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Archive for the category ‘culture’

Eyemag

Published

I just got the latest issue of Dennis Letbetter’s Eyemag, his more or less quarterly series of magazine-size books that showcase different aspects of his long and notable career as a photographer. (I’m not sure I can say “long career” about someone who’s younger than I am, but what the hell. He’s been doing it for a long time. And it’s certainly notable.)

These are printed privately and distributed to a very limited circulation, but after some prodding Dennis did allow as how he would welcome subscriptions. I believe the rate for four issues is $200, but you should check with him. It might be worth your while. Meanwhile, you can view the contents of individual issues on the website.

Dennis’s photography is remarkable. It’s not showy; it’s just good. The one thing that might be considered an affectation is his occasional use of an extremely wide aspect ratio (6x17cm): but he puts it to good use. The current issue, no. 8, uses these long, narrow apertures to document the city of Florence. The first half of the images is vertical, like some of the narrow streets, while the second half is horizontal, as our eyes tend to see a streetscape.

The previous issue documented a full year of daily portraits of his friend and mentor René Fontaine. “Who would submit to portraiture, let alone a serial portrait which requires an involvement of a year?” asks Dennis in his thoughtful essay at the end of the volume. But René did: he sat for 365 portrait photographs, from from the summer of 1980 to the summer of 1981, no matter how he was feeling, what he was doing, or what the rest of the day might hold. And Dennis was there to record it. Occasionally René would don a whimsical hat (the portrait on the left has always been a favorite of mine, even before I knew its context), but mostly he just sat down in his everyday garb and looked patiently at the camera.

What might be the most unusual issue of Eyemag is no. 4, “The Haight Street Project.” During the same period when Dennis was shooting portraits of designers and artists in the San Francisco Bay Area using a big old-fashioned camera with glass plates, he was also inviting his neighbors in the upper Haight into his garage, which he had converted into a studio, to take their portraits on 4×5 color film in a thoroughly informal situation. These photos let the people who live in or pass through the Haight show themselves however they wish.

Each issue of Eyemag ends with an essay by someone notable and appropriate, and one by Dennis himself. In the current issue, the essay, “Eye Level” (in Italian, with an English translation), is by Andrea Ponsi. In the Haight Street Project issue, the guest essay is by Herbert Gold.

The striking “i” logo of Eyemag was designed for Dennis by the late Michael Harvey, a good friend and an amazing artist in the creation of letters. That i is recognizable as a Michael Harvey letter from a mile away.

(Note: Yes, it can be confusing, but Eyemag is entirely different from the excellent Eye magazine.)

[Images (top to bottom): Covers of issues 1, 6, and 8, and portrait of René Fontaine, 21 March 1981. All images copyright by Dennis Letbetter.]

The Letterform Archive

Published

I recently had my first chance to visit the remarkable Letterform Archive in San Francisco. This is the fruit of thirty-five years of collecting by Rob Saunders, all of it related to type and lettering and printing – especially type specimens and printer’s samples, along with books, manuscripts, and all kinds of printed and hand-made ephemera. In 2013, Rob turned his private obsession into an institution and established the Letterform Archive as a formal entity. More recently, as he announced last month at TypeCon, he acquired the enormous collection of the late Dutch bibliophile Jan Tholenaar, consisting of thousands of type specimens from the last 400 years.

The purpose of the Letterform Archive is to make original research materials available to people for hands-on study: so you can not just look at them but pick them up and hold them in your hands. There are larger collections than his, as Rob freely admits; but too many of them are closed to the public and not easily accessible. With the Letterform Archive, Rob hopes to provide a resource to students, researchers, type historians, graphic designers, and anyone interested in the history of letters. It’s easy to arrange a visit; the space is bright and welcoming, and so are the people.

The other initiative that Rob announced at TypeCon is a new program in conjunction with Cooper Union: Type@Cooper West. This will be a West Coast equivalent of Type@Cooper, the post-graduate program in type design that Cooper Union has been offering for several years at its campus in New York City.

Rob has a few other ambitious plans in mind, too. I’m delighted to see such an energetic undertaking. And I can say from personal experience that it’s a pleasure to sit in the Archive and peruse type in all its many forms.

Traveling & listening & talking: Typo Day

Published

“I can’t believe this is your first time,” said the young Indian woman with whom I was sharing the auto-rickshaw.

