Friday, May 25, 2007

Many Are Called 1966 vs. Many Are Called 2004

Every once in a while I will be comparing an original edition of a title to a reissue and see how they exist in both forms. One of the benefits of the popularity of photo book collecting is that many publishers are reissuing titles that have been long out of print. In the past few years we have seen Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Susan Meiselas, Joel Sternfeld and Lewis Baltz titles dusted off and put back on the press.

Some of these have been facsimile editions meaning that they hold true to the original edit, sequence, design and feel of the original except perhaps deviating by taking advantage of improved printing technologies. I enjoy this approach to reissuing. Other reissues change the edit, often by adding images, or adding text in an attempt to “improve” to work. There is an argument to be made in favor of that. For me though, it is informative to see how the artist responded to the work in book form at the time of making the original edition.

What if Evans’ American Photographs was reissued with 30 more images? Would that improve the work? Why do we feel it necessary to improve a work anyway? The obvious answer is that, as artists, we probably are more sensitive to the flaws in a work that we feel are obvious to others but I think something is to be said for accepting those flaws and letting them exist. Our response to old work many years after it is created is always more informed, so where does the cycle end?

The title in this post is Walker Evans' Many Are Called originally released in 1966 by Houghton Mifflin Company and The Riverside Press. The reissue was produced in 2004 by Yale University Press and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The edit and sequencing of the photographs is the same as the original. It is in the trim size and printing where the major changes have been made. The original (judging from the soft cover copy of the 1st edition) is approximately 7 X 8.5 inches in size. The new edition is 8 X 9.5 inches so it has a noticeable difference in size. This new edition also adds a couple essays and other information regarding the plates that create a sense of a “book that is studying a book” instead of just presenting the work. As a scholarly title it is interesting. Luc Sante contributes what I think is a really great, often poetic essay on reading the work and book. Jeff Rosenheim, the curator of photographs at the Met adds to the back-story regarding Evans’ process of creating the photos and the publishing of the book as well.

As a title that exists as the work intended, I think this reissue slights that by self consciously emphasizing the importance of the work with the inclusion of the two essays. James Agee’s introduction to the original provided all that may be necessary in regards to text. The two added texts either just reiterate Agee’s sentiment or dwell on the “study” of the work. They are interesting but re-contextualize the book from the original.

The biggest mistake with the new edition is the alteration of the cover art. The original is wonderfully simple with its biblical reference. The type is strong and demands reverence. The overlay of the “Lex. Ave. Local” is a nice subtle aberration to the static, heavy feel of the title. I think, from a design standpoint, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

The new edition features and image (Pal Tells How Gungirl Killed) with the title sandwiched between the two figures in the photo. Although the font is the same it is smaller and squeezed into the layout. I sense that Yale and the Met figured that if they went with the original black cover that the book wouldn’t sell as well. Maybe they are right. I think they are wrong. I believe that most people who would buy this title are already very familiar with the original or familiar in general with Walker’s work that that would be the selling point.

That aside, the printing of the new edition is vastly improved from the original edition. The photographs have gradations and subtleties that were literally eaten by the original. The new printing also achieves a richness in the prints that the original lacked. The black tonalities in the original were always a bit anemic looking.

It is a really wonderful book that I am happy was chosen to live another few years.

One small potential benefit of the reissue phenomenon might be that booksellers in the act of searching for the pricing of a title might mistake the original edition for the reprint. I only mention this because somehow, I miraculously bought my first edition soft cover of Many Are Called in a Park Slope bookstore about two months ago for $35.00. The new edition retails for about the same price. How often do you think that will happen? Lucky me.

Book Available Here (Many Are Called 2004)

Book Available Here (Many Are Called 1966)