Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Three Penny Review #96: Robert Frank

File this post under: "More Robert Frank stuff I need to fill my life with."

Back in Winter 2004, the charming literary quarterly The Three Penny Review illustrated its Issue #96 entirely with Robert Frank photographs. The photos are mostly from his London Wales book published by Scalo (2003) and re-printed by Steidl (2007).

Throughout the issue, 14 of Frank's photos accompany various articles and although it may not seem like much, as a whole it is a nice way to experience these few images. The Three Penny Review is printed on heavy weight newsprint, folded into quarters and this format suits the roughness of subject and tone.

The Three Penny Review and other literary quarterlies like Granta and The Paris Review publish portfolios of photographers in each issue. Three Penny however is the only one that I know that dedicates entire issues to a single photographer to be featured along with the articles. Issue #118 from the Fall of this year features work from South America in the 1970s from the photographer (and my publishing partner) Ed Grazda.

Back issues can be ordered online directly from Three Penny.

The Three Penny Review Back Issues

Friday, September 26, 2008

Errata Editions On-Press: Day Five

This will probably be my last day of printing and I do not feel relieved but a bit sad. There will be a lot about this place to miss when I leave tomorrow. The batphone scaring the hell out of me as I nod off asleep. The giggles I get from the passing women as I speed walk to a press check. The smell of the inks and the headaches they induce. The lunches with Alice and Iris as we sit in uncomfortable silence trying to connect cultures.

I've learned so much in such a short time that my head is swimming with new information. I've learned to love the process even with the stress. I implore all young bookmakers to go on press when they are printing your work. I do not see how you can regret it. Anyway, the phone is ringing...

9:30 pm. Checked three of Sophie's sheets and they are looking really good. This book gave us so much trouble scanning and finding the correct screening strategy that to see a finished stack with good color balance and no problems feels more of an accomplishment than the others. Tomorrow we will be finishing the rest probably taking us into the night.

11:20 pm. We were supposed to be stopping early but now I get to approve of the dustjackets. I just approved the sheet but I think it reveals a bad decision on my part. Each jacket shows the cover of the original book and I have allowed the age and wear to those originals to be evident. I did not photoshop the images to try to make the books seem "new again" so to speak. This series is going to show some very old books that will show wear and tear so I thought 'OK, let it show to a certain degree.' Part of the charm of older books is seeing that they are effected by time and use.

Well, I am still holding to that notion but the copy of the Killip book that we used to scan the cover has some yellowing to the left edge, which at full size looks fine, but at the reduced size starts to look more like a printing mistake than a sign of age. I was thinking we could adjust the levels to minimize it but all of the color balances of the other covers would have been effected because they are all in the same adjustment line on the sheet. I had no real alternative that wouldn't have involved a lot of time and expense. I just thought 'To err is human. Perfection is divine, and, Use photoshop next time a-hole,' and I signed off on it. The first blemish. Baby's got four toes on one foot.

Meanwhile back at my guest house, I got so worked up about the Killip dustjacket because: a) It's the friggin' cover image, and b) that meant that the Special Edition tip-on is going to have the same damn problem. As I was beating myself up over being so stupid, the phone rang for the check of the tip-ons.

I made my way to the press check with my stomach full of acid imagining the litany of embarrassing complaints I would hear from people who buy the books and when I rounded the corner and saw the sheet I couldn't believe my eyes -- same color balances and levels but the difference in paper stock made the left edge aging much less apparent in the tip-on. I almost couldn't see it at first. So one minute I am upset and the next excited again.

Note: If we sell out and do a second printing of the Killip trade edition I am going to photoshop out the aging color on the jacket. That one change will be what determines the "true" first edition from the later. Ha! I can already see what will no doubt be the hilarious ABE listings.

10:56 am. I've had some sleep but now that I am allowed to, I can't. Went to bed at around 2:30 am only to wake at three hours later with no chance of getting back to sleep. Its like an addiction.

I was told we'd be printing by 9:00 am but I have now heard that the first check of the day will be at around 11:30, right before lunch. I am anxious to continue the good work on Sophie's book that we started yesterday. I am afraid of losing momentum in my ability to make judgments.

11:56 am. Just returned from the first check of the day and I realize now why I have had a headache all morning, the sample finals and "make-ready" sheets I have been gathering over the past few days have made my guest room smell like a print shop. The ink is laid on so thick on the make-ready's that they'll probably reek for months.

For those of you who will eventually do this you'll find the computer driven press communication amazing. Basically, at the workstation there is a large inclined table with a daylight balanced hood for viewing the sheets. At the front of that table is a long string of green level indicators accessible by touchpad. The sheet is put onto the table and moved left until it hits a "stop" which keeps it in place. This lines up the sheet with the keypad and the line of color bars printed on the top of your sheets. You use those color bars to measure the individual CMYK densities with a densitometer.

If you look at the 2nd photo you'll see how the sheet can be broken up into separate rows. For every green adjustment line on the control board on the front of the table, corrections can be made for that individual little strip of the sheet extending from top to bottom. My sheet size could be broken up into about twenty rows. So, if an image or part of an image in a row needs a correction then you can adjust just for that. The control is incredible. I imagined before going on press that one change effects the whole sheet. The catch is though that adjustments can only run from top to the bottom of the sheet and not horizontally and whatever you adjust effects all else in the line.

6:02 pm. I am happy to announce that the first four titles in the Books on Books series are finished being printed. I was called to the pressroom for one last check which needed NO CORRECTIONS. The pressman nailed it first attempt. I signed them and asked Alice to hold up a sheet with the printer for a quick snap. I grabbed my stuff to leave and then I realized...

I'm locked out of my guest quarters again.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Errata Editions On-Press: Day Four

8:26 pm. I think I've been lucky to get two fine pressmen as my day and night shift operators. They speak almost no English so I always have a liaison with me to make my changes known. I don't even know their names but they are young, perhaps between 23 and 28. In fact, much of the workforce here seems to be around 20-30 years old and a very large percentage are women. Most live on-site in the worker's dormitories across the courtyard from where I am staying. Everyday at 11:30 am a wave of people walk to the commissary for lunch. That's the usual signal that I can have at least an hour of sleep uninterrupted.

3:20 am. More of the same for the last 5 hours. 4 checks and then my pressmen went to "lunch" at 1:30 am. Got a couple hours rest only to be awoken by the "Batphone" calling me to the pressroom for a check. Jumped out of bed, grabbed my bag with the original Evans book and dashed out the door only to discover that...I left my bloody room keys on the bed. Locked out at 3:00 am.

Attached was also the pass key to get into the printing facility. I managed to jump the turnstyle at the entrance and when I get to the pressroom, staring back at me were the first sheets of Chris Killip's book and not the expected last of the Evans sheets. Luckily they looked really good so without having the book near by as a guide (and after reciting a small prayer) I made a couple corrections (asked for a bit more black to get a better contrast: 1.7 to 1.90 - the opposite of what we did for the four color Atget book where we dropped the black down to 1.7) and signed off on the first sheet.