“It is, though,” I replied, calmly clutching a handhold as the three-wheeled vehicle careered through the traffic of northern Mumbai.

I hadn’t even encountered yet the full roar of the city, but Indian traffic was proving to be everything I had expected it to be. Chaotic, crowded, incredibly varied, and resoundingly effective at getting everyone around, despite the lack of any perceivable patterns. Drivers seemed to navigate by echo-location, honking fairly constantly to let other drivers know that they were approaching; and they might approach from pretty much any direction, or any side. Lanes, although clearly marked, were completely ignored, and each participant in the mêlée of Mumbai road traffic claimed possession of every inch of available space, whether occupied or not. Private cars predominated, but alongside them you’d find gaily decorated trucks, flitting motorbikes, daredevil pedestrians, and of course swarms of putt-putting auto-rickshaws, all punctuated with occasional feral dogs and meandering cattle.

I was in Mumbai for only a few days, invited as a keynote speaker at Typography Day 2015, an annual event that moves around among various Indian universities. This year it was being held at its original home, IIT Bombay, or the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. The large, leafy campus lies on the northern fringe of Mumbai, abutting the shore of Powai Lake and at the southern tip of the vast hilly Sanjay Gandhi National Park. The university has about 8,000 students in a variety of faculties, clustered throughout the campus; many of the central buildings are aligned along a covered open-air walkway known as the Infinite Corridor. Although the campus feels considerably less crowded than the heart of Mumbai, and it suffers much less from the ever-present air pollution, proximity to the national park requires signs like one I saw near the lake warning that a panther had been spotted in the vicinity. “Well,” as one local put it to me, “we’re encroaching on their territory, so why wouldn’t they came into ours?”

Typo Day was put on by the Industrial Design Center, the design school at IIT, and the talks were presented in the IDC’s large, modern auditorium. Outside the auditorium was a large common area where people could mingle during the breaks for the aptly named “tea and networking,” and just outside the building, a display of typographic posters was hung in the open air and a sculptural assemblage of 3D Indian letters climbed one of the twisting trees.

The displays, like the subjects of talks and workshops, were not only multilingual but multi-script. India is a land of many languages and many writing systems; Hindi is simply the largest, and the dominant one in northern India, but the only common language that educated Indians have throughout the country is English. Although most of the various Indian writing systems are somehow related to Devanagari, the complex script developed for ancient Sanskrit and used today for Hindi and several other North Indian languages, the relationship is tenuous enough that only scholars can really spot the similarities. As one Hindi-speaking designer from Mumbai put it, “If I go to Bangalore, I can only admire the writing there as shapes; I cannot read it.” Several of the talks at Typo Day dealt with the fine points of Devanagari type designs and manuscript traditions; others dealt with different writing systems, including one talk by a woman from Sri Lanka, Sumanthri Samarawickrama, about the lack of vocabulary to describe the letterforms of written Sinhala.

But it wasn’t just fine points and details. There was exuberant creativity on display, and the other keynote speaker, Itu Chaudhuri, gave an inspiring and well-illustrated talk about how a love of letters “will enrich your life.” He then proceeded to demonstrate how it had enriched his.

I was treated extremely well by the organizers of Typo Day, Prof. Ravi Poobaiah and his wife, Dr. Ajanta Sen. Not only did they fly me to Mumbai, have students meet me at the airport when my flight arrived in the middle of a hot March night, and put me up in the comfortable Guest House at IIT, but on the day after the end of the conference they arranged a car and driver for me to explore Mumbai (and its traffic), and the next night they had me staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which is every bit as luxurious as it sounds. We had met there for dinner the night before, but, as Ravi explained, there wasn’t a room available that night, so they drove me back to IIT, with Ajanta giving me a running commentary on the history of the heart of the city and which buildings she had grown up in.

At the conference, I found myself being naturally adopted into the circle of gray-haired elders of Indian design, though I also met quite a few younger designers and students. Although I often missed the jokes, sometimes from lack of context, sometimes from not catching the accents, I enjoyed the company of these men and women with their shared history of typography and graphic design in India. (Accents varied. There was one brilliant, impassioned speaker that I had a very hard time understanding; when I mentioned this to someone else, he said, “Oh, yes, he has a strong Marathi accent. He sounds the same when he speaks Hindi.” What he was saying was so forceful that I regretted missing some of it through my own incomprehension.) I felt as though I had only scratched the surface of the typographic culture of the country.

