitri Kessel, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Eugene Smith and lots of others the human drama is well covered throughout the pages.

For anyone who wants to see wonderful photos as Life originally used them the Great Photographic Essays from Life reproduces twenty-two of them as the pages appeared in the magazine and just a bit smaller than the weekly in size. Another worthwhile title is The Great LIFE Photographers a stunning book of six hundred images all taken by the magazines cameramen over the decades.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Far Eastern promise

Bettina Richter, who edited this interesting poster book, says in her Introduction that Japanese posters have long fascinated western creative types because of the mixing of very graphic character of hand-written letters, Japanese visual culture and from the sixties the slowly increasing influence of western commercial art.  The 137 well chosen in the book certainly show a very broad range of influences and design, pages eighteen and nineteen show five from 1955 to 1961 with very striking abstractions for Nikon cameras, Idea graphic arts magazine and the peaceful use of nuclear power, pages thirty-eight and thirty-nine has eight designed by Ikko Tanaka from 1968 to 1993 using a mix of Japanese art styles, lettering and abstract shapes.

The book wouldn't be complete without Yusaku Kamekura's famous 1964 Tokyo Olympic posters though these were designed for an international audience so the red sun is the only national emblem used, three are reproduced.  I noticed an interesting aspect to many posters in the book, it's not immediately  obvious what the message is, probably because lots of them are for concepts rather than selling branded goods that would feature a logo somewhere.

The book is volume twenty-six in the Zurich poster museum collection and different from the other books because it features work from Asia (though book thirteen looked at Chinese typography).  The posters are printed on gloss paper with a mix of one, two or four to a page.  The back pages acts as an Index with designer credits, dates and sizes. 

The book is an excellent short introduction to Japanese poster art. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

It's alleged to have been reported by reliable but as yet unconfirmed sources that...

...fill in the rest of the headline yourself, the wackier the better because you'll be competing with the masters of the genre at the Weekly World News who produced gems like: The Statue of Liberty is getting a boob job; The Last Supper was a paint by numbers picture; E.T.s phoning home is costing taxpayers millions; Man's brain sucked out by vacuum cleaner! My favourite is: Crop circles appear in men's chest hair!

The book reproduces some of the funniest pages from the tabloid supermarket weekly. Started in 1979 by Generoso Pope Jr who was reluctant to junk an old black and white printing press so he created the weekly, it managed to sell about 1,200,000 in the eighties and then sales slowly declined until the print edition closed in 2007. Over the years the old favourites kept on and on, Elvis, Bigfoot, UFOs, Hilary Clinton and from 1992 onwards Bat boy was a real regular. It's not just the wild headlines and heavily airbrushed photos that grabbed the readers because the stories ran to hundreds of words which did their best to maintain some sort of credibility despite the fantasy.

Considering the bizarre nature of the material I found it odd that unlike British tabloids the WWN didn't go in for off-beat headlines, there's nothing to compete against the Sun's 'Why a salesgirl tried to batter flashing fishmonger's codpiece' or 'Crumpet voluntary bandsman 21 has bit of oompah with pal's wife 45' but of course these stories only really ran because some copy-editor came up with a great headline. American papers tend to play it straight though the daily New York Post, in an edition from April 1983, came up with 'Headless body in topless bar'.

The book is nicely produced and fortunately all the text is readable despite the reduced page size from the original tabloid and you'll get a free page because 92 is repeated on page 253.