Category Archives: craft

Illustration Purist

Writing about the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth reminded me that I get a lot of crap for being a big stickler regarding the illustrations in children’s books. I can’t help it. Children’s literature is often so image-dependent that the illustrations in the original edition are as important as the text. While I have yet to see a version of the Phantom Tollbooth without the Jules Feiffer illustrations, I’ve had to reject copies of many other books because the illustrations are wrong.

Alice in Wonderland by John Tenniel. Disney Alice is wrong. As are any other versions. That this is standard on all e-readers makes it a great benchmark text. I should note that the Ralph Steadman version of Alice brings up the single exception for my insistence a specific illustrator: if the version is being sold as another artist’s take on a classic title, I’m fine with treating it as an art book rather than literature.

Winnie the Pooh by E.H Shepard. I hate Disney Pooh. And I can’t stand the “Classic Pooh” retronym. If i see a picture of Pooh, it had better be Shepard’s vision.

The Wizard of Oz by W.W.Denslow. This needs to be in the original colors too. The original issue of Wizard was printed in two color on all pages.  The spot color in each chapter would change depending on where Dorothy was* and everything tied together perfectly with Denslow’s artwork.

*Blue in Munchinkinland, Red in Quadling Country, Green in the Emerald City, Yellow in Winkieland, and Brown in Kansas.

Dr. Doolittle by Hugh Lofting. I love his original drawings. Even though things get a bit racist when the Doctor visits Africa.*

*But hey, it’s not as depressing or racist as the Babar books are now.

Stuart Little by Garth Williams. And Trumpet of the Swan and a bunch of other books of similar vintage.

Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. This book needs Kipling’s hand-drawn initial capitals for each story too. The lettering is frequently absent now.

Little House Books by Garth Williams. These get special mention because of the way the covers were recently changed. So wrong. I hope they change back to what they should be.

I’m sure there are some I’ve forgotten. It doesn’t matter. My family and friends already know to consult me about whether the illustrations are correct. And it’s probably a good thing that most books aren’t like this.

Now what?

Painting erupted once its burden of depiction was lifted. Maybe as photographers we can do our own lifting, realizing what it means, for example, to say that every photograph has already been taken. Seen in that sense, photography could maybe be the first medium to move forward because it has made itself obsolete, at least to some extent.

—Joerg Colberg: Photography After Photography?

Let’s shift from the emphasis on finding “new” elements to how we can combine elements with increasing sophistication.

—Fototazo: Responding to Colberg

As much as I’m an advocate of it being necessary to keep the function of art in mind, this does not mean that I am biased against non-functional art. If any thing, what I’m asking for is for museums to keep context in mind. If the art has a use, please let me know. If the art has no use, there’s still a purpose which I’d like to be informed of.

Photography, both because it’s still emerging as an art and because it skews majorly toward function,* has yet to really take the leap into the non-functional realm which other, older media have taken. It’s still very much about taking pictures of new things and it’s still very much about what the photograph is of rather than what the photograph is.

*Whatwith the misconception that photographic truth exists.

There’s a point in art where provoking the medium and exploring different elements of it become more interesting than just excellence of craft. Painting, sculpture, and music are already at this point—admittedly with a massive head start—and it seems like photography is reaching it.

There’s a sense in looking through new photo projects that we’ve kind of reached a point where documenting something—no matter how well it’s done—is no longer enough. It turns out that while the standard complaint is “now everyone is a photographer,” the real complaint should be “everything has been photographed.”

Which, of course is all crap. Photography, by coming into existence in parallel with modern art, has always had people who were pushing elements of it into sophisticated areas where the subject of the image isn’t the main point. Much of Edward Weston’s work, for example, can be seen as distinct explorations of the concept of texture and pattern. William Eggleston meanwhile is best seen as an exploration into color.

But we’re due for more of this. Less taking picture of things; more taking pictures of concepts. And more experimentation into realms which may not be thought of or immediately recognizable as “photography.”* It’s time to start exploring the toolset of photographic elements we use and really push our understanding of what those elements can do.

* To the three examples Colberg gives (do read his piece first), I’d add Jessica Eaton.


Prompted by the Daniel Clowes exhibition in Oakland and my local library putting together a non-teen graphic novel section,* I picked up a copy of Wilson during my last visit.

