Books to look at—no reading allowed

Illustration from Nature Morte by Peter Koch, Stanford 2011

A historical photo of the B&M Copper Smelter in Great Falls, Montana forms the backdrop for the illustration DeadFall in the handcrafted book Nature Morte by Peter Koch. The book is now on display at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford.

The illustration emphasizes the tragic consequences of the industrial revolution in Montana; the bleak landscape, so typical of Western industrial sites, shows the devastation created by the smelter, which operated from 1893 to 1980. The 427-acre site above Black Eagle Dam on the Missouri River is now a superfund site that is waiting for a government clean up.

Koch is one of a handful of 21st century letterpress printers who use conventional inked moveable type and digital art transferred to photopolymer plates. In this case low tech meets high tech with stunning results to produce museum quality prints, which have been collected by Koch into a fine book. However, the exhibit is “look don’t touch” as usual for museums. I would love to be able to pick the book up and turn the pages.

The current exhibit at the Cantor has a large selection of beautiful books from Foolscap Press, Moving Parts Press, Ninja Press, Peter Koch Printer and Turkey Press. These 5 small California companies feature the use of commercial letterpress, which evolved from the press invented by Johannes Gutenberg to print the bible in the mid-15th century, but they also use modern design ideas and advanced photo-digital techniques.

My favorite display was that of Ninja Press, founded by Carolee Campbell in 1984. One of Campbell’s 10 examples is a unique folding book, The Real World of Manuel Córdova, W.S. Merwin, 1995. In this poem Córdoba is kidnapped in the upper reaches of the Amazon River. Here is the printer’s description of the book:

The type is hand-set Samson Uncial printed letterpress in six colors on kakishibu, a persimmon-washed and smoked handmade paper from the Fuji Paper Mills Cooperative in Tokushima, Japan. The text which is housed in an accordion-style binding, may be unfolded and read in hand, stanza by stanza, or opened entirely to reveal all forty-three, fourteen-line stanzas. Fully extended, the poem is fifteen feet long.

The poem hangs from the ceiling of the exhibit room, flowing down the wall and across the floor. The margin of the poem is a digital image of the Amazon—the lines of the poem flow back and forth along the bank of the river. This poem is gorgeously done. It’s worth the trip to Stanford just to see this one book.

According to Stanford: the exhibition features the “new book”, as defined by contemporary art practices, successful experiments with media, and innovative structures in book production. And, that seems accurate to me. The examples are usually in cases but visibility is quite good; each press has its own area and large illustrations and descriptive material covers the walls.

Unfortunately you can’t pick up and touch the examples—these books cry out to be hefted, page-turned and read. But that is always the deal when museums display reading material.

A hardbound full color catalog accompanies the exhibit. There is a readable essay giving the historical context of fine letterpress printing from Gutenberg’s bible to today. Each of the presses (Foolscap Press, Moving Parts Press, Ninja Press, Peter Koch Printer, Turkey Press) has contributed a description for each book displayed. Color photos of the installation are included. A timeline of fine printing in California completes the catalog.

This show is worth a trip to the Cantor if you’re in the area.

Day 52: The Art of the Book in California: Five Contemporary Presses (Stanford University Libraries) (2011).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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