Wednesday, 25 July 2018

A few dull covers

The book has a sixteen page bibliography, twenty-eight pages of notes, references galore to mid-century culture and especially pop culture and for what: a visual analysis of almost 150 dull LP covers that the two authors have salvaged from record store bargain bins and second-hand sellers. Very few of these covers are worth a second look as they are just a bland confection churned out by record company marketing departments. Even the ones from the giants of the industry like: Columbia; RCA; Capitol are very poor examples of their output if they are meant to reflect mid-century living.

Capitol, in particular, put out quite stunning covers in the fifties and sixties. They were well designed with quality photography or illustrations combined with creative typography that made their covers sparkle and their backs were the best looking in the industry. The only Capitol one in the book that I would consider well designed is Tone poems of color with Frank Sinatra conducting Gordon Jenkins Orchestra (musically it's nothing special though) designed by Saul Bass. Some of the covers do have some professionally taken photos but usually ruined by hopelessly unimaginative typography. A lot of the covers could well be included in those websites that feature the world's worst LP covers.

The bulk of the book are spreads with a good reproduction of the cover (reduced down to 6.5 inches) on the right-hand page and some text on the opposite page. The authors sort of come unstuck here because most of this text just describes the cover image which the readers can see anyway, making a lot of the copy more or less redundant. I think it would have made sense to have chapter about how companies marketed LPs decades ago to a middle-class audience. The majors had huge back catalogs of tracks and it was necessary to come up with plausible ways of selling and reselling this material. For example RCA did a twelve album set called For hi-fi living featuring easy listening orchestras from the US and UK, all the tracks would also work for Columbia's Music for gracious living. The cover photos for both these LP sets were just generic images. A lot of the covers are from budget labels with a bland musical content bought for next to nothing within the music industry, photos from image libraries are used with the LP title and tracks just dropped anywhere on the photo. Luckily we don't get to see just how bad the backs are.

I'm surprised that the prestigious MIT press published this book of bland covers but that is not to say the theme of the book is wrong, it could have been interesting if there was a much more objective choice of covers, primarily from the major labels, budget ones had no interest in putting across a message with their output.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

A tasty slice of the Big Apple

Evelyn Hofer (1922-2009) was one of those photographers who took wonderful pictures but in a quiet way, she never acquired fame in the sense of taking art photos like many of her contemporaries. One of her specialties was photographing a city in conjunction with a writer, during the fifties and sixties there were books on London, Florence, Dublin, Washington and country ones covering Mexico and Spain. She took photos for the 1965 New York proclaimed, written by V S Prichett. I haven't seen that book but I assume there are several in this Steidl edition that appeared in the Prichett one.
This new book has ninety-three photos (twenty-three in color) which show off the city between 1963 and 1981 and I thought some of the exterior architectural ones were particularly good (helped, of course, by 175 screen tritone printing to capture the detail) either rows of houses, office blocks, skyscrapers, roads and bridges. Hofer does a wonderful line in portraits, too, beautifully framed with the subject looking at the camera in a relaxed way whether it's an elevator man, garment delivery boy or a cop.
There are plenty of New York photo books but Hofer's pictures join those special few titles that capture the feel of the city with imagination and honesty.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Plains panorama

Perhaps the sub-head to this book should have said Towns, villages and hamlets of the North American Great Plains because the majority of the forty-one photos were taken in Canada, where photographer Singer was born. There are, though, fifteen taken in the US in  North and South Dakota, Montana, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Kansas. Of those in Canada most are from Saskatchewan.

Grant Arnold's back of the book essay reveals how Singer took these perspective-less photos. Having found an interesting Main Street he took an exposure every three to five feet in parallel to a few buildings on one side of the street and then uses Photoshop to seamlessly join them into one long strip. The photos were made into display prints up to ten feet long and Singer was at first doubtful about seeing them in book form but I think they work because of its extreme landscape shape (fifteen inches).

Singer captures some fascinating structures which are made more interesting because of the straight-on presentation and also helped because there are eleven fold-out pages forty-four inches wide. Most of the buildings seem to be wood frame with the occasional brick building from the thirties, either a bank or maybe a small department store. The flatness of the landscape is emphasized by the sky filling in the gaps between all the structures. The ten last photos were taken in winter with the Main Streets floating on an almost white sky and highway below. Oddly there isn't a satellite dish to be seen anywhere throughout the book,  maybe Singer deliberately chose premises without them .

The lack of perspective and the use of software to create these photos suggest they are more intriguing as a technical exercise rather than art photos of the Plains in the tradition of Wright Morris or David Plowden. They certainly offer a unique and different look to this huge part of America and Canada.

The book comes in an attractive  sturdy, open either end slipcase, if you are buying it pre-used check with the seller that it's included.

Incidentally I spent an enjoyable few hours finding these same buildings on Google's Street View and in many cases nothing seems to have changed since Singer photographed them in the early years of this century. Street View allowed me to see the other side of the street and pick up a few quirky visual treats like the large colorful sign for the Palace movie theater in Spur, Texas which is only a thin profile in the book's photo and Springwater, Saskatchewan is near invisible with, according to the net, only thirteen buildings and a population of fifteen.