*The previous graphic novel section was in the teen section and consisted of manga serials with various volumes missing due to theft.

It’s fun. And it’s a very fast read—much faster than I’m used to reading a graphic novel.

If you like your books to have a likeable main character, you’ll want to stay away. But for the rest of us who have that little evil* voice in the back of our minds, it’s worth the read. I can definitely see how Alexander Payne got connected to the possible movie adaptation.

*Well, unfiltered, mean, and impatient—aka, the voice which has me scared of getting myself drunk.

From a craft point of view, I can’t think of a graphic novel where each chapter is drawn so differently. Each page changes style yet maintains the form of the entire piece in a way which feels completely natural. I know it’s not as casual and natural as it looks.

Not much more to write. I just wish I’d taken a picture of my son walking out of the children’s section of the library with this book in his arms.

Social Justice Posters

Also at the Oakland Museum with the Daniel Clowes exhibition is an exhibition of Social Justice posters. The exhibition itself kind of skips a lot of historical context. Since it’s about local history, I was able to fill in the gaps. But I’d still like a bit more context as to what the poster is about.

What I found really interesting though was the craft and aesthetics of these protest posters.* In the 1960s and 1970s, the posters designs and graphic styles were mandated by the limitations of cheap printing technology—no screening, two colors, hand-drawn type, etc. Despite the fact that the printing world has completely flipped now to where process-color printing is super cheap, heavy-coverage spot-color printing is expensive, and everyone has more fonts than they know what to do with; the style of what protest posters are supposed to look like hasn’t changed much.

*Surprise surprise, I geeked out on printing yet again

That silkscreen is still a cheap point of entry for making personal posters helps a lot with this.* But more and more people have access to computers and laser printers now. I’m surprised and disappointed that I didn’t see any toner-based posters. It doesn’t seem unrealistic to expect people to be printing these on a Fiery at FedEx Office now.

*As does the fact that merchandising on tshirts is still alive and kicking.

Though at the same time, I’m not so surprised. The ease of access to printing has resulted in people who have no idea how to design being able to print anything they want. Whereas the higher barriers of entry required to create non-process offset of silkscreen work mean that those posters still look better.

There’s also the fact that nowadays, people are more likely to publicize an event on the web* than through postering a city.** I get the sense that the posters of today are more likely to be art pieces for purchase to support a cause than for any large-scale distribution. And that digital printing using cheap toner-based printers is not making it into museums yet.

*It’s been a dozen years since I was in college. Do people even flyer on campus now?

**Something Mark Bradford has noted as he has discussed how his raw materials are disappearing.

But enough about digital. The exhibition does show a lot of good silkscreen and offset work. I especially liked the blue on blue Earth Day poster which shows how much an abstracted globe still reads as home. It’s also always fascinating how few lines and colors you actually need to define faces and emotion. And it’s somewhat sobering to see that a lot of the protest posters are decades old and still as relevant as ever.

Daniel Clowes

It’s always interesting to see exhibitions consisting of the original artwork for book illustrations. Between my photography and printing backgrounds, I’m very sensitive to the distinction between the initial creation and the finished piece. It’s nice to see the behind-the-scenes nature of pasteups and contact prints. Yet very rarely can those components overshadow the intended final printed piece.

The Daniel Clowes exhibition  at the Oakland Museum is the third such exhibition I’ve seen in the past year.* Clowes’s work in particular is worth seeing in the museum. His drawings are super-precise and are served well by being seen in their original larger size.** It’s also instructive to see how he pastes fine details like faces and highlights on top of the base drawings and how he uses pre-printed fill patterns to give texture to things like clothing and hair. The results are almost computer-generated, even in the large paste-up versions.

*Previous two are Robert Crumb’s Genesis and Sandow Birk’s Commedia, both at the San José Museum of Art.

**roughly twice the dimensions of the printed pieces.

Yet, as much as I can appreciate the craft, over and over again I found myself just reading the panels and getting into the story—generally a good thing for this kind of art but frustrating in a museum where not all panels are present. I’m not familiar-enough with all the comics to fully appreciate the panel artwork—unlike Genesis or the Commedia, each of which I’m somewhat familiar with storywise. Many of the panels though did stand on their own so it’s not all frustrating.

To be fair, the museum has provided samples of the various graphic novels and bench to sit on while you read them. But that’s a much longer-term commitment to the museum than I had available to me last weekend.