I barely scratched the surface of Mumbai, too. I spent one afternoon walking around the streets near the Gateway of India, the monumental stone arch that once welcomed incoming ships of the British Empire during the Raj. (The Yacht Club was right across the street from the public park in front of the Gateway.) Although I clearly stood out as a foreigner, the only hassles I had on the streets were the expected attempts to sell me something; most of the time, people just ignored me and went about their way, as they ignored most of the teeming crowds around them. I visited a couple of museums, of which the oddest and thus most fascinating was the Mumbai City Museum, with its collections of objects and artifacts and models and dioramas depicting the city’s history. In one room was a current exhibit about the cultural and economic connections through history of the two sides of the Arabian Sea.

I also dropped in to the vast Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, to see the relatively small permanent exhibit on “Pre and Proto History,” the pre-Hindu Indus Valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Most of the objects, however, were reproductions; the originals were in Delhi.

Impressions of Mumbai:

Very, very hot. No surprise there! I adopted a slow amble as I walked through the streets, in accord with the way most people seemed to be moving, just sort of easing through the humidity with a minimum of effort and disturbance.

Huge contrasts of affluence and poverty. Also no surprise, frankly; I knew I would encounter this, and I was neither shocked nor numbed by the inescapable poverty. I saw some of the upper levels of Indian society, but the top and the bottom mingle on the same streets. I did not try venturing into any slums, such as Dharavi, where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed; nor did I go to see colorful fisherfolk on the quay at Sassoon Dock. For that matter, I did not go see a Bollywood movie while I was in the town that makes them. I just looked and listened wherever I was, and experienced the city that I was presented with, in all its ordinary glory.

Traffic. But you already know about that. It was wild and wooly, yet I never saw an accident of any kind.

Urban texture. It seemed as though everything I saw in Mumbai was either crumbling away or in the midst of being built. When I mentioned this to Ajanta Sen, she said yes, that’s exactly the way it is. Many big cities give this impression, but Mumbai had it in spades.

Military bands. This wasn’t something I expected, but while I was staying at the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, the park across the street was closed off, with a police cordon all around the Gateway of India. It turned out that there was a huge celebration going on there during those couple of days: a big stage in front of the arch, with performances by military bands and orchestras from around the country. The music was loud; and it was eclectic, a blend of Bollywood show tunes and folk performances and military band music, accompanied by light shows. I never did quite figure out what the point was. One effect that it had was purely personal: I had hoped to catch the boat to Elephanta Island on my next-to-last day in Mumbai, to see the Hindu temple and its famous carvings, but because the quay was temporarily blocked off, the boats weren’t running.

One of the typographers I saw at the conference was Aurobind Patel, a type designer and design consultant whom I had met before, a friend of Roger Black’s. He made my last day in India memorable by inviting me to his weekend house, in a fishing village north of Mumbai, to spend a relaxing day out of the city; his driver would then drive me to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam, which didn’t leave until 2:45 a.m. So I got to see a little bit of what lies outside the city, and how the city is encroaching on the countryside year by year; and I got to walk on the beach by the shore and watch the sunset over the Arabian Sea. Aurobind’s house, which was newly built to replace a crumbling older house inherited by his wife, was in the process of being repainted and having the pool’s foundation reinforced. During the painting, the wall-size sliding-glass doors on the seaward side were covered by huge segments of Bollywood movie posters, their painted sides turned in; this gave the interiors a bizarre and dramatic look. But while I was there, that very afternoon, the workmen finished the painting of the exterior, and as I was taking a much-needed nap they removed the posters from the windows. So when I awoke I could look out through the glass directly to the sea. That was quite some transformation.

I have now seen a very tiny piece of India, and met a wonderful and eclectic range of Indian designers and typographers. Perhaps this will be just the first of many visits to the subcontinent.

Translated serifs

Published

My little book Hanging by a serif caught the eye of Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, co-owner of Hermann Schmidt Verlag in Mainz, Germany, a fine small publishing company that specializes in books about typography and design. As a result, my book has been translated, revised, and slightly expanded, and is about to be published in Germany. The German title is Thesen zur Typografie (the someone whimsical “Hanging by a serif” proved resistant to translation), and its release coincides with the annual Frankfurt Book Fair, which opens today.