Gavin, my assistant for the night, walked back to the guest house with me and woke the caretaker from her deep sleep. Scowling she opened my door with the master key and shuffled off to bed with my repeated apologies trailing after her. I should give her something as a present but I see all I have is dry fiber biscuits that taste a bit like cardboard with a chewy manilla envelope filling. They would keep her regular at least.

So I see I am past the halfway point. Two books down. Two to go. First sheets of the third are looking very good. Time to celebrate with some tea and a pack of EDO™ Almond Crackers.

Now that I am well into printing In Flagrante I should tell you that Chris was the first to agree to do his book in the series. As I mentioned before I had made a mock-up of In Flagrante and Ed Grazda, who has known Chris for many years, took it up to Harvard to show him. I was dead scared of a straight rejection as he was the first we asked. I was out photographing around Brooklyn with a Fuji 6x9 when Ed called to say that Chris loved the project and said we could do it.

That quick acceptance set the project into motion with me brimming with confidence. If he had said no I wonder if this would have come about otherwise. So...thanks to Chris. He was the starting gun.

4:23 am. Another check and I have discovered something very informative. I've noticed a huge difference in the sharpness and clarity of the sheets coming off the press in relation to the last round of proofs we had done months ago. I don't know if it is a matter of the proofs coming from a Flatbed Proofing Press which I believe the sheets are actually set by hand for each pass through the press, or whether it is just a poorer quality machine/plate but one concern I have always had was the reduction of images and the loss of clarity and detail. The proof look good at normal to close up reading distance but when you put a loupe to the paper you see a drastic reduction of clarity. Some of the images seemed almost slightly pixelated and not just a dot pattern. BUT...the sheets coming off the actual press now are so tack sharp and clear that they make the proofs look more like impressionist paintings under the loupe. So lesson learned, be careful of how your proofs are made and how it might be vastly different when you actually print the book.

10:49 am. Alice is back as my liaison. She stayed up all night with me while I was printing the Atget book. Last night my liaison was Iris who is nice and has a great sense of color balance. Tonight was Gavin, a young man who is all smiles and pleasantries. I like Alice the best but she is a bit hard to communicate with because of my poor Chinese. That can be problematic when wanting her to act as the go-between for me and the pressman. I have learned to just read the densitometer and suggest corrected numbers by writing them in the margins of the proofs. No mistaking what I want then.

11:25 am. I am just waiting for a check. By my count there will be two more before the Killip book is done and we can proceed to Sophie Ristelhueber's book FAIT! The workers are now all going to lunch so I guess I will have to wait longer.

3:55 pm. Just now I have seen the first sheet from Fait and it looks really good. This is the book I was nervous about calling decisions on but the pressman had gotten us well into the ballpark before we were even at the workstation. Subtle corrections and the first sheet was signed. Shirley Chan one of the plant managers is by my side to help explain my corrections. Her English is fluent so I feel in good hands. The pressmen though are not my usual guys and I'm not sure I am going to click with these dudes. They didn't seem to like that I had corrections to their first sheets. I also had one of them grab the Fait book from my hands and start sweeping the pages bending a couple before I grabbed it back. Not a good way to make an impression on me.

We started late because of some press trouble. The press was in need of slight adjustments so I was taken to an extended lunch with several people from C+C. We ate about 7 different kinds of mushroom, "Chinese pizza," cooked cucumber and little potato cakes that are stuffed with corn (and pork). I ate well but my stomach had its mind on the first Fait sheets and returning to start. I was told that we are not going round the clock tonight but stopping at 10 pm so this will be a full nights sleep for me. I may even get through a few more pages of Cormac McCarthy's The Road which, on the plane, I blew through 112 pages in about ten minutes. Great book so it.

4:58 pm. Another check and successful sheet. Pressman are going to dinner so next will be in 2.5 hours. For three days I didn't have but a few moments to myself and now I have all the time in the world. The freedom feels - well - unnatural. Am I being indoctrinated and I don't even know it?

More tomorrow since I guess the day isn't going to be a whole lot longer.

Project background continued from Day 3:

The Final Stages

After the final design and all the content is in place the printer will send you "blues" or "bluelines." This is basically the entire book printed out on cheap paper and in poor quality so that any last minute changes or typos can be found, or any mistakes with design corrected. It is a sobering experience to receive a set of blues and discover several typos that slipped by many sets of eyes and many hours of proof-reading but that's what they are for.

After marking up the bluelines, they are sent back to the printer often with new layout files so they can be aware of the corrections you've made and make sure they've been addressed. From that point on it is time to pack and make sure your travel documents are in order.

The Economics (Do not read if you are easily discouraged)

One aspect of making a book I think is important to understand is the economics of putting a book out into the world and what you can expect as far as a financial return. I don't think I would be revealing any trade secrets by giving a basic financial breakdown of an average publishing project. Ready? Watch my hands as I make a lot of money disappear.

Lets say for the sake of easy round numbers you have produced a book that you are going to retail for $60.00. This means your actual book costs (production, design, printing costs etc) are around $12.00 per unit/book. A 5-time mark up from those costs is the usual guide for determining retail price.

So your $60.00 book exists and you want people to see it. Retail stores buy at a trade/wholesale discount which is on average 50% off cover price. So your $60.00 book is now worth $30.00.

If you use a distributor, the average distribution fee is around 30-35% of that 50% wholesale cost. So now your book after the distribution fee is actually worth $20.00.

Now from that remaining $20.00 you subtract your unit price (which we mentioned was $12.00) - so that leaves you with $8.00 clear profit per book.

Say you printed 1000 copies, that makes the potential profit $8000 dollars. Ca-ching!

$8000 dollars sounds great...I'll take it! Who wouldn't like a nice lump sum of 8 grand? I'll take that right to the bank thank you very much! But uh...remember that your book probably isn't going to sell out immediately. Could be that it never will or it may take upwards of 3-5 years. So your actually looking at $8000 dollars profit spread out over a very long time.

Hmmm...Is this why book publishing is notoriously difficult to turn a profit? Is this why over 90% of books will lose money for the publisher? Is this why established publishers will compare your book to one already published of similar subject and then run the numbers to see the sales potential instead of looking at your work in its own right? Is this why if you show a publisher work and they are interested they want you to pay for the production? Is this why Stephen Gill has created a truly great and impressive niche market for his work?

This is why young photographers like Gill and others are being creative by offering limited editions with prints or distributing it themselves through websites and blogs. Chances are unless your book sells out and goes into additional printings (where your unit production costs now drop significantly) your normal edition will barely pay for itself if it ever does. Remember 90% don't.

