Friday, August 13, 2010

Soviet Aviation by Rodchenko and Stepanova

The book that won Best Photography Book of the Year at PhotoEspana is Editorial Lampreave's facsimile of Alexander Rodchenko and Vavara Stepanova's Soviet Aviation originally published in 1939. This was one of the famed "World's Fair" publications (along with a series of small booklets) created to show off the Soviet Union's advances in science, technology, and all great affairs of the State structure. Rodchenko and Stepanova were assigned the task of designing three which also included Moscow and A Pageant of Youth which featured sports and athleticism as its subject. With seemingly endless amount of money flowing from the State into such publications the design and craftsmanship that went into some of these propaganda books is now known to be extravagant. Often with die-cuts, gatefolds, use of different paper stock and fine art printing, the results can be breathtaking.

The genesis of Soviet Aviation apparently happened at breakneck speed. According to the dates and terms of the original publishing contract, Rodchenko and Stepanova had only eleven days after signing onto the project to show a complete mock-up of the final book and had less than one month to fully realize and present final art work to the printer - much of it requiring heavy retouching to the original photos.

Rodchenko was in charge of design and Stepanova handled the "object" and "story," but Point 8 of their publishing contract terms effectively erased public knowledge of their authorship by stating "the artist will not declare any right to intellectual property." In all three books, neither Rodchenko's nor Stepanova's name can be found but rather a credit that these books were simply, "printed in the Soviet Union."

Soviet Aviation is a beautiful book with many page spreads that show Rodchenko's brilliance towards dynamic layouts. Some pages have stand alone images which are perceived as simply pictures in an album while other spreads form incredible photomontage and graphics we have come to be familiar with in other Rodchenko and Stepanova collaborations like Moscow Under Construction, First Cavalry, and Ten Years of Uzebekistan.

That said, Soviet Aviation is also one of the simpler books in terms of it bells and whistles. There are no die-cuts or gatefolds and unlike several other publications that employed the use of different toned inks in their printing, this one is printed in a uniform monochrome blue making it in comparison much less dynamic. Of course, this makes it a curious choice of all of the Rodchenko and Stepanova books to reprint but ultimately the most practical. The cost to a modern publisher (surely not working with State monies) to reproduce all of the extravagances of those other titles would be certain to strain the budget to the breaking point.

Soviet Aviation present the entire original book in full scale - standing 15" high. Included are two contemporary essays in the back - one written by Rodchenko's nephew Alexander Lavrentiev - that discuss the history of the book and the Soviet Union's advances in flight. Both are well written and vastly informative.

Printed over seventy years ago, the original was meant to be a celebration of flight and innovation created by the anonymous hands of a collective society. That voice, carefully crafted by two geniuses of book objects and design, may have wanted to appear to be spoken from a unified nation but the nuance of language belongs to just Stepanvova and Rodchenko.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

El Lissitzky and Max Burchartz reprints from Lars Müller

While in Koln Germany recovering from the Kassel festival burnout I made many non-photobook discoveries, one of which was a series that Verlag Lars Muller published in the mid-90s reprinting facsimiles of great graphic design from the 20s and 30s.

These are cardboard slipcased boxes of loose material, often magazines, pamphlets, posters and single sheet replicas of letterhead or company advertising created by El Lissitzky and Max Burchartz and others. Individual boxes are dedicated to the work of one designer. I believe there are four in the series. Two others I saw but didn't buy are on the pamphlets and prospectus from the architect Hannes Meyer, and reprints of the architecture magazine from the Bauhaus, ABC which was published from 1924-28 (edited by Hans Schmidt, Mart Stam, El Lissitzky and Emil Roth).

The first that caught my eye in the Walther Konig's bookstore is a box that contains reprints of El Lissitzky and Ilya Ehrenburg's Vesc magazines. It debuted in 1922 with the aim of acting as a "link between two neighboring communication trenches" - that of young Russian and western European artists triangulating Berlin, Paris and Moscow. Constructivist in agenda it featured art and writing, "whose task is not to embellish life but organize it."

