The Grain of the Present

LaToya Ruby Frazier
Henry Wessel Lee Friedlander
Robert Adams Robert Adams
Vanessa Winship

Took my second trip to Pier 24, this time to see their Grain of the Present exhibition. Pier 24’s shows are so expansive and generous with the amount of material from each artist that I find it difficult to write about the show in general. Too many directions to go and things to think about.

That said, most of the photographs on display do reflect a sublime sense of photography as a reactive, perceptive medium. Rather than being previsualized images, we see the products of the photographer recognizing something they liked and finding a way to get the shot before the moment passed. At their best, the resulting photos both show each photographer’s unique point of view and help us learn more perceptive ways of seeing the world around us.

The highlights especially deserve to get mentioned individually. I’m just going to go in alphabetical order.

For Robert Adams they had a selection of his Prairie shots up. Adams is in this show because of his involvement in New Topographics but instead of looking at any New West of suburbs and development, we got to see effectively pre-suburban living. Same eye but a very different feel. Time’s stopped. Hope remains. There’s something elegiac because we can sense the decline coming.

Lewis Baltz meanwhile continues being arguably my favorite photographer. I’ve never seen all of Candlestick Point before and I’ve very glad I got a chance to do so here. Being able to explore the photos in a grid is a wonderful way to explore the work and feel my way around both the location and the images. There’s so much sublime subtle stuff going on with the light and the shadows and reflections.

LaToya Ruby Frazier is probably the highlight of the show. I love the mix of scales and subject matter. Her family photos are small and intimate and feel incredibly personal. Yet at the same time I’m reminded of watching my grandparents age. Her cityscapes are completely different. Large, detailed, inquisitive, showing aging buildings and disappearing industries. And they work perfectly with the family images. The big photos need to be big. The small ones need to be small. But in all cases the images are keenly seen and personal.

Lee Friedlander’s Little Screens are hilarious. They’re very much of their time in terms of the hardware, furniture, and tv shows shown. But they’re also entirely suggestive of our screen addictions today. It’s one of those simple ideas which could come off as either a trite gimmick or heavy-handed snark but instead Friedlander’s treatment reveals the humor of how we just shove the TV wherever it fits in a room yet it still becomes the focal point.

I enjoyed Ed Panar’s work and how he keeps returning to the same subjects. While many of the galleries emphasize the idea of being receptive to images when you’re out and about, much of Panar’s work can be seen as recognizing that something as imminently familiar as the view from your front porch or your daily walk is also always changing and will occasionally present itself as a photo worth taking.

Henry Wessel is also always great and I was very excited to see his photo of Richmond again. It was one of my favorite things in the new SFMOMA yet I couldn’t find an image of it anywhere online. I’m glad I got a second chance. Wessel, probably more than any other photographer in this show, fits the description of someone who’s out there just finding photographs with his camera. I know there’s more to it than that but there’s a certain casual grace in his shots that I both admire and envy.

He’s neither super-precise nor is he consciously rough. The light and tones are always this perfect combination of having a slight low-contrast glow while still popping crisply off the page. And his sense California reminds me of home—especially now that I live in New Jersey.

And Vanessa Winship. I like her very much. Her work, especially her portraits, also has a certain grace about it. It’s much more precise than Wessel but there’s a gentleness in the images where I don’t feel like I’m being prompted to gawk at anyone.

I didn’t include Diane Arbus or Stephen Shore in the highlights because, as great as their work is to see in-person, I’m already very familiar with it. While all the older photographers in the show were selected because of their association with New Topographics or New Documents, only Arbus’s and Shore’s work has a massive overlap with the images displayed in those two exhibitions.

That said, Arbus is a nice example of how being receptive to a photograph doesn’t mean grabbing a snapshot and moving on. Arbus’s portraits are keenly seen in terms of how she chooses her subject. That the resulting images are part of an impromptu portrait session doesn’t diminish their spontaneity.

What didn’t fit the Theme

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Each photographer draws inspiration from the ordinary moments of life, often seeing what others overlook—and showing us if you look closely, you can find beauty in the smallest aspects of your surroundings.

Some of the photos on display though just didn’t fit the concept of the show for me. Some may ask us to look closely and see what other people may not see. But they’re not really ordinary moments. Others are indeed ordinary moments but do not show us anything novel. Note, this doesn’t mean that I think these photos are bad, just that, within the context of this show, I wasn’t feeling it.

First, Bernd and Hilla Becher. I love them and their typologies and can sit in a room full of those photo grids for hours. But there’s no sense of moment at all in the photos.

Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters is sort of similar. It’s a project I adore and am already steeling myself for when it devastates me—it’s guaranteed to eventually devastate me. And it does capture an ordinary moment. We all take family photos and can relate to the truths within this project. But this particular project has always been clearly much more than a mere family photo in both the repetition and the collaboration between all five people involved in its production that it feels out of place among the rest of the projects on display.

I feel a bit bad putting Awoiska van der Molen’s work here but I just never got the sense of moment at all from it. Her photos are nice enough and, in a different space with a different context,* may have moved me. But in this space, they felt like a more academic exercise amidst photographers who were working on a much more intuitive level.

*The Pier 24 no context thing may also have served her work particularly badly since her titles and descriptions are just as vague.

And Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful was the exact wrong photo series to choose. Yeesh. I’ve tried to rationalize my feelings about it in the past but I also don’t think I’ve ever been subjected to the entire set. Caille Millner is right. It’s creepy and intrusive as all hell. Yes the ice cream woman is a great photo. As is the LaGuardia bar photo. As are a few others. But the rest? Good lord. For most of those photos there are literally only two reasons why he triggered the shutter. And they’re usually braless.

To include those in an exhibition of “see what others overlook” is either hilariously tone deaf or an ironic joke doomed to fail due to Pier 24’s lack of context. Winogrand deserves better than that. I would’ve been filled with joy had it been The Animals which got selected.

On Print Sizes

Eamonn Doyle
The first room of this exhibition included a sample from every photographer in the show. It was immediately apparent who the new photographers were compared to the old ones. If it’s printed huge? New photographer. If it’s a nice small size? Old photographer. New photography is hug both because new art is huge and because digital technology allows for photography to be printed huge.

I don’t like this tendency and feel like it frequently gets in the way of the photos. It’s probably no surprise that the two new photographers whose work I really liked had a mix of small and larger prints which gave me the impression that they’d really considered the optimal size for each image.

Alec Soth’s Niagara is a series I’m familiar with but which I’ve never seen in person. I like it better as a book. The giant wall-size photos of the falls and the hotels work ok. Still too large but the geometry of the hotel architecture gets abstracted nicely at that scale. The portraits though are kind of monstrous. I find myself wondering if the sitters realized their nudes would be larger than life and if Soth intended for us to gawk at them. It’s not an empathetic scale.

Eamonn Doyle’s i suffers similarly in that it feels both intrusive and, rather than inviting us to look closely, enlarges everything to the point where subtlety gets lost. I was dubious as it was about whether his cleverness was enough to sustain a book. It definitely doesn’t scale to giant-size images. Sometimes a clever idea only works at a small scale. I can see these working fine arranged as small prints on a single wall the way that Winogrand, Friedlander, and Baltz were displayed.

And holy moly Women Are Beautiful would be an order of magnitude creepier if it were printed at modern sizes.

Other Comments

A few random comments and observations which don’t fit with the rest of this post—many of which refer to specific things I’ve not seen before.

While the lack of context information at Pier 24 doesn’t bother me too much, I do find myself being dismayed by the absence of any process information too. I think it’s important to know what kinds of prints we’re looking at as the distinct photographic printing processes all result in different kinds of objects.

Henry Wessel

The grid of color Wessel photos! Not something I every imagined and definitely not my mental conception of his work. I was amazed that they kind of amazingly had the same light and contrast as his black and white photos do. How does he do that?

Bernd and Hilla Becher

I have never seen non-typology wide Becher photos before either. I like that they still include typologies in the frame. Also, looking at their grid of spherical tanks makes me want to shoot a typology of soccer balls for all the different patch tiling.

Diane Arbus

San Francisco is full of “Summer of Love” celebrations right now. That Arbus’s Boy with Straw Hat is ALSO from 1967 is a bit of a coincidence but also felt like a wry joke at how it feels like the summer of 1967 has become a myth about peace love and happiness reigning unencumbered by war or racial inequality.

And back to Baltz’s Candlestick Point. As much as I enjoyed the entire set I also couldn’t help shaking the feeling that I must’ve parked in a few of these locations. Candlestick’s overflow lots were dirt and occupied a lot of the land that Baltz was photographing. Many of the images felt familiar to me as places which I walked through before and after Giants games with that oddly hot and direct mid-day sun or the brutal cold wind which whipped up in the afternoon.