But to hell with turning a profit. You have a book! You have a perfect vehicle in which to put a body of work out into the world. It slips out of your grasp and becomes a part of the lives of others and it will live longer than you. What more could you want?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Errata Editions On-Press: Day Three

The palettes of printed and stacked sheets are adding up while the "typhoon" moves through the area. I've named it Typhoon Eugene Augustus in honor of our first book but sadly...he's not living up to even being called a typhoon. At least it has cooled off the area some.

The time between press checks has been shorter than expected. Robert Hennessey estimated there would be about an hour and a half between each press check due to the quantity of books we are printing, but it is more like every hour and in a few cases, as soon as half an hour. Luckily I snatched a little sleep while the pressman went to dinner last night. At 9:30 pm I went to a press check and found the only image on the sheet was of Atget staring back at me with that judgmental look that Berenice Abbott caught in her frontal portrait of the master.

11:20 pm. The pressman wanted to print the Sophie Ristelhueber book next since it is also four color but I have asked that we print that one last. Unlike the other books, that one will be a bit more demanding regarding color balance and densities and I want to be as seasoned as possible before tackling decisions on that one.

3:15 am. Hennessey has made these files so consistent that I haven't had to make even the slightest change in three straight press checks. The call comes in to my guest room from Alice telling me its time to come down, I speed walk to the press room, study the sheet, check the registration (kind of like checking the enlarger focus before each print), give a thumbs up (universal signage is truly remarkable), sign off on the sheet and return to my guest house. Still, its hard to get any meaningful rest.

6:30 am. I was just told that the next proof would happen in about a half hour so I just stayed by the press and watched the pressmen change the plates. The Heidelberg has feed guides that, with little effort on the part of the pressman, almost automatically guides the plate around the drum. The whole procedure for one color plate took about a minute.

9:28 am. The Atget book is finished as well as the last signatures of the Evans and Killip books which are in four color. The rest of Evans and Killip are being printed in Duotone and will be starting in the early afternoon. Fatigue is starting. I have been approving sheets every hour for the last 15 hours. Everything has gone so smoothly. Iris just suggested that they try to run two books at once using two presses - one duotone and one four-color. I've refused. Too much. If staggered, that would mean checks every half hour and I can't possibly do the job correctly at that pace especially dealing with Sophie's book. Advice to future press checkers: BE ASSERTIVE.

I've been given an hour or so of uninterrupted sleep so I am going to take advantage of it.

11:32 am. I got almost an hour and a half of straight sleep and I feel refreshed. What also works to fight off fatigue: cat naps, Chinese tea by the bucketful, a quick shower every three or four hours and lots of granola bars. I just ate a Chinese apple that was so good my eyes watered. Outside it is pissing rain.

2:45 pm. Just got back from lunch (spicy bean curd with broccoli and cooked cucumber) where I was called away to approve an Evans sheets. Looked really good. Backed off some of the black and we were in shape. Also Iris had me approve of the covers and foil stamping. She had samples which looked excellent. In combination with the 2/3rds dustjacket (positioned 2 inches from the bottom 1 1/2 from the top) it looks great.Designed so the foil stamping could show on the fabric it has a really nice presence and feel. Also approved of the special edition with the tip-ons and foil stamping. With the actual tip-on reproduction these are going to be really beautiful.

I don't mean to be so gushing towards my own work but the jacket and stamping was an aspect where I loved the idea but wasn't sure it would come together. I had a few very restless nights before I turned in the final design files for those not exactly knowing if it was going to work. I am very happy with the physical results of these samples.

The rest of my day is going to be spent with Evans.

Project background continued from Day 2:

The Scans and Separations

Through our friend who pitched our specs for quotes we were introduced to our future production person Robert Hennessey. For those of you who don't look for production credits in books, Robert is one of the three best scan and separations maker working for over the past two decades -- the other two being Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer. Robert learned his craft working at the legendary Meriden Gravure and has such a complex understanding of translating photographic images into ink. He's the person necessary to have in your corner.

After he agreed to take on our project, I spent a day up at Robert's studio in Middletown, CT helping him scan In Flagrante and the learning experience for me was invaluable. The center-piece of his studio among drum scanners and a huge five and a half foot tall safe (which contained Robert Frank's contact sheets from The Americans which RH was scanning for the upcoming book from the National Gallery in DC) is his copy stand which employs a 4X5 camera with a high-end digital scanning back linked to a Mac.

After scanning, Robert corrects the levels of the images and then makes separations. Separations break the image into the four colors of CMYK or into duotone so separate printing plates can be made for actual printing. Separating seems to be more an art than a science and is perhaps one of the most important parts of creating your final files. Having Robert working on our material imparted a huge amount of confidence considering our task of needing our books to celebrate and not disrespect the original. He established the various scanning and screening strategies necessary due to the unique nature of our project.

The Proofing

The first thing Robert did was send C+C Offset in China a color chart target to print out and send back so he could calibrate his system with theirs. From this chart he used a colorimeter to create a proper profile for the files.

Since we are scanning offset printed imagery that is overlaid with an original line screen we had to be very careful as to decide on a screening strategy so as to limit Moiré patterning. Moiré patterns are those annoying curvy lines that can appear when you lay one screen over another. We decided to try two different types of screening on our proofs -- one with normal 250 line screen and another utilizing "stochastic screening." Stochastic screening is supposed to help limit the chances of Moiré patterns appearing, but after seeing the results we decided on using a traditional 250 line screening as the image quality was far better. Three of the books looked fine but the Sophie Ristelhueber title -- since it has a rather coarse original screen (I think around 175 lines, maybe even less) -- the stochastic screen actually emphasized the coarseness instead of limiting it.

I created two “formes” for the proofing. Normally one chooses a few page spreads and fits them onto a document representing a 30X40 sheet of paper but since we wanted to fit as many images onto fewer formes, I filled the sheet completely instead of staying with our double spread page design. I created formes for both the four color work (Atget and Ristelhueber books) and others for the Duotone (Evans and Killip books), linked the documents with Robert’s high-res files and sent them off to China. A couple weeks later the proofs arrived at Roberts with a complete set of “progressives.” Progressives are sheets that show each color printed separately, so one shows cyan, one magenta, one yellow and one the black. This is the way to check each separation has been made properly and that there are no problems with the file.

Proofing obviously allows you to see printed results but keep in mind that the proofs usually come off a "flatbed proofing press" and not the actual press that will eventually print your book. The same inks and paper are used but the results from proof to proof can vary slightly. Our proofs looked in the ballpark with color balance but the ink densities were rather dense. Too much black ink being laid on makes the shadows block and increases the sense of contrast. Robert made our scans so they are open and reveal the subtleties of tone so it will be easy to determine our final ink densities.

One last very important thing to look out for is registration. Since the sheets of paper will pass through printing stages for each color plus a varnish layer it is important for them to be properly registered. This isn't just for reasons of appearing sharp (important enough!) but also because when printing color images, if the plates are slightly out of registration you can get color shifts. These color shifts can appear in a single image with the photo looking magenta on one side and then looking green on the other side. This is due to the dot pattern when out of registration can reveal more dots of a particular color resulting in the color shift.