I haven’t held a copy in my hands yet, but I know it has a sewn binding and two-color printing – more ambitious than my original self-published edition. And a few different serifs. Perhaps it will see a more ambitious American edition, too.

Thesen will join other new books in the Hermann Schmidt line at their display at the Book Fair this week.

Display of new Hermann Schmidt Verlag books

Sprinting into the future

Published

My e-book essay “What is needed” has just been republished on the website of “Sprint Beyond the Book,” a project of Arizona State University’s remarkable Center for Science and the Imagination.

In May, Eileen and I met up with nine other invited guests to participate in CSI’s third “Sprint” event, a workshop/conference focusing on “The Future of Reading.” CSI’s first Sprint, with a theme of “The Future of Publishing,” had taken place last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where the participants worked in the midst of the hurly-burly of the world’s biggest book festival; the second (“Knowledge Systems”) took place in January on CSI’s home turf at ASU. This third one was held at Stanford University, in conjunction with Stanford’s Center for the Study of the Novel.

The mix of people and ideas was invigorating, and the fruits of that brainstorming are intended to be published. (One description of what the Sprint was all about was “creating and publishing a book in three days.” But what kind of a book, exactly?) The other participants at the Stanford event were Jim Giles, Dan Gillmor, Wendy Ju, Lee Konstantinou, Andrew Losowsky, Kiyash Monsef, Pat Murphy, David Rotherberg, and Jan Sassano. The whole project was organized by its instigator and ringleader, Ed Finn, and his talented and indefatigable staff members Joey Eschrich and Nina Miller. I’ve been working with Nina, when we each have time, on the format for eventually publishing the results of the Sprint.

In the meantime, in somewhat kaleidoscopic form, parts of our conversations and digressions, and the texts that we created in the course of the three days, are available now on the “Sprint Beyond the Book” website.

“What is needed,” which I wrote more than two years ago as a post on this blog, is essentially a high-level technical spec for the missing tools that we need in order to do good e-book design. Most of these tools are still missing, two years later, despite the rapidly changing nature of digital publishing. Some of the ideas have made their way into various proposals for future standards, but not much has been reliably implemented yet. I’m still looking forward to the day when everything I was asking for will be so common as to be taken for granted. Then we can make some really good e-books; and our readers will be able to enjoy them.

TypeCon2014 | Washington DC

Published

This year’s TypeCon, which went by the name “Capitolized” but really seemed to revel in being “Redacted,” was very enjoyable. It was a great reunion of colleagues and old friends, and a fine way to make new friends and meet new colleagues, as this sort of event always is. The hotel, the Hyatt Regency Washington (a few blocks from Union Station and the Capitol), had a nice open bar area in its lobby, with several surprisingly good beers on tap, and proved to be the sort of meeting place that you hope for when you’re organizing something like this.

There were some very good talks (and the occasional dud, of course), including some that I really wanted to hear but that started too early in the morning for me. As I was staying with local friends across town, a few stops away on the Red Line, it was often hard to tear myself away from breakfast and conversation – especially if I’d been up late the night before, doing much the same thing (except for the breakfast part). Theoretically, all the talks were videotaped (except for a couple where the speakers asked not to be recorded), so perhaps eventually we’ll have a chance to catch up on the ones that we missed, for one reason or another.

It was gratifying to see so many talks about non-Latin typefaces; TypeCon is showing an admirable international flavor, despite being the North American type conference. Emblematic of this was the choice of Bulgarian type designer Krista Radoeva as the recipient of this year’s SOTA Catalyst Award.

Even better – and carrying the non-Latin theme further – was the presentation of the SOTA Typography Award to Fiona Ross, who must have done more than any other single person to further excellence in non-Latin type design: most notably in Indian types, but in Arabic, Thai, and other non-Latin scripts as well. The enthusiasm with which everyone greeted the announcement that Fiona was this year’s awardee was palpable. It was a very well-deserved award.