I just wish they were selling prints of the “Oakland” panel from Wilson. Any exhibition which can produce a laugh-out-load moment like that is worth seeing.

Art and Artifact

Visit any art museum and you find that, up until the renaissance, most of the western art on display is actually functional. And that most of the non-western art is always displayed as being functional.* Yet even now, when western art has been decoupled from its function, functional western art still shows up in museums. The catch is that it always old when it shows up.

*Read my Art, Craft, and Function post for more context on this point.

I don’t think it’s possible to set a specific time value for when things become objects in and of themselves. It does seem though that we need time to let the context settle down.

Richard Misrach waited 20 years before displaying his photos of the Oakland Hills Fire. This kept his photos from being opportunistic ruin porn and instead added some historical context for us to reflect on what we were seeing yet also allowed us to add our own narratives to the story and abstract the images so they can describe other disasters.

Similarly, old photojournalism will often show up in museums as art since the photos are no longer burdened by a single specific narrative.

Which makes sense considering photography’s function. A lot of the appeal of Walker Evans now is the historical side of the photos and how they illustrate a time in American history. They’re no longer specific stories, they evoke the sense of a decade.

The transition of a photo from image to artifact is especially interesting given the hang-ups many people have about archival life. Museums happily display old prints and tintypes without explaining how they may have faded or tarnished over the years. That the objects and images have survived is sufficient. And this is fine. How an object ages is an important part of its impact. We don’t look at ancient sculpture fragments and think that they’re ruined because they’ve broken.* We appreciate what’s survived. If a calamity happens, that becomes part of the history of the object.**

*Something that artists like Mitoraj take full advantage of.

**For example, Cimabue’s crucifix which was “destroyed” by floods.

What we see in the museum is as much about what the object has survived and its specific life story as it is about what the object actually is and represents.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this will change as more and more art becomes technology-based and no longer degrades physically. We’re not really used to this idea yet we’re already seeing this phenomenon in movies where once-cutting-edge special effects end up severely dating the movie later. Watching King Kong, Jason and the Argonauts, or even Jurassic Park now forces us to see the technical evolution of the medium. I’m not sure we’ve adjusted to being able to view those as much more than technological time capsules.

I’m a bit worried that the focus on archival life in photography will result in a second round of technological hangups once prints begin to age. It’s much more interesting to focus on what the photos are of and what they represent from the past than just talking about the technicalities—no matter how interesting—of how they were made.

Renegade Humor

Melt by Walter Robinson

My trip to San José to see Mexicanismo also meant that I could take in the Renegade Humor exhibition. It’s a spottier exhibition consisting of some pieces which I really reacted to and others which didn’t grab me much. But that’s to be somewhat expected from a bunch of work which is expected to be earthier and flippant. Flippancy doesn’t always age well.

Those pieces I reacted to though I tended to really like. I have a wry sense of humor which appreciates the obscure and the dark.* There’s definitely a lot of that here. Some of the newer pieces such as Walter Robinson’s Melt, or Brian Goggin’s Desire for the Other are especially interesting in this regard as they use dark humor to comment on the state of things today. Those two pieces are also the two most visible in the exhibition.

*Yet another reason I enjoyed Mexicanismo.

David Gilhooly

#10 Sampler by David Gilhooly

The most interesting part of the exhibition for me though was getting a better appreciation for Robert Arneson as I only just realized how non-functional ceramics are still fighting to be included as real art. They’ve been around as long as I’ve been alive but I still find myself not really reacting to most ceramic sculptures.* It’s nice to be made aware of my blinders. I may not dismiss ceramics as “not art” but I’m motivated now to think about why I react the way I do.

*I do react well to pottery, stoneware and other functional stuff.

Some of my reaction is due to the fact that most of the non-functional ceramic art I’ve seen is in the context of student or community center art. A lot of it is based on how museums still aren’t sure how they fit in with other pieces. It’s definitely still an emerging medium which makes photography* look like the establishment.

*Photography is still in a weird position in the museum and we’re still seeing confusion about what kind of photography is art.

If you want to get in on an art medium at the ground floor, consider this a recommendation to embrace non-functional ceramics. They’re not cool yet. And you’ll be able to make jokes about David Gilhooly chocolate frogs the next time you read Harry Potter.