Its emphasis on literature, art and music contained divergent attitudes and viewpoints partly due to the editor's openness to include of a wide variety of contributors but mostly because 1922 was a watershed year when Dadism was splitting into new camps rational and irrational tendencies - constructivism and surrealism. Contributors included; Lissitzky (of course), Fernand Leger, Boris Pasternak, Le Corbusier, Nicolai Punin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Raoul Hausmann, Harold Loeb, Juan Gris and dozens of others.

This box includes the three issues of Vesc in two booklets (the original issues one and two were combined into a single volume) and a larger book of translations and essays on the magazine's history. There are relatively few illustrations with the articles but the typography and layout are visually exhilarating. The contemporary book of comments and translations (which thankfully includes English) has a fine essay by Roland Nachtigaller and Hubertus Gassner.

The second box from this series I picked up is even better than the first, Max Burchartz: Typografische Arbeiten 1924-1931. If the Lissitzky and Ehrenburg box seems a little empty since it is only three booklets, the Burchartz box is virtually overflowing with material.

Although he never reached the level of fame attached to other designers, Burchartz is now considered a pioneer of modern design. His beginnings in painting and advertising expanded into typography, photography and furniture design. Admired by Jan Tschichold, some examples of his page layouts appeared in Tschichold's classic The New Typography in 1928. His theories of color control for building interiors that he developed while working with the architect Alfred Fischer were thought groundbreaking but ultimately forgotten until recently.

One of the most exciting inclusions in this box are a series of company pamphlets he made for the steel fabrication company Bochumer Verein. Bold use of color schemes, photography and typography beautifully illustrate offerings of bells, springs, railroad tracks, mining tools, crankshafts, and mechanisms used for ship propellors. One might imagine that much of the design greatness of these 10 folios from 1925 went perhaps unnoticed by the tradesman who they were aimed to entice.

Other items included are a couple of advertising pamphlets for a door handle company called Wehag which feature some door handles Burchartz designed himself, a theater program booklet and theater schedule poster from 1925, a poster from a vacuum company called Orion, as well as personal designs for his letterhead and calling card.

The paper stock and printing used for these boxes reflect the original materials. All in all there are 26 items to Typografische Arbeiten, all of which are produced at 1:1 scale. Also included is a booklet on Burchartz's personal history but unfortunately for me, it is in German with no English translation.

These reprint boxes are modestly priced at around 60-80 dollars and luckily from what I see through used book listings they haven't really jumped in price a great deal since their initial publication. If early design and typography is your thing then these are well worth a look.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

For a Language to Come by Takuma Nakahira

My last posting on the sweep of awards for Japanese books in Arles leads me to mention the new edition of Takuma Nakahira's For a Language to Come just published by Osiris.

Originally appearing in 1970, Kitarubeki Kotoba no Tameni is Nakahira's jarring description of a dark world - a landscape where the natural order of light and shadow, distinctions of space and time, is upset. From the opening image, the descriptive qualities of Nakahira's approach set a tone of brooding, where even the brightest burst of light can't seem to penetrate the shadows. His staggering vantage points seem envisioned by someone wounded or intoxicated by their surroundings. The apocalypse is nearing or has passed, that is unclear, but the physical impact of the environment on this wanderer couldn't be clearer.

The stifling claustrophobia of space in this world is extreme. Nakahira purposely condenses his tones and contrast to foreshorten space leaving little opportunity to breathe in the landscape. At night, spotlights and fluorescents offer little depth as if the speed of light was dragged to a standstill. When in natural light, we are often oppressed by a weighty haze of grey sky pushing down on the horizon line. The few pedestrians we encounter seem like sluggish sleepwalkers aimlessly going through the motions of life. This is not the dark but invigorated vision of Moriyama but a slowed pulse, the occasional images of lolling waves setting the pace.