More tomorrow...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Art For Obama Auction

It may be 4:50 am and I may be bleary-eyed from checking the press every hour but I have to step out of bookprintingland to remind some of you that an important auction of artwork is coming up and the proceeds will go towards helping Barack Obama win the Presidency of the United States. You've probably been hearing a lot about this among the other blogs, but the auction - Art For Obama - is going to take place from 5 pm on October 1 to October 8. The list of artists who have donated work is stunning to say the least - Emmett Gowin, Larry Sultan, Susan Meiselas, Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, Richard Misrach, Todd Hido, Tim Davis and many, many more.

Now, I have to say that I am not a person whose chest is swollen with patriotic pride -- basically my parents birthed me here (As a young spermatozoa I was trying to tell them "screw in Sweden, screw in Sweden" but I didn't have a mouth). But what I can say is that this country has suffered enough under organ-grinder Cheney and his monkey. Obama is speaking on real issues while the others are trying desperately to distract and derail real discussion, so help get his ideas heard through participating in this auction. What is left of the middle class is under attack economically and if we allow McCain and Palin to take over the White House we might as well just throw in the towel and move because my friends - the terrorists have really won. We can't possibly be that stupid, misinformed, distracted and eager to shoot our own feet, right? Well I've learned to fear what goes on behind voting curtains and I think you should too.

Meanwhile, I'm going to buy a Swedish dictionary and practice my numbers while counting along as these auctions end.

(Thanks to Bill Hicks RIP)

Errata Editions On-Press: Day Two

I have arrived at C+C Joint Printing in Shenzhen province and according to the news there is a typhoon on its way. Not large enough to worry about but if I do get to step outside at some point in the next 3-4 days it may not be pleasant.

At C+C I have finally met Alice Xu who has been assigned to manage the printing and production of the Books on Books project. When you deal directly with a printer you will most likely be assigned someone as your project manager. This is the person you send your files to and give all detailed specifications on how the books are to look. Alice and I have been corresponding about the books for several months and I have the strong sense that she's very patient. I am sure that since this is the first project for me, I have made her job a bit harder with making some mistakes and slight delays in our scheduling. The learning curve for me has been huge after all.

Getting right to work we started reviewing the corrections I made to our "blues" which are very rough printouts of each book. They look like hell but you use them to check for any last minute typos or positioning problems in your layouts. Of course every time you look at a set of blues you will find some very small thing wrong that needs correcting. Whatever slips by hopefully won't be too embarrassing like a punctuation mark sitting outside of quotes (my favorite type of mistake -- found a few of those). To cover any mistakes that slip by we've just named our company Errata.

1. pl. of erratum.
2. a list of errors and their corrections inserted, usually on a separate page or slip of paper, in a book or other publication.

After being treated to a wonderful lunch of spicy beancurd, stringbeans and bokchoi with Shirley Chan, Alice Xu and Iris Peng, my other liaison, here at C+C, I was shown to my guest room at the facility. Turns out my room here is ten times as nice as the place in Hong Kong that cost me $100.00 a night. Too bad I won't get much sleep here. Meanwhile the press is being prepared for the first book.

It's now 3:00pm and I have signed off on my first press check sheet. We have started printing the Atget book and the first sheet the pressman showed me was spot-on for color balance but too dense in the black tone. The Atget book itself is a bit tricky to duplicate as the original "collotype" plates do not register a deep rich black tone but instead look a bit "dusty." They also have a tendency to have a more shallow range of tones resulting in "pools" of similar tone that don't vary and have almost no detail. If printed in 4 color offset at the same density as the original I think the images would look just poorly printed. I have chosen to print slightly richer but allow for the fullest detail. The pressman was registering a black point of 1.85 on his densitometer and we brought it back to around 1.7. The results opened up the images but didn't sacrifice any of the richness I am seeking to maintain.

The rest of today is going to be spent on checking sheets of Atget photos. Much of the same but excited as hell - my stress levels are surprisingly low. Mostly due to great preparation courtesy of Mr. Hennessey. Tonight we may have a midnight rendezvous with American Photographs and the first of the duotone sheets.

Project background continued from Day 1:

The Production

When producing a book you obviously need someone to print it so our next hurdle was finding a great printer. Ed and I took a trip to New Jersey and visited with Oceanic Graphic Printing which is a "print broker." Print Brokers are companies that act as a liaison between the client and the printer. For people who haven't navigated the process of printing a book, they can make the process easier, but of course, they cost you additional money. We decided since we had the advantage of access to great advice from active book production people that we could do without the broker and deal directly with printers.

We had the huge advantage of having one of the best production people in the business pitch our book specs for quotes from various printers that she has had long connections with. After seeing the expense we changed some aspects of our books. Since they were going to be a little more expensive than expected, we decided to make them a bit more elegant by switching them to hardcover and adding a nice jacket. The hardcover is also more library friendly as we would hope that schools that offer a degree in photography would have these books in their reference library.

After fielding quotes from a few printers we settled on C+C in China. C+C is one of two major printers in China -- Midas being the other. They have produced some of the finest photo and art books printed in Asia.

The Essays

The second most important part of our books comes from the new 3000-4000 word essays we have commissioned. Matching a writer with a body of work can be difficult but we found four great contributors -- some at the request of the artists (I know Atget would have asked for David Campany if he could). Given a time period of basically three to four months they set upon the task and surprising to me, were able to hold to my production schedule with only the most minimal delay due to re-writes.

My own small contribution comes in the way of book stats and production notes. Each book has an interesting story behind it's genesis so I compiled several interesting anecdotes about the books and shaped a few paragraphs for each. Some of the illustrations that accompany these pages are photos of the original book maquette/dummies when available.

More tomorrow...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Errata Editions On-Press: Day One

I just landed after a 15.5 hour flight into Hong Kong so I thought my first post report from China should be the background as to how this project came into being. Since many of you desire to publish your own books, you might find some useful info in the posts over the next few days.

Initial Idea

Almost exactly one year ago I found a few issues of The Pentagram Papers -- those small booklets published for clients of the Pentagram Design firm -- and immediately fell in love with their elegance and esoteric subject matter.

Everything from their size to their feel and construction is appealing. I almost immediately thought how perfect it would be to produce a series in that format that describes the greatest photobooks ever produced. The next logical thought was to provide the entire content of the original but in a uniform series much like the Photo Poche books but with much higher production standards.

I have been asked many times why not just publish facsimiles. The idea of doing exact facsimiles was less interesting to me for several reasons. First and foremost I wanted these books to include additional scholarship from a contemporary stand point in the form of essays that discuss the book and its impact as an object. If doing a facsimile these additions would be an odd inclusion and basically go against the idea of a facsimile completely. So I decided to try to make these books studies that would not try to replace the original but to sit alongside it as a companion.

