Saturday, 27 February 2016

Just add color

Historically photography to most people is black and white but look through these pages and be amazed at the photos from decades ago and in color. First off the obvious thing was to hand-color mono prints, OK for the masses but photograhers before 1900 were experimenting with film to create something like real life. Page sixteen has a panorama of a French town taken by Ducos du Hauron in 1877, the caption says it is the first color image of an outdoor scene. The Lumiere brothers, in 1907, were the first to sell a commercial product, the autochrome, that enabled photographers to take reasonable color photos. A really nice feature of the book is that all the images dealing with the early development of the medium (up to the mid-1920s) look so lovely, with their softness and warmth of reds and ochres. This rapidly disappeared in a decade or so as film technology advanced and delivered a product that captured precise edges.

Once it was technically perfected color took off but mostly in the commercial world of advertising and publishing, especially magazines. The art world ignored vulgar color (it's so life like!) until John Szarkowski's 1976 MoMA exhibition of photos by Willam Eggleston. The book takes the subject right up to date with the last chapter looking a digital work.

The author considers color, least in the photos selected, in the art sense (including documentary material) rather than looking too closely at the popular use of the medium with Kodachrome and other mass market film producers. I thought the image selection throughtout the pages first-class, lots of work from famous names but luckily not their best known pictures. This gives the subject a freshness and makes it much more interesting.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The controlled look

A reasonable introduction to the way four totalitarian governments presented their public face.  The book joins a slowly expanding library of titles dealing with State graphics in China, Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union.  Steve Heller had an earlier look at Germany with his 2000 published book 'The Swastika: Symbol beyond redemption' and some of that is probably included in these pages, Prestel and Tashen have both published titles covering East German, North Korean and Chinese propaganda posters. 

Of the four countries surveyed maybe the odd one out is Italy, the images in the book don't seem to have any distinctive feel about them, perhaps Mussolini was content to have his face everywhere and that was enough.  So completely different to the Nazi way of presenting their leader and political culture.  Pages fifty-two and fifty-three show a 1938 graphics manual published by the German Labor Front showing the correct types to use: Fractur; Rotunda; Futura.  Rotunda in particular seems the type of choice in so much printed matter throughout the German chapter.

The Soviet Union is the clear winner for eye-catching persuasion.  The 1917 revolution swept away existing design styles and new European art 'isms' influenced several designers to start afresh with bold graphics and especially photomontages.  Alexander Rodchenko, El Lissitzky and Varvara Stepanova produced posters and photobooks that still look exciting today.  Photography was an important part of Soviet propaganda but this didn't seem to influence the revolution in communist China where paintings inspired the masses, paintings and illustrations were part of their culture for centuries.  Chairman Mao, peasants and the military were always shown striding confidently into the future (with or without Mao's Little Red Book). 

Most of the images are reproductions of printed matter: posters; book covers (and some inside spreads from illustrative ones) newspapers; magazines; postcards and more.  Non-printed matter includes badges, paintings and statues.  There are several interesting whole page photos, rather wasted because they are just used to carry smaller images of print material.  Though the book was published by Phaidon it was designed by a New York company so avoids the usual tiny text and plenty of empty page space that is typical of their titles.

Friday, 19 February 2016

A brick of a book

A rather over lavish production when it only shows images of twenty-two Lego models.  The square format book is mostly gloss black pages (good for attracting finger prints) that examine the models.  Each gets an introduction spread followed by four or five spreads that have a short essay and photo of the real building, photos of the model and with several a beautiful, fascinating exploded view with arrowed captions detailing the construction and the types of bricks used.  The last spread for each model has a big color photo of the real building and some text.  It's rather unfortunate that these photos vary in quality unlike all the model photos which were taken in a studio and have a uniform look.

Most of the models were created by Adam Reed Tucker, they were then worked on by builders who find the best way of producing the model using LEGO.  Tucker makes a very interesting comment about the Guggenheim Museum: 'This was probably the trickiest of all the buildings in the series to interpret in LEGO bricks. The key is that the model is a representation, not an exact replica.'  As they are not exact replicas excuses what I think are some of problems with the models, so many of the real buildings have curves that are difficult to create using right-angle bricks.  The Guggenheim's spiral gallery is abandoned and replaced with six frisbee like shapes.  The bottom to top tapering of Chicago's John Hancock Center is replaced with four reducing in thickness cubes and the distinctive lattice work on each side is gone.  The buildings that I think work best are the Rockefeller Center and Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, both are essentially right-angled structures though the Villa has a large curved section on the roof but the model creates this quite successfully.

It seems the model builders try to use existing LEGO bricks rather than create ones that only apply to a model and can't really be used with any LEGO.  The sail like roofs of the Sydney Opera House have curved bricks mostly used for the fuselage of an aircraft or rocket ship models.  It's a shame that any aerials on the top of some buildings don't have a much thinner rod like piece (look at the book's cover) those on the Empire State, Hancock Center, Willis Tower, Burj Khalifa, Seattle Space Needle and the Eiffel Tower look really out of proportion to the rest of these buildings.

Will the next twenty or so models get a volume two?  Possibly, though it needn't be as lavish as this one with its heavy slipcase, all the text in silver ink and basically reprinting all the information about the real building that comes  with each model's construction booklet.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The artist totally revealed

An incredibly thorough overview of Rosenquist's career, least up until 2003 when the book published. The three essays at the front of the book place him in the context of American pop art and the development of his unique style of painting over the decades. It's the reproduced paintings that made the book come alive for me, 271 of them which includes four fold-out pages. It's worth saying that Rosenquist's paintings are huge, for example his famous 'F-111' is eighty-six feet wide but when reduced to book size the work has a precision worthy of the Photorealist school.

I've always like the mix of ad art and packaging with its flamboyant colors and typography that he blends in with background abstract shapes and patterns. Frequently a painting evolves over several feet with one theme on the left morphing into one or more before the eye finally gets to the right-hand edge, 'The swimmer in the econ-mist' (1997-8) is a good example of this. During the eighties Rosenquist developed a crosshatch style: cutting ad art, frequently a model's face, into long pointed strips and overlapping them on a floral background. These must be mesmerising to see with their dazzling color and shapes, especially if they are several feet wide. Nicely throughout the book's painting pages there are six short illustrated essays explaining the various themes that appear in his work.

A fascinating chapter is Source collages. Thirty pages with reproductions of the accurate roughs Rosenquist creates on what is probably stiff cardboard or wood. The rough for 'The swimmer in the econ-mist' is shown and you can see the lines drawn across it to create grid that is also on the final canvas so each part of the image is in the correct place.

The back pages have the usual bibliography, index of paintings and exhibitions and an interesting dateline biography of Rosenquist with 181 captioned mono photos. I read the book originally, since then I've looked through it several times over the years, each visit is a rewarding experience looking at these amazing paintings.