Pomponio

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A trip to Pomponio State Beach. It’s nice to be back in California where the beaches are cold and foggy and the water is freezing. Keeps a lot of the people away too so while it wasn’t empty it wasn’t anywhere near crowded.

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Also at San José

In addition to Fragile Waters there’s a lot of other good stuff going on in San José. A few highlights which caught my interest.

Victor Cartagena

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This was good. I love that it’s in collaboration with the farmworkers and really gets at the human costs of our food industry. The way that workers are sprayed with chemicals—fertilizers and pesticides—so that even when they weren’t working they couldn’t escape the job. The way laborers have to consume some of the product they’re picking in order to survive the day. The way the government treats them as disposable, unwanted cogs in the machine when they’re actually a lynchpin of the economy.

Yet even if we know of the human costs we don’t really know the humans involved. Cartagena shows us people—even names them—but proceeds to obscure them so that we have to look through the evidence of their labor in order to discern their features.

I did find it interesting that there was no mention of Kara Walker even though her Subtlety covered similar territory with regard to sugar three years ago. Cartagena’s work is different in that he’s used the actual likeness of one of the laborers, the resulting sugar masks also evoke the sugar skulls of Día de los Muertos, and they’re an explicit reference to Catholicism. 12 masks for 12 apostles. A table set for the last supper. The idea that this faith and culture is based on the miracle of transubstantiation and how life literally comes from the consumption of someone else’s body.

It just felt too similar not to mention that other artists are also working with the legacies of American sugar production. There’s probably an artist I don’t know of doing something very similar in Hawai‘i as well.

Darkened Mirror

Khvay Samnang Untitled, 2011 Digital still from video

Khvay Samnang
Untitled, 2011
Digital still from video

This was a nice supplement to the more-traditional old topographics of Fragile Waters. Where Fragile Waters is reminding us to get out and enjoy nature, Darkened Mirror is about pointing out how water usage alters the landscape and displaces people.

Your Mind, This Moment

A gallery of slow art. Most of these didn’t hold my attention. Mineko Grimmer however did. Her Mahagony Music Box taps into the kid of fascination I remember feeling about watching the Foucault pendulum at the Academy of Sciences when I was a kid. Something about watching the water drip and being surprised every time a stone falls. Plus it just sounds great. The sticks make a wonderful natural clack and the occasional string sounds at what feels like the perfect time.

Fragile Waters

There is but one Ocean though its coves have many names; a single sea of Atmosphere with no coves at all; the miracle of soil, alive and giving life, lying thin on the only Earth, for which there is no spare.

David Brower

Ansel Adams Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942

Ansel Adams
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, WY, 1942

Ernest H. Brooks II Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981

Ernest H. Brooks II
Pirouette, Santa Barbara Island, 1981

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Marsh Island, Clouds, Ipswich, MA, 2005

Ernest H. Brooks II 1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines

Ernest H. Brooks II
1996 Year of the Coral Reef, Sombrero Island, Philippines

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Rock Crevice Pool, Acadia National Park, Maine, 2001

I often find myself wondering whether the old style of environmental photography is still relevant. I’ve been tempted to read it as more of an epitaph than a call to action, but taking in San José’s Fragile Waters show has me realizing there’s still a place for it.

Ansel Adams is obviously the big name but it’s the combination of Ernest H. Brooks and Dorothy Kerper Monnelly and the way they expand on the Adams’s body of work which is most interesting here. There are many similar views—not the same, just similar enough to notice the familiarity in perspective—which work together to show how all water is indeed connected.

Their work hops from coast to coast and ocean to ocean yet in each location, while the photos are different, the perspectives are the same. This is a good thing. The way we value water is the same everywhere. The way we need water is the same everywhere. The way we commune with nature is the same. Everywhere. Water is so dynamic yet in all these photos it’s still and frozen in time. The photographers spent hours waiting for the right light or composition but that they also were just out in nature matters.

Where Adams is clearly focused on working the scene and creating an image and making his point, Brooks and Monnelly are much more zen about things. Specifically, there’s an underlying theme in their nature and environmental photography as being a means rather than an end. That a successful photography session is one which results in you feeling refreshed from being in the presence of nature. That the actual image itself makes no difference to whether you’ve succeeded.

It’s this change in perspective which makes their environmental photography so much more effective for me. Whereas the “see this pristine wilderness before it’s ruined” type of photography doesn’t do it for me, “this is the evidence of my time in nature” does. I can feel the mindfulness of it and the way that it emerges from the experience of just being.