This reprint follows the same edit and sequencing of the original. The original jacketed softcover wraps have been changed to a hardcover with a new design by Hattori Kazunari (a new interpretation of the idiosyncratic original by Tsunehisa Kimura). The original rich gravure printing, since now an extinct process, has given way to a finely handled offset. The paper is slightly glossier than the original.

In questioning how photography functions as either a language or something that exists "on the reverse side of language," Nakahira would ultimately re-examine his work in 1973, find it shackled by "expression" and shifted towards the attitude that photography must be like "an illustrated dictionary...[which]... consists only in clarifying the fact that material things are things." This would lead to his burning much of his past work on a beach near his home.

Now that this new edition is presented to us after so much has been written about it - essentially confirming its status as one of the masterpieces of Japanese photography - it is interesting to question how it will be seen, apart from scholarship, within a contemporary viewpoint. Considering Nakahira's initial attempt to reject and destroy it, a level of historical value has won out. 40 years has passed since Nakahira revealed this world and questioned what is photography and what is language, now it can be tested again and see how his "thoughts" stand against time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Yutaka Takanashi: Photography 1965-74

A month ago marked the start of the 2010 Les Rencontres D'Arles smoking convention which I attended for a few days. I found a small number of books (still trying to show restraint) which I will mention in the upcoming weeks. The main draw for me is the competition which names one "contemporary" book and one "historical" book as "best of the year" - the winners get 8000 euros each. Last year I entered the first Errata Editions books for the historical prize and we didn't fair very well. The judges that year were extremely critical of the concept of my books and not for the reasons you would think. (See my report from last year for more details).

So this year I entered the new Errata books with no hope of a prize but purely to help introduce them to a new audience. That Saturday, the day I was leaving, they made the final decision on the two awards and I was excited, not to mention surprised, to hear that this year's judges liked the series so much they were considering them for the historical prize. Their final decision went to Japanese Photobooks of the 60s and 70s from Aperture instead, but I am pleased to say that during the award ceremony that evening, they gave Errata Editions a special runner-up mention.

The winner of the contemporary book went to Only Photography's fine book Yutaka Takanashi Photography 1965-74. Only Photography is Roland Angst's independent publishing house in Berlin. Their books are beautifully produced with a strong care towards design and printing and the Takanashi book is their best so far. Past titles have been Ray K. Metzker's Automagic and Frauke Eigen's Shoku.

This hardcover book presents an edit of 41 images from Toshi-e in a large vertical format and the selection corresponded to an exhibition of mostly vintage prints that was on display at Galerie Priska Pasquer in Cologne, Germany. This marked the first solo showing of Takanashi in Germany. One of the gallery directors, Ferdinand Bruggemann is a specialist on Japanese photography and contributes a fine essay on Takanashi and his masterwork, Toshi-e. A second essay by Hitoshi Suzuki, who was an assistant to Kohei Suguira the book's designer, provides a personal remembrance of discovering the book in Seguira's design studio while it was being created. A short preface from the gallerist Priska Pasquer opens the book.

Yutaka Takanashi Photography 1965-74 is beautifully realized with three different cover images silk screened onto the cloth of the boards. A yellow translucent dustjacket wraps the book and the color I have been told reflects the tone off an exhibition poster from the first solo exhibit of this work in Japan in the 1980s. The printing of the plates is also exquisite - a modern offset interpretation of the original's lush gravure which remains rich and clean. The design reflects the twisting and turning of the original (horizontals oriented vertically) but with additional gatefolds for a few of the horizontal pictures. It was printed in an edition of only 500, 30 of which come signed and numbered with a print. An additional 100 were signed and numbered by Takanashi. I strongly recommend this book if you can get one. They are a bit pricey but I assure you it is because these books were expensive to produce.

So this year was a clean sweep of awards nodding towards Japan (it was also our study of Toshi-e that had gotten the main attention from the jury). My congratulations go to Aperture and Roland of Only Photography, I don't mind coming in second when the competition was that strong.