Also, my thought was to create a series that was affordable to the widest audience. Originally I conceived of these books to cost around $30-35 dollars and not $60-$75 dollars of the average contemporary photobook.

The last, and perhaps final note on the subject was, when I started talking to artists about our "studies" I quickly found out why second editions or reprints hadn't already been created -- the artists didn't want them done and in some cases had prevented them from being made. However, those same artists liked the idea of my series because of it being a study -- seeing it as a tool that could be used to allow the work to be seen yet wouldn't tread closely to being a new edition.

The First Steps

The next stage was to make some mock-ups. After making a list of which books I thought would be a good mix of classic and contemporary and those that show the variety of work done in book form, I chose two books and set about making two full mock-ups as I imagined them.
My choices were Atget: Photographe de Paris and Chris Killip's In Flagrante.

After borrowing a copy of the Atget book I set about photographing every page. Since many of the books are delicate and "unhappy" when laid open flat, I kept the book open only at a 45 degree angle and shot each page separately with a Canon 5D digital camera. I then put each two page spread together in Photoshop to make up the final images. I thought this technique produced fine results until I saw the results of Robert Hennessey's copy camera work with the 4x5 digital scanning back done for the final printed books.

Using Quark design program, I came up with a design
(which now seems so embarrassingly bad compared to our final design) and list of content that the books would follow. Using an Epson 2400 ink-jet printer I outputted the final books on heavy-weight paper. I then employed basic binding techniques learned at NY's Center for Book Arts to bring it into the final form.

With these two mock-ups my plan was to bring my series concept to an Aperture or Steidl and try to get it started with an established publisher. Luckily, I ran my idea past my friend Ed Grazda and he started us down the road to thinking about doing it ourselves by establishing a small publishing company.

So, less than 3 months later Errata Editions was born.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

13 Million Tons of Pig Iron by Bruce Haley

In 2003, the photographer Bruce Haley self-published a wonderful limited edition portfolio called 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron. Sparing no expense by printing with the legendary Meriden Gravure in a unique drytrap process on heavy weight paper, the portfolio consists of 13 loose plates of photographs plus title and edition plates. All copies are signed and numbered in an edition of 500.

Starting in 1999 and working with a 35mm panoramic camera loaded with black and white film, Haley wandered the industrial wastelands of Eastern Europe. Abandoned factories and mining facilities given over to rust, transform into toxic sites that pollute the surrounding landscape; pipes emerge from the ground and continue to spew toxins into the water and air; neglected heavy metals contaminate the ground water. The detritus of a once huge industry now lays waste as scrap on a mammoth scale creating uninhabitable dead zones poisoned for generations.

Haley's photographs are contradictions. They are seductively beautiful yet describe the decay and ruin of an industry. Twisted plates of tarnished metal reflect the sunlight with a full range of grays so attractive, it may be hard to imagine they looked better when new. Inside the factories, the equipment looks as if the workers had just left their stations if not for the fallen ceiling material that now covers everything like snow. The only human presence felt is the ghost of repetitive labor punctuated by a safety poster which depicts a recoiling worker with his hand caught in his machine.

These are also pictures about weight and resilience. The sheer magnitude and heft of the iron machinery will promise lifetimes of painfully slow transformation if left on its own. 13 Million Tons of Pig Iron describes that devastating legacy.

Haley uses the panoramic well by filling his frames with graceful lines and geometry. His black and white photos can be grainy which, in my opinion, is an interesting choice considering most people's tendency towards using a larger format for tactile clarity. The grain here, I do not think it's a stretch to say, adds to a sense of everything simply dissolving.

The construction of the portfolio from the drytrap prints to the folded enclosure and belly band that holds it all together is so well made with quality materials that the whole package feels as nice to the touch as it is to view. The belly-band features a hammer and sickle centered in a red star - the edges of which are chipped and broken, much like the ideology which celebrated the creation of all that has been now left to the elements.

Bruce has a limited quantity available. For inquiries contact him directly at

Monday, September 15, 2008

Errata Editions Books on Books Series

I have been hinting that I have had an interesting project underway for 2008 and now it is my pleasure to finally let the cat out of the bag. Myself along with two partners have started a publishing company called Errata Editions and I am very excited to announce that the first four releases in our Books on Books series are currently 'on press' in China. I will be doing a week's worth of posts starting the 23rd from the printing facility in Hong Kong describing the entire process of overseeing the books being printed, but first, I am thrilled to tell you about the Books on Books series that will no doubt be of interest to photobook lovers.

The Books on Books series is an on-going publishing project dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible once again to photobook enthusiasts. Each in this series presents the entire content, page for page, of an original master bookwork which, up until now, has been too rare or prohibitively expensive for most of us to experience. These are not facsimiles but complete studies of those original masterpieces. Through a mix of classic and contemporary titles, this series will span the breadth of practice as it has appeared on the printed page and allows further study into the creation and meanings of these great works of art.

The first two-thirds of each book in this series will show, page for page, every spread that appeared in the original book. We have done so by re-photographing the original book in its entirety so the viewer can see not only all of the photographs, but the page layout, typography and all aspects that make up the original including all of the written texts. In addition to those illustrations, we have commissioned some of the finest writers on photography to contribute a 3000-4000 word essay about each book discussing not only the photography but the book object itself and its relevance in the history of the medium. Other chapters in the Books on Books series include a short essay on the original book's production along with biographic and bibliographic information of each artist.

The first four titles in the Books on Books series are as follows...

1. Eugene Atget : Photographe de Paris is the perfect starting point for a series on great photography books. Published in 1930, three years after Atget’s death, it is now regarded as a classic that influenced generations of artists including Berenice Abbott and Walker Evans. Books on Books 1 reproduces all 96 collotype plates and an English translation of the fine Pierre Mac Orlan text on Eugène Atget’s remarkable documentation of Paris at the turn of the 19th century. The noted author, David Campany, contributes a contemporary essay called Atget’s Intelligent Documents written for this volume. Hardcover with dustjacket; 9.5 x 7 in; 112 pages; 116 four-color illustrations; Essays by Pierre Mac Orlan, David Campany, Jeffrey Ladd; ISBN 978-935004-00-4; Retail price $39.95.

2. Walker Evans : American Photographs (1938 edition). American Photographs is arguably the most important photobook ever published. Originally conceived to be a catalog to accompany his one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1938, it continues to go out-of-print for long stretches of time. Books on Books 2 presents the original 1938 edition with its 87 legendary black and white photographs that defined Evans' documentary-style aesthetic. This volume also reproduces the great Lincoln Kirstein essay and a contemporary piece written by John T. Hill, the author of many books on Evans including Lyric Documentary (Steidl 2006). Hardcover with dustjacket; 9.5 x 7 in; 112 pages; 113 Duotone and four-color illustrations; Essays by Lincoln Kirstein, John T. Hill, Jeffrey Ladd; ISBN 978-935004-02-8; Retail price $39.95.

