Tuesday, 28 February 2017

I don't think he really wanted this

Book three.

Book three.

Book three.

Book three.

Book three

Book three

Book three.

Book three.

An expensive box-set of three books. Two are facsimiles of Eugene Smith's original mock-ups and the third book has some essays about him and largish thumbnails of all the images in the other two books. Throughout this third book the mock-ups are referred to as a maquette (which a dictionary defines as a small reference statue of a potentially larger work) what Smith made were dummies as they are known in the publishing business. I've used the words mock-up for this review. Now consider this scenario:

A very professional and hugely creative photojournalist, after many years of frustration dealing with Picture Editors and Art Editors, decided to create a book of photos which would reveal his thoughts on the nature of this art form. To get it printed he needed to show potential publishers what the book would look like so he starts a mock-up with rough copies of his photos in various sizes to be pasted onto the blank pages. Because it used fairly thick paper the mock-up rapidly became quite thick which meant starting another one. The two mock-ups eventually had three hundred and forty-one photos that summed up his best work. He considered the layouts of each spread, size of the photos and their sequence to be extremely important. Unfortunately publishers showed no interest and the photographer moved on to other assignments. When he died all of his work was acquired by a university.

Years later a publisher decided that the time was right to print a book of the photographer's work. There were the two mock-ups which showed which photos went on each spread, their size, layout and all the photos were available in a university archive. The photographer would have been pleased that his work was going to be published using quality paper and printing like other photo books. Then something extraordinary happened, instead of printing the book the photographer actually wanted the publisher's printed the mock-ups and sold them at an excessively high price.

If Eugene Smith was alive in 2013 and the Uni of Texas Press said they were going to print his mock-up rather than a proper book of his work he would have laughed in their faces (and then maybe called his attorney).

Why wasn't it picked up by a publisher in the early sixties, probably because the book is, at first glance confusing (especially if anyone looked at the rough photo copies in his thick mock-ups). Smith wanted a short essay at the start of the book, a draft of this is in the third volume, with the rest of the pages using his photos which are not sequenced historically but a mixture of assignments and family portraits though the last few dozen cover the war in the Pacific. There was no text on the photo spreads.

William Johnson writes in the Introduction to the third book that Smith was challenging traditional ideas about layout and design. He wasn't a publication designer and it shows. The Chronology in the book says that in 1959 Carole Thomas became a sketch artist for the Big Book layout but these are not much different from spreads seen in the Family of Man book published in 1955 or in Life magazine layouts in the fifties.

This box set is only really of interest to academic libraries and maybe publication designers (which is why I have a copy). To expect anyone else to get much insight in Eugene Smith's amazing creativity and humanity by looking at very poor photo copies is a mistake though there is a slight redeeming factor in the third book because it's possible to get a feel of what the photographer was trying to achieve by looking through the sequence of excellently printed thumbnails.


Saturday, 25 February 2017

Get gas

In the influential 1975/6 exhibition New topographics there were only two gas station photos (Robert Adams and John Schott) which is odd as these buildings were an integral part of the American landscape and as David Freund says in a brief essay in book two, a small town might not have a school, grocery store or post office but everywhere had a gas station. These buildings with their little concrete islands in the front for the pumps frequently became more than energy sellers, they also sold food, ice, soda pop, daily and monthly publications as well automotive products and don't forget the clean restrooms (decades ago free State road maps, too).

Freund took these fascinating photos during 1978 to 1981 driving through forty States. The four books (Midwest; West; East; South) contain 574 photos selected from about two thousand and they reveal the gas station in the commonplace landscape. They are though, much more than just a head-on shot of the self-service pumps and the building behind. Many are taken from behind the pumps looking at what is on the other side of the highway and beyond, the ones I particularly liked show the highway disappearing into the distance with highway furniture, franchise operations, used car lots and signs everywhere.

The architecture of a gas station uses lots of uprights, for a gas company name and prices, holding a canopy over the pumps, lighting et cetera and Freund takes advantage of these with some wonderful photos placing his camera close to the upright which divides the composition into sections. These are not static photos either, so many include people: filling their gas tank; talking; fixing a fault; delivering gas; coming out of the station entrance holding a newspaper or just walking along the sidewalk.

This is another first-class box-set from Steidl. The photos are one to a page with a brief caption naming the State and year, printed tritone with a 175 screen, though I would have preferred a finer screen to bring out the detail that saturates so many of these images.

A remarkable photo collection from the recent past of the American landscape and its everywhere gas stations.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Just your type

The six point numbers and letters used on the grid printed in pink on white paper and only readble in daylight.

A rather brief but interesting survey of all those characters that make up a type font after the twenty-six upper and lower case letters and numbers. Predictably so many of them originated in the mists of time but they mostly kept a reasonably constant shape but interestingly it's only since the arrival of the pc that the design of some of them have become meaningless. The copyright (c inside a circle) in the Screenex Regular typeface could probably be ignored legally as a copyright sign or the section mark (two vertically interlocking Ss) in ABF Petit Regular is more an abstract shape.

Each character starts on a spread with the left-hand page giving a brief historical summery and the right-hand page has six examples in various fonts, nicely these examples go from the normally acceptable to extreme versions, like the two I mentioned above. A few characters run over to another spread with twelve typeface examples.

I've given the book three stars because of the rather amateurish production. Clearly it was a mistake to use Dayglow pink to print the example and name of each character on the left-hand pages. Outside of daylight these are unreadble. Even worse are the grids on the right-hand pages with the different typeface examples. The key for the grid and list below to identify the types are in six point and in pink ink on the book's white paper. So, a book about type that is meant to communicate lacks the clarity to do so.

A better book though admittedly a rather exhaustive study (it has seventy pages of Notes) is Keith Houston's Shady characters published in 2013.