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998

Dorothy Kerper Monnelly
Salt Hay, First Light, Gloucester, MA, 1998

That the perspectives are similar and the experiences are similar suggests our shared humanity and relieves a lot of the selfish concerns I have about my own photography. A lot of the photos on display remind me of my own work. This could easily be cause for despair but it’s okay here. I’m not consciously mimicking anyone’s images, I’m just following the same process. My photos are different in that their part of my own experience just being in nature—whether it’s an isolated lake in the High Sierra or a artificial pond in an industrial park. They’re what I saw and the more important thing was that I got outside and away from everything else.

They speak to why it’s so important to preserve nature and natural spaces. Yes, conserving them for the survival of other life is important, but we need them for ourselves and our sanity too.

It’s easy to forget how important it is to get away and just take a walk. Get out in trees or along the water. Watch the wildlife. Play chicken with the waves. Touch the earth. Go for a swim. “Old topographics” nature photography like this serves as a reminder to get off the computer and get outside. Their environmental message is that reminder that we need to do this..

Ernest H. Brooks II Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

Ernest H. Brooks II
Winged Wall, Antarctica, 2010

The epitaph and elegy reading is still strong though. Monnelly has a number of beautiful photographs of winter ice captioned with the sentiment about how melting ice represents the return of life. This is indeed the traditional reading. However since Brooks’s photographs of Antarctica are in the same gallery, I was struck by the irony that melting ice also represents the beginning of the end.

It’s one thing to see and be reminded of how we all see and react to water in similar ways. Ice though is much more divisive. Many of us dislike it and celebrate its annual disappearance. At the same time, we need it. It’s what California depends on for its water and it’s a ticking time bomb as it melts in the North and South poles.

On Ernest H. Brooks

As an underwater photographer Brooks is very interesting to look at from a technical point of view. His equipment is incredibly important to his work and it’s very obvious in looking at how his prints go from traditional to digital that we’re watching him make the transition from film to digital too. I love that he’s committed to shooting in black and white even with a digital camera.

I also like how mixed his subject matter is. Animal portraits. Abstracts. People and their presence in the water. Underwater requires both more awareness as to what can make a good photo and the ability to react when it occurs. His switch to digital also appears to have opened up some above-water subject matter to him. His ultra wide clouds and Infrared Antarctica images are also good and with their emphasis on the sky, are very much in keeping with the way that many of his underwater photos treat the surface of the water.

I also especially enjoy the way the infrared shots interact with Ansel Adams’s red-fltered skies.

On Dorothy Kerper Monnelly

Unlike Brooks she very clearly has her equipment settled. Like Brooks she spends her time just in nature, revisits similar subjects and lets the photos come to her. I like her work a lot. Despite much of it being East Coast instead of West Coast her approach just speaks to me.

Her photos of marshes and shores feel like she’s making the same walks every day and really knows the lay of the land now. What to expect. Where the best location are. And as mentioned before, her photos of ice and snow are beautiful in how they capture how dynamic and sculptural their formations are.

I also love how frequently her work is gloriously low contrast. Brooks and Adams tend toward using the full range of tones—often with extreme black skies or backgrounds due to filtering in camera of because of fall-off due to the water. Monnelly though thrives on the fog and mist of early mornings and is smart enough to embrace all the wonderful midtones that result.

On Adams

Ansel Adams Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946

Ansel Adams
Point Sur, Storm, Big Sur, CA, 1946

There’s not much to say about Adams. I know his work. We all know his work. I did find it odd though that there were two different prints of his Point Sur Storm photos yet the museum didn’t flag that they were from the same negative or comment on why both were on display. One was labeled 1946 and the other 1948 but nothing indicated that this was a printing date.

The 1948 print is larger and has had its contrasts reworked a bit. Slightly higher contrast overall and some of the shadow details are gone due to no longer being held back. The digital image here of the 1946 print is also higher contrast than what’s actually on display but you can see details in the lower lefthand corner which aren’t there at all in the 1948 print.

I’m used to Adams revisiting negatives decades later but in this case it feels more like he’s working through how he sees this negative. Given the way that this show  leans in to the Adams name—there’s also a display of his camera—I found myself wanting to know more about his process. At least we got to read a wonderful letter about juvenilia photo (also on display) which gets into how much work Adams put into his photography. It’s very different from the mindful experiential process that Brooks and Donnelly practiced but it’s great to see how considered everything is.

Art Museum Field Trip

Another school field trip like the one to the New Jersey State Museum. This time the kids visited Guyot Hall to see the fossils and then got a guided tour of the Art Museum where they learned about Laocoön, Arion, ancient Chinese tomb guardians, and Medusa.