3. Sophie Ristelhueber : Fait. In October of 1991, French artist Sophie Ristelhueber photographed the battle-scarred landscape of Kuwait following the end of the first Gulf war with Iraq. The book Fait, which in French means ‘fact’ or ‘what was done,’ remains one of the most powerful statements about the aftermath of war. Books on Books 3 presents all 71 black and white and color photographs as seen in the original artist book as it was conceived and designed by Ristelhueber. Marc Mayer of the Art Contemporain in Montreal contributes an essay that discusses Ristelhueber’s disturbing yet beautiful achievement. Hardcover with dustjacket; 9.5 x 7 in; 96 pages; 95 four-color illustrations; Essays by Marc Mayer, Jeffrey Ladd; ISBN 978-935004-04-2; Retail price $39.95.

4. Chris Killip : In Flagrante. Often referenced as the most important photobook to come from England in the 1980s, Chris Killip’s In Flagrante stands the test of time today. Published in 1988, In Flagrante shows the communities in Northern England that were devastated by the deindustrialization common to policies carried out by Thatcher and her predecessors starting in the mid-1970s. Books on Books 4 presents Killip’s political yet lyric work with a new essay by Gerry Badger called Dispatches from a War Zone. Hardcover with dustjacket; 9.5 x 7 in; 80 pages; 65 Duotone and four-color illustrations; Essays by John Berger & Sylvia Grant, Gerry Badger, Jeffrey Ladd; ISBN 978-935004-06-6; Retail price $39.95.

The quality of this series is first and foremost. Anyone can start publishing books but our necessity is to publish books which celebrate the original material to the fullest potential. This is why we have surrounded ourselves with the best ink-on-paper specialists working in bookmaking today. Robert Hennessey, who has made the separations for many of the most beautiful art and photography books of the last two decades, has prepared the digital files for the illustrations in this series and is guiding me through the process of being "on-press." This series is presented in cloth hardcover with a large bellyband/dustjacket utilizing a clean design and fine materials. The body of our books are printed on a Japanese matte art paper common to many of the finer artbooks being made today. These books are being crafted to look and feel of the highest quality yet remain very affordable and accessible to the widest possible audience.

The Books on Books series was conceived by Jeffrey Ladd in order to fill a void. The void being that the outrageous prices demanded by the collector's market and scarcity of these titles makes them out of reach to most students, teachers, scholars, and photobook enthusiasts. The Books on Books series will be an inexpensive way for everyone to once again be able to access this material which up to now has been effectively removed from view. Most of the titles we are going to feature have appeared in the now classic compendiums on photography books; The Parr/Badger Photobook History, The Open Book, and The 101 Seminal photography Books. Those books, which are fine scholarly additions to the discussion of photobook history, also frustratingly showed us what we were missing out on. With this series, you will finally see inside the books you thought you'd never experience. I have a strong belief that people, especially students, should be able to access these great works of art to learn from them and that a valuable part of the dialogue with this medium has been stunted because of that limited access. This series is our contribution to continuing that dialogue.

DAP/ Distributed Art Publishers is distributing the trade edition of the Errata Editions' Books on Books series. In addition to this trade version, there will be a limited quantity of a special edition offered as a four book set available directly through Errata Editions. These special editions feature a beautiful reproduction of the original book cover tipped into the saifu book cloth of each title. Besides owning a more elegant version of each book, the advantage to ordering the four book set is the assurance that you will receive the special editions of the Books on Books series as soon as they are off the press and months before the regular edition is distributed. For pricing and ordering a set please write to

We are in the process of lining up many more titles to be featured in this exciting publishing project but its longevity is soon to be in your hands. The proceeds of sales from these first four books goes towards the production of the next four titles in the series so please help us continue revealing the greatest photobooks ever produced to new audiences.

Please spread the word

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Simple Present by Bert Danckaert

The wear and tear on any city -- the effect of living -- is apparent to everyone who lives in urban environments. The ability to see what tourist bureaus airbrush out of brochures -- to momentarily stay repulsion -- and examine these physical flaws with a mind towards aesthetic value takes a bit more effort. Clutter that collects in the corners of a building's outer walls or various pieces of detritus still holding the promising of being useful are left leaning against walls and forgotten -- all become a part of our sight-line in the urban landscape. Left on their own and perhaps unintentionally arranged by human hands these chance sculptures -- unwanted installations -- can be arresting sights to stumble upon. Bert Danckaert's book Simple Present published by Veenman is a celebration of these sights found in Beijing.

Simple Present is full of spaces that are more familiar than foreign. They transcend strict attachment to place. This may be Beijing but it could easily be Eastern Europe, Latin America or parts of the United States. The larger information -- wall construction, types of cars, architecture -- is more or less universal while a few smaller details -- signs with native characters, monuments -- key the viewer into the 'foreignness' of place. Regardless of the influence of the smaller details, the main tenor is one of the recognizable urbanized world -- or on a grander scale, the globalized image being created of modern urbanized world.

Danckaert's work explores this notion of what is 'typical' and 'authentic' about a particular place -- the thought that the basic structure of modern urban environments is essentially very similar and it is the major landmarks that create the sense of individual identity. When one thinks of China, images of the Great Wall or the Forbidden City create this sense of dynamic difference but for the locals, those places are anything but typical. The authentic is found near their workplace or their apartment building.

Danckaert's photography describes these places with rigid formality. Throughout this book of fifty images, roughly half of which frame their subject squarely facing a wall. The other half describe their subjects at a 45 degree angle. This rigidity, which seems intentional, could work in his favor conceptually but I wish over the course of the book that there was more variation of frame and relationship to subject. Each points out worthy content that are often complex visual gifts but a larger sense of scale couldn't hurt. In my opinion, this present is formally wrapped a bit too tight.

The book itself appeals to most all of my weaknesses. It employs a very clean design, very fine printing, great use of materials and it has a wonderful dustjacket with a slight stippled texture that feels great in the hand. Jan Blommaert contributes an fine, thought provoking essay that avoids a heavy-handed examination of the work.

It is interesting that Beijing just hosted the Olympics after spending 40 billion dollars creating an image the world would concentrate on for a few weeks. That image seems 180 degrees from anything that would normally spring to mind with the suggestion of 'Chinese-ness.' The scale of the architecture and the insanely orchestrated opening and closing ceremonies might have held to the notion of what greatness the masses can create, but the look and feel of those environs felt like a bridge to the West and the larger world that is becoming so familiar.

Monday, September 8, 2008

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings

David Deutsch is an artist who has used color photographs as source material for his paintings of houses and other architecture in various landscapes. In recent years, he has also made black and white aerial photographs and exhibited them along with his paintings.

A handsome two book slip-cased set called David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings from Twin Palms published in 2004 features these striking paintings and photographs.

Deutsch employed a helicopter and a high powered search light in order to make photographs of suburban neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Black and white grainy images, shot at night, illuminate the roofs and yards of homes that, by the circular glow of the searchlight, appear in an atmosphere of suspicion. The language of these photographs is one of surveillance and they are filled with the tension of searching for clues at a crime scene.

