Sunday, 29 April 2018

See how the military see

These three titles of Wylie's military/communication series were originally sold as individual books ('British watchtowers', 'Outposts' and 'North warning system') but they are much cheaper if you buy the box set.

The work was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum and the Ministry of Defence (both in the UK) to make a record of contemporary military surveillance and electronic communications in three very varied locations: South Amagh, Northern Ireland; Kandahar Province, Afghanistan; Cape Kakiviak, northern Labrador. The last place is not in a combat zone but a mountainous region inside the arctic circle. I thought British watchtowers the most interesting of the three books, especially as part of the 2001 to 2007 peace process all the towers have been dismantled so Wylie's photos are probably the only creative photographic record of their existence.

There was certainly no finesse in the visual appearance of these towers and that seems to be deliberate to tell South Amagh folk "We're watching you". The buildings in towns all had a covering of wire mesh several feet away from the concrete structure. In the countryside the towers were positioned on the highest ground for greatest surveillance area, with communications masts as an integral part of each site. 'Outposts' in Kandahar provide a completely different scenario from the lush greens of the South Amagh countryside. The watchtowers blend in beautifully with the browns of the Afghanistan mountains and desert plains which seems devoid of any trees. The photos of South Amagh and Kandahar are mostly taken some distance from the towers and frequently looking down on the compounds.

'North warning system' is probably the weakest of the three books, there are only eighteen photos, all taken from a helicopter with the first twelve just showing a minute structure in a white landscape. It seems Wylie didn't land to take some close-ups of the tower with a dome on top and two other domes on the ground. It wasn't clear from the very short bit of text whether the place is manned or not, probably not as there is nothing there except rock and snow and electronics can provide all the necessary information of an impending attack.

The three books all get the usual Steild treatment, excellent paper, printing (with a two hundred screen) and binding and they provide a fine photographic record of contemporary military activity.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Street seen

The book's overdesign includes these tiny initials on the right-hand page for every  photographer, the above is for Lee Friedlander. It's pure designer whimsey

The book was originally published in 2010 and priced at a rather extravagant fifty-five dollars, now, years later it's a bookstore dust-catcher available at less than ten dollars. The nine street photographers each get ten photos though oddly Robert Frank only has eight. The more well known names have photos reproduced many times like Frank's 1955 New Orleans trolley, Winogrand's 1967 Central Park zoo or Lyon's 1966 Route 12, Wisconsin (the one with the back shot of five bikers).

All of the photos show a snapshot of the nation during the sixties though Frank's photos are from the 1955/56 but he was a major influence on the eight others in the book. There are some themes in the photos, Davidson and Withers look at segregation during the sixties, Berndt covers Boston's red light district, Lyon and the bikers and Friedlander has his usual quirky shots of street scenes only he can find.

I think it's worth picking up a copy for some good examples social documentary style photography but I though the book's production rather over-done. How many titles these days have book ribbons? 'Streetwise' has three: red; white; blue. There are fifty three blank pages (mostly white but some in red or grey) out of the book's 186 pages, the back pages have a spread on each photographer with a short essay and thumbnails of their photos with copyright information, all of this could have gone on the blank page at the start of each chapter. Andy Grunberg's interesting intro, over eight pages, has the text in different line lengths and generally over fussy typography. Fortunately none of this design extravaganza detracts too much from some excellent photos throughout the pages

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Moving words

A delightful book about a librarian who had the bright idea of starting the first mobile library in 1905. Mary Titcomb became the head librarian in Maryland's Washington County in 1901 and she was there in Hagerstown when the Free Library opened its doors in August. Though it was a success Mary was concerned that more than 25,000 people in rural parts of the County had no real access to the library so why not take the books to them.
The original mobile library was horse-drawn wagon and carried about two hundred titles but also cases of books to be left at some of the seventy-five deposit sites along the route, places like a post-office or general store where the locals could take and return books. There's an interesting point in the story where it says that a farming family could borrow up to thirty titles at a time. The travelling library was clearly a success and eventually it became a motorized van that carried five hundred books and travelled each route three times a year. The idea spread to other States, all thanks to Mary's bright idea and on page thirty-nine there is a colored photo of a bookmobile (actually a bus) taken in 2016.
Though this book is really for children I was interested in it because of its production. Designer Melissa Barrett has created a collage for each page using sepia photos of personalities, street scenes and the countryside, old maps, postcards and other ephemera and they really give a lovely period flavor throughout the book. (A slight mistake on page seven where a sepia photo of Mary's brother covers most of a five cent stamp from 1945.)


Monday, 9 April 2018

Posters making a point

One of the fundamental points about a poster is the quick recognition of the message and it's a pity that designers of so many of the posters in this large-size paperback haven't really understood that concept. Too many of them put across a worthwhile idea in a confusing way, for example, 'Stop child labor' says it with rather unclear child-like lettering or 'A climate of control and a climate outa control' presents this message with coloured lettering in a near psychedelic painting.

All the rather bland and confusing posters show up several that I think really work and put the message across like Alexis Lovely 'hold hand guns', a yellow page with black type across the middle and the letters gun scribbled across. Elizabeth George cleverly combines a graphic and the statement: 'Climate change is not a myth' with the o of not turned into a globe and the down strokes of MYTH overlaid on chimneys belching black smoke. All Romani (from Tehran) uses fingerprints to create the profile of a dove with a piece of vegetation in its beak and 'Vote for peace' at the bottom of the poster.

The fifty posters have something for everyone of a liberal, leftish persuasion and the publishers had the clever idea of perforating all the posters so they can be removed easily for framing or stuck somewhere for others to see the message. The back of each poster has a credit and some background detail about the designer.