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Great Googly Moogly

Trading over the internet has been a ton of fun so far. Instead of being concerned about “value” or card-for-card sort of trades, we’ve all been able to fill holes in each other’s collections and be surprised by what we receive in return. Still, the exchanges have so far been limited to bubble mailers and exchanges of maybe a dozen cards or so. Which means that when I received Shane Katz’s package I was a bit blown away.

A surprise bubble mailer is fun. A surprise box? Above and beyond any of my expectations especially as an exchange for a bunch of regional food issued cards.

Anyway, digging in. The coolest part was knocking off ten spots on my Giants wantlist. This would have been plenty generous as it as an exchange as it is. Getting a few additional items—specifically the McCormick Game card and the Halicki mini—which I wasn’t actively seeking is a cool bonus.

That the 1968 Lindy McDaniel is a high number and the 1969 Bobby Bolin is a white name variant deserves special mention here.

The rest of the box is all Giants cards. At first glance I thought these were all dupes. Turns out it’s a set where there’s one card for each home run Barry hit. I can’t imagine how insufferable this must’ve been to non-Giants fans. Bondsmania was annoying enough in the Bay Area as it was and we actually liked him. when I see things like this I’m reminded of the way Topps has been behaving about Aaron Judge right now. Very glad we didn’t have Topps Now during the Bonds year.

Also, Shane packaged these with the 666 on top. As well he should’ve.

Oh-Pee-Chee! Always fun. I was very surprised to learn that Upper Deck purchased the brand. In some ways this is the most disturbing change to me in the entire hobby. Oh-Pee-Chee has always been Canadian Topps. Not anymore though.

It’s been pointed out on Twitter to me that because Upper Deck purchased Oh Pee Chee, Upper Deck felt like they could print cards using old Topps designs. Topps obviously felt otherwise but this would certainly explain the 1963 Topps designed Upper Deck which I found in a repack.

Topps Magazine and Wacky Packages. not much to say about these except that they’re fun. The Topps Magazine cards in particular presaged a lot of the archives/heritage product in how they use the old designs with current players. Aside from the card stock issues by being magazine inserts, I found their interpretations of the old designs to be better homages than the current product in stores.

First true WTF is this moment of the box goes to Toppstown. I gather that these are redemptions for digital cards—a product which is now covered by Topps Bunt. I’m just going to show my age and admit that I still don’t understand digital cards.

Minis! Specificaly, Fleer minis. The Topps minis I have. Not these ones but I have some of the set. Fleer? I’d not even heard of. I even had some 1975 minis when I was a kid—no idea where I got them—but I never saw the Fleer. So that’s a fun discovery.


1985 Fleer is a set which I have a pack of plus some random commons. So I don’t have many, if any, Giants. I do now. This is cool.

The other oddballs are a lot of fun too. I’ve started collecting these—especially Giants samples— and they]re a wonderful combination of regional issues and samples of what players and highlights from the year are considered nationally noteworthy. The regional stuff is always fun to discover. The national stuff meanwhile is fun for a team collector because it signifies that someone on your team did something noteworthy.

Woolworths meanwhile, while it existed on the West Coast, seems to have disappeared by the time I was collecting cards. Not a store I was ever familiar with. And these cards are not something I ever saw until I started collecting again this year.

And there was a decent amount of junk wax which I know I collected. I suspect that I have half of these. But I’m not sure which half and the ones which I “need” are especially welcome since they fill in holes in the Giants teams I cared about the most.


Allen&Ginter, Gypsy Queen, and more Minis. I’m glad to have some representative samples of these sets since none of them interest me. Gypsy Queen’s managed to find a way to make HDR look even worse and the faux-retro plus over-processed digital photograph combination gives me hives.

Ginter on the other hand is much more interesting. I still don’t know quite know what I think about it. I know I don’t like it as a baseball card set. It’s also super expensive for what]s basically a gimmick. But I do like the tobacco card size and I’ve found myself enjoying the non-sports cards on the checklist.

Actually looking closely at them though is disappointing. The printing is screened process inks rather than a solid spot color and as a result looks like someone’s tried to counterfeit a vintage card.

Cards from that time period were printed as multiple-color lithographs. So not halftones or screens—especially on the text. For the price that the Ginter brand costs cost I’m disappointed to see that, not only weren’t they printed with solid inks, that no one bothered to confirm that the tiny type wouldn’t be destroyed by the halftone screen.