The contrast of blown-out highlights and hard shadows that fall away at the edges of the searchlight's illumination keep the viewer's eyes jumping back and forth over the plane of the image. It is not unthinkable that your mind is waiting for something to dart into view from a side yard or line of shrubbery as seen in many police videos of criminals evading capture. In essence, the way we read these photographs turns the natural subject on its head - we look for something that isn't there often bypassing the information that is. These photographs are exciting but not really pleasurable to view.

Deutsch's paintings are the opposite in feeling. The color palette of his oil on linen is delicate and easy on the eye. Illuminated by daylight, the tension from the suspicion of the photographs is substituted for harmony of landscape and tone. Somewhat abstract, the fields of color bring beauty and pleasure of seeing in contrast to the grit and menace found in his photos.

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings is beautifully produced and includes a two-part essay by Laurence A. Rickles called Haunts of Assimilation.

David Deutsch: Photographs/Paintings

Sunday, September 7, 2008

5B4 Donation Print Offer

See print donation website for details.

Baghdad Calling by Geert van Kesteren

The United States isn't as good as it used to be at toppling foreign dictators and installing US friendly puppets. Long gone are the days of installing a leader like the Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into Iran or Augusto Pinochet into Chile and overlooking the brutality of their governance. We all know how the US was in bed with Saddam before he invaded Kuwait and complicated a US financial interest by preparing to drive up the price of oil. Once he did that and became a devil, the music to "spread democracy" was turned up to 11.

So...11 years later after one successful terrorist attack we stop pursuing the real culprit responsible for 9/11 and invade Iraq under false pretenses with a scared and misinformed American public providing the proper momentum. There is no real governmental plan for controlling what is being dismantled and when damage control is attempted it fails miserably due to incompetent governmental oversight.

The devil is caught in a spider-hole, fattened with Cheetos and then hung. As soon as he disappeared the country dissolved into complete chaos of a power struggle civil war that puts even human rights activists into an ethical quandary. At least when the devil ruled, people could go outside, shop at a market, have neighbors who followed a different religion, children could go to school, life could be lived if under a certain amount of dictatorial threat. Now rampant murder and kidnapping are the mainstay -- there are more ways to die than live. American troops there are seen as occupiers and hated. Five years and counting and in a perverse twist out of desperation, many Iraqis miss their devil and the safety they felt under his thumb.

If you'd like to know what Baghdad is like today then Geert van Kesteren's new book Baghdad Calling published by Episode books will give you an idea. It is a terrifying report from the world's most dangerous city.

Baghdad Calling is a book of assembled stories of Iraqi citizens living in Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq and it isn't the work of one author but of dozens. Being that Baghdad is far too dangerous now for any foreign journalist to be wandering the streets, Geert has assembled a team of locals who document the state of their city with small digital cameras and cell-phones. These images are punctuated by Geert's photographs of the Iraqis that have sought refuge out of the country.

The amateur photographs portray a city that is desolate -- dead. When the cameras venture out of doors they are usually shooting out of car windows. When the camera operator is out on the street, the photos convey a strong sense of being exposed to danger. So much so that it is a relief to turn the page and find the observations continue and no immediate tragedy has occurred.

On one page spread there is a photo with a caption that reads, 'I was in my college talking to my friend's father who wanted us to convince this friend to return to Iraq to continue his studies and as we were talking this big explosion took place.' The photo shows the silhouette of a man in a sunny courtyard, beyond him is a small mushroom cloud of dust and debris pushing into the sky. Others describe the destruction of neighborhoods and the bodies that can be found littered along the roadsides, hands tied behind their backs. Shocking sights that are presented without the aesthetics of contemporary photojournalism. Direct responses made all the more horrifying by the sketchy image quality of the amateur tools.

Interspersed among groupings of double-page spreads of the amateur photographs are short texts that sandwich Geert's photographic contributions. The texts are the personal experiences from the Iraqis living in such chaos. Fascinating and well-written, they describe with horrifying detail the madness and psychological damage that has descended onto these lives -- leaving the reader to sit uneasily in its wake.

Baghdad Calling is a follow up to Geert's 2003 book Why Mister, Why? and it follows a similar approach in construction. Both use a thinner, less precious paper which is perfect bound together. Baghdad Calling reproduces the amateur photos on pages of newsprint while the text and Geert's photos are on thin but smoother paper for better image quality. The effect is one of switching from lo-fi hellish nightmare to high-fi fantasies of safety.

Due to the nature of the paper and materials, Baghdad Calling can be easily damaged. Even cursory reading leaves its marks on the cover and internal pages, which seems appropriate. This is a book about cause and effect. An appeal for us to ensure something will be done in response to the desperate needs towards people's safety and welfare. The damage needs to be attended to.

Baghdad Calling

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Complete Films of Robert Frank: Volume 2

"A decision; I put my Leica in a cupboard. Enough of lying in wait, pursuing, sometimes catching the essence of black and white, the knowledge of where God is. I make films. Now I speak to the people who move in my viewfinder. Not simple and not especially successful." - Robert Frank

Not simple for sure. For an artist who is not interested in any compromise of vision, his are film works that challenge everything from notions of "professionalism" to narrative structures. Volume 2 of Steidl's Complete Film Works of Robert Frank presents three films; OK End Here (1963), Conversations in Vermont (1969), and Liferaft Earth (1969).

OK End Here is possibly one of his easier films to digest. The story is about a handsome young couple stuck in the inertia of a relationship and wiling away a Sunday afternoon. They don't have anything to do and obviously do not know what to do with each other. The silence between them, the inability to fully communicate, to listen, seems under examination here. The woman desires communication, "Talk to me," while the man answers almost mockingly, "What do you want to talk about? Politics? Films? Proust?" "Just talk to me," she counters.

These moments of exhausting distance between the couple makes the title sentiment OK End Here an obvious resolution. It seems as though we are waiting for the one word or sentence that will cause the relationship to crumble. Instead they plod along with their day receiving a couple of visitors to their apartment and then venturing out into the dreary grey day.

Later while the couple is at a restaurant they are joined by a friend and the woman he was dining with. Among the small talk, the woman starts to read a letter from a man who ended a relationship with her. For a while our female protagonist listens intently but soon the swirl of conversations and laughter of the restaurant drown out all interest in what the woman is reading despite the obvious emotional importance of the letter. In tears she runs out of the restaurant exclaiming, "You're all only interested in yourselves!"

Frank's couple then walks the streets and the woman says that he will become 'old' (old as in age or old as in a stale relationship?). They enter the building's elevator, she cuddles up to him and as they smile warmly the doors shut. OK End Here.

Conversations in Vermont is Frank's documentary form of self examination through the images and words of his two children, Andrea and Pablo. Photographed mostly by Ralph Gibson, Frank interviews them about how they felt about the life they led in NYC and the life they now lead in a Vermont. Interspersed are scenes of still photographs of his family and some of his well known images from The Americans.

