I told you I'd report back once Paul Trevor's book Like You've Never Been Away got here. It arrived very quickly from Bluecoat Press, Liverpool. (As I mentioned before, the way to get it is to go to the book's Amazon U.K. page, click on "3 new for £9.99," then select "Add to Basket" for the Bluecoat Press option. Ignore the bit on the Amazon page about the book being temporarily out of stock.)
The news is both good and bad. To begin with, the reproduction quality is quite fine—extremely fine for a £10 book. The hardest thing to get right in black-and-white—not just in reproduction, but in originals, too—is tonality, and the tonal properties of these pictures are rich and evocative for the most part, looking like real photographs, with their own tonal style, the middle values lowered on the scale like Rodinal used to do with shouldered films.
Considering that it's modestly-sized and only a paperback, the book is well-crafted and put together with skill and care, with sewn signatures and using good materials.
Unfortunately, however, most of the pictures are horizontals, and all the horizontal pictures are run double-truck, spread over two pages...uniformly, without regard for the content of each picture.
Some of the pictures are ruined by the gutter (a poor little fellow in a family portrait on p. 43 virtually disappears), and some more are only hurt by it. Fortunately, many of the pictures are "field-centered," with the loci of visual interest placed here and there in the visual field, rather than "object-centered," so the gutter doesn't ruin very many pictures. This picture, an example of the former, is okay...
(Granted it doesn't look great here—sorry about the poor quickie snaps—but it's a lot less offensive when you're holding the real book in your hand. You do get the sense that you can see the picture adequately.)
But this one is definitely ruined...
The relatively few vertical pictures, however, each reproduced cleanly one picture to a page, make it obvious how the book ought to have been printed—as a square, with the verticals and horizontals run same-size, one to a page. The overpowering temptation that book designers feel to sacrifice the visual integrity of photographs for the sake of size apparently becomes irresistible to them in the case of small books—they simply believe size is more important. They're wrong—visual integrity is more important, at least when the photographs are the point of the book and the photos aren't being used as mere page decor. The smaller (one page) verticals in this book are not perhaps ideally sized, but are large enough.
The intrusive gutter is only intolerable in a few of the pictures. Balance the problem against the fact that the book is very inexpensive, and that it's the only way to get the work if you can't get to Liverpool to see the show. On balance the work is still good to have. Still recommended, with the asterisk.
'From Craft to Art'
In this context I should bring up another beautiful little book that has fallen within my sphere recently, Robert Doisneau: From Craft to Art. This is a gorgeously made little volume, with very attractive embossed pale green paper covered boards (hardcover, that is) and complementary mustard-colored endpapers, and what I would call a mature design: elegant, skillful, but not extrovert. (Note that it may have several different covers: the one illustrated on the Amazon page is not the one I bought locally and that is shown here.) The book is well supported with text, mainly an extensively revised and translated c. 1980 long essay by Jean-François Chevrier (although modified for this book, it retains the tense of the original, written when Doisneau, who died in 1994, was still alive). I'm tempted to call it mainly a reader's book—it even has a bound-in placemaker ribbon; the plates don't start until page 81.
The reason I mention it, and at the risk of seeming like someone who will complain no matter what, is that this is one of the few books I've encountered recently where the reproductions really are too small. Again, we're talking about degrees here: most of the pictures convey adequately. The reproduction quality, typical of Steidl's black-and-white, is capable but not delectable (Steidl's books tend to have well-supported blacks—I mean blacks that are black enough—but that lack tonal separation in the shadows). Although the book design is exemplary, the largest of the pictures is only about 5 x 5", and many are smaller. As with the Trevor book, this affects different pictures in different ways. Many look fine; but some have too much detail to be seen comfortably at such small sizes—centers of visual interest to which the eye is led by the compositions just don't reward close looking; the details don't have space to breathe.
As with the Trevor book, I still recommend this—especially if you feel you'd like to read about Doisneau. It's an elegant little example of the bookmaker's art. (Here's the U.K. link and one for The Book Depository.) Asterisked, as with the above.
Steve McCurry masterwork
Finally, just a simple heads-up for the well-heeled: Phaidon's deluxe, slipcased, limited-edition McCurry retrospective, Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs, has just been published (last June 13th), at a list price of $400. Each oversized book—and I mean oversized; at 500x375mm (19.75x14.75 in.) and 320 pages, your coffee table had better have sturdy legs—is signed, and comes with an original photograph which is also signed by the photographer. There are 3,300 copies overall, 1,100 of those for the U.S.
For those to whom the nearly $250 Amazon wants for this tome is a wee tad too dear, my old fave Looking East: Portraits by Steve McCurry is still in print for a more palatable $31 (and a bargain at that price, given its stellar printing quality). In fact I think I'll go console myself about not being able to afford the big book by pulling Looking East down off the shelf.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Andre: "+1 for Looking East: Portraits by Steve McCurry I've had a copy for a while now and I've considered buying a second just to cut the binding and frame some of the photos. I hope that's not too sacrilegious for the book lovers out there."
Mike replies: I've done that three or four times. In each case I've used "hurt" or incomplete copies of the books in question, or books with library markings, and I basically started from the other direction: it was inspired by first finding myself confronted with the hurt book and thinking about what I could do to salvage something of it without having to just throw it away. So maybe look for a cheap used copy that's somehow hurt or that has a binding in poor condition? For instance, Midtown Scholar Bookstore lists a copy on Amazon for $12.95 described this way: "GOOD—This is a hurt hardcover book with some tearing, scuffing, bumping, creasing and a torn dust jacket. Still, it is fully usable and the flaws are only cosmetic." Hard to tell from that if the pages are perfect, but you could call and ask.
I agree that the pages of Looking East are worthy of framing, more so than most posters.
Featured Comment by Paul Trevor: "Hi Mike, your criticism of my book is fair. There are some points I'd like to offer in defence of the publisher.
- It was published primarily as the catalog for the show, so most people would already have seen the photographs.
- Like wine, the book can only improve with time, as the pages gradually flatten!
- The binding is excellent. This means the flattening process can be sped up without fear of destroying the spine by pressing down the center of open spreads or by bending the two halves of the book backwards. This has worked well with my copy.
"But I'll definitely pass on Stan B's comment about how books with a 'soft' spine can improve the viewing experience."