Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Printed Picture by Richard Benson

Today we are so accustomed to seeing printed imagery on every available surface that it might be hard to imagine a time when mechanical reproduction did not exist. Apart from text reproduction through movable type and the like, the first images reproduced in multiple copies were from woodblock prints in the fifteenth century. It is arguable that the advancement in technologies of reproduction are the most valuable contributions to communication since the development of language itself.

Take for instance an example that dates back as far as the first century where Greek botanists understood the need for visual statements to make their verbal statements intelligible. Problem being that there were no means available to reproduce exact copies of images so there was distortion from image to image caused by the hand of the copyists. The poor results caused the botanists abandoned images for words alone but those descriptions could not suffice in making the plants recognizable to other botanists, especially ones from other regions. In short, there was a complete breakdown of scientific analysis due to the absence of repeatable pictures.

Much of the art I have experienced has been by way of reproductions. I have said before that out of all of the arts, photography is the most suited to the printed form - thus, why I covet books so much. I would actually argue that with very few exceptions, we absorb more from a photograph when we look one in a book than when we are facing one on a museum wall. Whether it be the power dynamic of a museum where one navigates art among museum guards and in wealthy institutions that "tell" you this is important whether you respond to it or not.

Books are as John Gossage describes, a "lap medium." You operate a book with an intimacy and at your own pace (in the comfort of your own environment). The pages act as natural breaks to where, in a museum, seeing the next photograph on the wall out of the corner of your eye, might encourage you to move through an exhibition faster than you normally would. It is said that on average a person spends about 3 seconds in front of any work of art before moving on. Whether that is due to crowds or the attitude of somewhat unwelcoming galleries, we are being influenced. Books provide a personal comfort zone that allows a more direct experience. Go to museums and galleries for sculpture and paintings.

In the celebration of printed matter, the Museum of Modern Art has just launched an exhibition and book entitled The Printed Picture by the former Dean of the Yale Art School and photographic printing guru Richard Benson.

Over the years, discussion to the importance and interpretation of printing techniques is not new, one can point directly to William M. Ivins' Prints and Visual Communication (to which I owe the example of the Greek botanists) as a prime source, but Benson's text traces the history of printmaking through very accessible texts set alongside a rich array of printed material from his personal collection. Where the Ivins text is first rate, the examples offered through illustrations are basic and the details limited to black and white. Benson's The Printed Picture is a flush with enlarged details and full color illustrations that are as beautifully printed as the originals.

In each chapter, different techniques are described leading up to and through the evolution of modern photographic reproduction. For those interested in such techniques this book is as valuable a text as you will find. Benson tested these waters before with the book and exhibition from the Yale gallery in New Haven, The Physical Print (see 5B4 here). As he did in that book, he describes each process here using well known images from photographers but it is the examples of more commonplace ephemera that provide the richer understanding and deeper interest for me -- seed catalog illustrations, a section of a piano roll, punch cards, advertisements and even a DHL bar-coded delivery sticker on cardboard all find their way into his collection.

Admittedly after having just spent several days on-press overseeing the printing of the first titles in my own book series, I am the captive audience for the subject of this book. At its most basic level, it is about the pleasure of the printed page and the microscopic dots that spur that pleasure. Those dots and their structures are the various dialects of language that visual artists use. What could be a more fascinating subject for anyone interested in art books?