The film starts with a self portrait of Frank cleaning the camera lens as it is running film. He says humorously, "Let's see." Conversations is a look into the past and a confrontation of sorts. Frank appears to be wanting admission of something he feels guilty about -- like a father who has failed to raise his children "normally" whatever "normal" may be. The conversation with Pablo addresses that very question but it is what is not said that is all the more meaningful. It is a display of Father and son drifting apart and the pain of that gap.

This curious film is rough and direct. Frank appears before the camera as interviewer and director assuring that the film is actually more about his internal questions than the direct answers from his children.

Liferaft Earth, made the same year as Conversations in Vermont is the documentation of a 1969 hunger strike that took place in a parking lot in California. Surrounded by a huge circle of plastic sheeting, one hundred hippie types stage a "starve-in" to bring awareness of world overpopulation and under-nutrition. Frank and Danny Lyon who recorded sound join the "liferaft" to document the "hunger circus" and media attention it gathers. (Is that Andy Warhol inside the "raft" with a super 8 camera?)

As the participants start to succumb to starvation and difficult weather, Frank and Lyon also decide to leave. After a hearty meal, Frank confesses his shame in giving up "I didn't have the guts," and he and Lyon set out to face the remaining days of the starve-in which had been moved from the parking lot to a house in the woods near San Francisco.

Frank and Lyon wander around the home asking people "Are you alive?" while the 52 "survivors" have conversations, argue and participate in primal screaming. Liferaft Earth is a political film but also like most of Frank's works, it is also one of self-examination where he balances between being an outsider and one of the group.

Frank's films are rarely screened so most who have come to know The Americans for its brilliance haven't been able to follow the path of his film work. I find it curious that other than the legendary Cocksucker Blues and Me and My Brother, these haven't really gotten much attention besides from the most diehard of Frankofiles. Difficult as they are, it cannot be denied that each is a unigue inquiry into life that do their best to break with convention

Each set of these films comes in an inventive packaging in the form of small DVD sized film canisters enclosed in a cardboard box made to look like a 16mm film stock package. Each of the DVDs has both PAL and NTSC formats. Volume 3 to be reviewed soon.

Buy Online at Steidlville

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

RFK Funeral Train by Paul Fusco

Few bodies of work deserve three different book incarnations. In 1968 Paul Fusco was on the train that transported Robert Kennedy's body from New York to Arlington cemetery. For over seven hours, he made thousands of photographs of the Americans that flocked to pay their respects as the train went slowly by.

From his moving and somewhat limited vantage point, Fusco created a body of work that day that appears even conceptual when compared to his normal practice of the documentary traditions involving assembling "stories." His frames, perhaps guided by instinct more than ever before due to the nature of his fleeting subjects, pose interesting quires into photographic description. Example being, the question of how small a detail can be in a photograph and still carry the full weight of the frame. Many of Fusco's "funeral train" photographs are repetitive in essence but each is filled with the subtle gesture and body language that, even when perceived from afar, conveys so much meaning.

Fusco's remarkable feat was to make so many images that can sit alongside one another even when they appear similar. The arrangements of bodies alongside the train tracks for the formally minded never ceases to excite. By not shooting with super fast shutter speeds as might be expected to freeze movement, Fusco's combination of speed and panning the camera -- locking onto subjects as they pass by -- dictates an fine mix of sharpness and blur. By the end of the day, the crowds dissolve into a swirl of purple blue as the train arrives at its final destination.

The first time this work was published in book form was 30 years after their making. To accompany an exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery in London an edition of print-on-demand books was created using a Xerox DocuColor 100 Digital Color Press. The entire intended edition of 350 copies with nine different covers was never full realized (two hundred were actually printed) but RFK Funeral Train would finally existed for a wider audience.

The quality of the printing and construction of "perfect" binding (which is never perfect) is a bit sketchy. The technologies have a limited capacity of rendering all of the colors and the darker tonalities disappear completely. That being said, it is these faulty characteristics that make this the most touching of the three books published on this work. The flawed and almost improvised handmade feel suits the sense of an immediate response to a moment and the emotion witnessed.

In 2000, the second edition of RFK Funeral Train was published through more traditional print technologies by Umbrage Editions and Magnum Photos. This edition followed the original only in the most basic ways. The photos face pages of black and the typography was the same but the trim size was enlarged by an inch in height and an inch and a half in length. In the original, the photos appeared bleed on the page and this new edition they were surrounded by a bit of black margin. The edit and sequencing is different and most notably, the printing improved greatly.

This was the edition where I first experienced this work and only in retrospect after seeing a friend's copy of the original would I prefer that first Xerox edition. That said, the Umbrage edition is elegant and serves the work beautifully.

This year Aperture has released the third book version called simply RFK.

RFK has been published to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. This version is not another rehashing of the same images from the first two books but a completely new edit that benefits from a discovery of slides from the LOOK magazine collection at the Library of Congress. RFK includes more than seventy unpublished images as well as photographs Fusco made around New York's St. Patrick's Catherdral and the night-time burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

The most notable difference besides the name change is the size and density of this new edition. With an expanded trim size to 9.5 x 12 and at a solid inch thick, this project has blown up into a full size coffee-table book. There is even an additional text by Vicky Goldberg aside the essays by Norman Mailer, Evan Thomas and Senator Edward Kennedy that appeared in the Umbrage edition.

The justification for doing this new edition after the discovery of the wealth of material in the LOOK magazine collection is understandable but in my opinion, the inclusion of the non-train photographs from the viewing in St. Patrick's and the interment in Arlington dilute the work as it stood in the first versions. The tightness of the book is now broken into three sections -- the viewing and interment photographs are not substantial enough to act as any more than bookends to the real outpouring of emotion found along the train tracks. The photos in those two sections aren't bad (the night-time burial images are wonderfully made) but they do not seem necessary and they aren't -- the first books proved that.

The real payoff in RFK is with the additional trackside images. There are so many wonderful and varied photographs that didn't make it into the first versions that it was necessary for a third visitation to the work. The most impressive of which has Fusco describing tiny figures lining overpasses and on distant baseball fields frozen in a communal moment of reflection where the stillness and the slightest of body language speaks volumes.

Jack Newfield, an acquaintance of Kennedy's, wrote of the time: We are the first generation that learned from experience, in our innocent twenties, that things were not really getting better, that we shall not overcome. We felt, by the time we reached thirty, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had been assassinated. And from this time forward, things would get worse; our best political leaders were part of memory now, not hope.

What Fusco documented alongside those rail tracks was sadness that would lead to frustration, and eventually to the extreme cynicism felt towards leadership today. This remarkable document holds that cynicism at bay -- if for just a few precious moments.

Note: Composites do not reflect actual tonal values of each book's printing quality.

Book Available Here (RFK)