I was also amused by the all-text stats on Ginter’s backs. I know this is a vintage touch but it also feels a bit twee. That the T-206 style card includes a real cigarette ad on the back also surprised me. I didn’t expect this even though both Allen&Ginter and Gypsy Queen are also tobacco/cigarette brands. That none of those brands are in production and are instead associated with baseball cards is presumably why Topps can use the names.

Still, I learned that Topps changed the advertisement from “The Cigarette of Quality” to “The Brand of Quality” so it appears that you can’t actually say cigarette still on what]s ostensibly a kid’s product.

Lots of Topps Fan Favorites. This is indeed a fun set. As a Giants fan all of these strike me in the exact right way. Yes it’s weird to see these glossy but the better quality printing and trimming is very nice. It’s especially nice to see them using the correct vintage Giants logo.

I am curious why Monte Irvin’s signature is missing—it’s there on his actual 1953 Topps card. And with Bobby Thomson being in the 1952 high numbers this is likely to be as close as I’ll ever come to that card. Ditto with the Willie Mays cards too but that’s a much more obvious situation.

And finally a ton of stuff which is still very new to me. It’s going to take me a while to figure out what these all are. I recognize Topps Heritage and some of the Topps flagship cards. But the rest? Way over my head. I’ve got two decades of card collecting to figure out and sets to investigate. Though I do know that it’s Bowman Chrome which throws my autofocus all out of whack.

So yes. Giant box of cool stuff from Shane. If I ever come into an unexpected cache of 1956 Topps cards I’ll have to return the favor. Until then I’m just overwhelmed and grateful.

Peter Koch

Since I was at the Cantor Center, I wandered across campus to the library to see whatever special exhibition they had up. Oh boy did I luck out. Turns out it was a Peter Koch show.

So beautiful printing. Bookbinding as part of the design instead of merely being a craft. And fantastic woodcuts and photogravures. As a print geek the only problem is that everything’s under glass and I can’t get as close a look at things I wish I could.

What I can see is great and I love that the library had enough specimens to be able to display both a spread from the book and the binding itself. While print is a craft which people take for granted, bookbinding is one which makes printing look like common knowledge.

Koch’s bookbinding is frequently gloriously about the binding. This isn’t just the kind of thing where you can see bumps on the spine where the cords are under the leather, in these cases the stitching isn’t hidden at all and functions as a design feature. Look at the book and you can see how it was made. I can only imagine what handling such a thing must be like.

The printing, particularly the typesetting—is also often virtuosic. Small pieces like Real Lead do things with type and typefaces which most of us shouldn’t even consider trying. Other pieces are more traditional but show how beautiful properly-selected fonts can be—especially when given enough white space to breathe.

But Koch’s books are not just about type.* They frequently include images and these, while not always printed by Koch, are as well crafted as the text. In particular I love Richard Wagener’s engravings. His work appears in a couple of books but I love the Sierra Nevada prints most of all. They look high contrast but there’s so much shadow detail in them when you look closely. Online images don’t do them justice.

*Even though he keeps returning to make books consisting of just pages of “wordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswordswords”

Other books feature photographic prints, photogravures, and watercolors. In the small print runs which these were made, the special care taken with the images really shows.

It’s nice to see too that Koch’s work embraces digital techniques. The photogravures went through a digital intermediate. It looks like a lot of the type is also set by computer rather than being cold metal. And many of the books and prints use digital printing for the images.

His Lost Journals of Sacajewea book in particular is a great example of the mix of digital and traditional techniques. Hand-made paper with digital photographic printing as well as letterpressed type. The resulting product looks great.

And the content also looks amazing. One of the things it’s easy to miss with these artist books is how important the actual content of the book is. The craft is overwhelming but it’s important that the book itself be worth reading too. Many of the poems and texts look good. The Lost Journals of Sacajewea though looks great—both in terms of the content of the writing and the general subject matter of the work.

Koch is very interested in investigating and challenging the myths of The West while still operating in a printmaking and publishing tradition which stems from those days. So many of his projects look like Old West publications until you look closer and see how they’re challenging everything.

Two of them—Hard Words and Nature Morte aren’t even letterpress works. These are purely digital series where Koch placed wood and metal type directly on the scanner with the photograph and printed the resulting composition. And even here, despite the purely digital workflow, these manage to reference the history of The West. I couldn’t help but think of Mark Twain’s teenage portrait with “SAM” in the composing stick and the way that both printing and photography play with negatives and reversals in the image.