9 March 2012

Fancypants photobooks..

.. and their affordable cousins. Whilst rummaging through the bookshelves at work recently, I came across two stapled, pamphlet-type publications that caught my eye. I can't say why particularly, except that they appeared to concern photography exclusively (which only a small proportion of our books usually do) and the cover designs (one of which you can see above) are really lovely – very simple and slightly old-fashioned, but lovely. the Art that threatened Art, in particular, has this strange arrangement of archaeological 'finds' on the cover, photographed in such a way that, as the back cover copy remarks, they communicate 'a curious animation' - this complex, inexplicable and slightly surreal image had me hooked.

Anyway, it turns out that these two, modest books are something of a find and, without wanting to sound like a one-woman Hayward Publishing marketing team, I'd recommend seeking them out (I found one here for the princely sum of £1.51..) Published in 1988, the pamphlets were originally released to accompany two small touring shows in the UK, curated by critic, photographer and picture editor Bruce Bernard. These shows, in turn, were inspired by the publication, in 1985, of Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (White Oak Press), by all accounts the mother of all photobooks. Authored by Pierre Praxine (curator of said collection) and with plates by fine printer Richard Benson, the book could be had for $2,500. Yep, you heard me, $2,500 dollars.

This monster photo-tome contains 199 plates by over 100 photographers. It was produced in a limited edition of 1,200 copies and is set apart for collectors and book nerds by the absurdly good quality of printing, with many of the reproductions reportedly coming close in effect to the original works themselves. The Gilman Paper Company bought an offset printing press specially and had it installed in Richard Benson's HOUSE for the printing process, which he describes in technical detail both in the book itself and in the pamphlets above-mentioned. The black-and-white prints were made in up to six colours, each of which was mixed individually. Some of the images, each of which was printed individually, went through the press eight times, in an exhaustive effort to reproduce the tonal variations and surface textures of the original prints, and the whole things was printed on two different stocks.
And I complain when we have to do two rounds of image proofs for a book..

So, to cut a long story short, Bruce Bernard saw the book and recognized the possibility of touring Richard Benson's prints. South Bank Centre (as it was then) organised the show and produced two little wee publications to go with it. These are illustrated with, ahem, more reserve than the original Photographs, with just 8 images in the Art that threatened Art. However, these images alone are beautiful, a tantalising insight into the Gilman Collection itself, and are accompanied by fantastic descriptive captions by Bernard. He has a real gift for condensing, into just a few words, how the formal qualities of a photograph both communicate to us the original conditions of its making, and transform into aesthetic experience for the viewer.  His description of Carlton E. Watkins' Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons (c. 1868-69), with its 'preoccupation with mass' and 'squirming seals' poetically evokes how this borderline weird image transcends its commercial and documentary origins.

So, the Art that threatens Art documents some of the early, mostly nineteenth-century, works in the Gilman Collection and the second leaflet, a Leap in the Light, focusses on the twentieth century. There is a far more complete account of the collection in the Met's survey title The Waking Dream, which was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name in 1993 – it's also worth mentioning that the Met now own the entire Gilman collection – but these books are a good taster and appendix to the bigger volume. Bernard is good on debunking clichés and generalisations about nineteenth-century photography, commenting on the 'variety of hue' in works we dismiss as monochrome. While you might not agree with his every assertion and judgement, he is a powerful defender of photography as an expressive artform ('it is even... an expression of temperament to take great pains over photographing an eclipse of the sun'), and of good photo-reportage, free of 'picturesque banality'. In a Leap, Bernard also gives a potted history of twentieth-century photographic feuds and antagonisms, focussing on the competing demands of 'worldly' commercial photographic enterprises and the lone artisans plying their trade (Atget being a prime example).

These are tiny 'books' with short texts. They don't cover anything much beyond the 1960s and they are not even large enough to qualify as introductions to the Gilman collection. They're beautiful though and, for the price, worth looking out as a bit of exhibition/ photo-history!