Personal favorites among the talks that I did get to hear included Mark Simonson’s nostalgic paean to the pleasures of phototype, X-acto knives, waxers, and rub-down type; Liron Lavi Turkenich on a failed experiment in updating Hebrew type; Carl Crossgrove’s trawl through the much-neglected range of sans-serif types with contrast and modulated strokes; Thierry Blancpain showing us that, yes, there’s been some Swiss graphic design since the days of Max Bill and Müller-Brockmann; Nick Shinn on the visual marketing of recorded music, 1888–1967; and the very clever way that Victor Gaultney demonstrated to English-speaking readers what it’s like for readers whose scripts are barely and inadequately supported in common electronic communications media.

I can’t help pointing out that this year’s TypeCon featured one of the most unreadable nametag designs I have ever seen. The “redacted” bit was cute, but extending it to the nametags made them utterly nonfunctional. There’s a reason they’re call “name” tags.

Washington, DC, in the summertime is not an ideal climate experience, though we did get one soft, warm evening when it was a pleasure to sit outside at the bar across from the hotel and enjoy the evening breeze. The weather was not as fiercely hot as it could have been, but the humidity was up to its usual standard. I lived in the DC area for a couple of years in the early ’70s, first in northern Virginia and then for a year in the District, near Dupont Circle. (As the Metro train stopped at the Dupont Circle station on my daily commute, I found myself thinking, “When I lived above here, they were just building this station.”) I remember one summer without air-conditioning where I got through it only by pretending that I was underwater the whole time; I simply never expected to be dry, and I was never disappointed. Unfortunately, I can neither think nor work in that kind of climate.

I’ll be seeing some of the same people, as well as many who were missed in DC, next month at the ATypI conference in Barcelona. Must be the typographic season.

Blackout-alarm sign on the door in an old DC apartment

[Photos: a TypeCon2014 nametag (top); TypeCon attendees suddenly deciding to wear their nametags as headbands (middle); expressive typography in Washington (bottom); and the sign on the door in my friends’ apartment building (above).]

Back on the wall

Published

It’s gratifying to see, from a story on the TDC’s website, that the three-dimensional typographic mural that Lou Dorfsman constructed in 1966 for the cafeteria at CBS headquarters in New York City has finally found a permanent home.

As I wrote six years ago, the “Gastro­typographical­assemblage,” which a subsequent régime at CBS was ready to junk, got saved thanks to the efforts of NYC designer Nicholas Fasciano, and was given a temporary home at the Center for Design Study in Atlanta, while funds were being raised to preserve and restore the crumbling masterpiece.

Now, as you can see from this short video, it has been lovingly restored and installed at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. Sounds like a visit to Hyde Park is called for.

The Briem Report

Published

Last year, after a highly entertaining turn as the keynote speaker at the ATypI conference in Reykjavík in 2011, designer and lettering artist Gunnlaugur SE Briem asked around 100 practitioners of lettering or typography to contribute a two-page spread each to a new compendium, The Briem Report: Letterforms 2012. I was pleased to be among those invited to participate. The resulting volume was published earlier this year as a freely downloadable PDF, and recently Briem sent printed copies to all the contributors. (I recommend the print-quality PDF, as the hard copy is a black-and-white print-on-demand edition; you can order it from Amazon and it’s wonderful to have, but I consider the core edition to be the digital one.)

Briem did something similar once before, in 1986, when he edited and produced a book for Thames & Hudson called Sixty Alphabets, asking sixty noted calligraphers to introduce themselves and their work and to contribute a design of their own choice. That in turn had been inspired by a much earlier compendium, Dossier A–Z 1973, which had been put together in 1973 by Fernand Baudin for that year’s ATypI congress in Copenhagen, on the theme of “Education in the Design of Letter Forms.” Both Baudin’s 1973 volume and Briem’s 1986 one examined the place of written letter forms in a world dominated by print. The Briem Report takes this one step further: what is the place of both calligraphy and type design in a world that’s becoming thoroughly digital? Baudin was looking at the changing nature of type and letter design in 1973; Briem is asking much the same question today.

The answers are all over the place; there is no one thesis to be found in this anthology. But as a snapshot of current practice and ideas, it’s invaluable. The contributors include most of the people you might expect, and many that you might not be aware of; Briem drew from many different streams of practice. Some are artists, some are technical experts, many are educators. As Briem describes the book, aptly (and in thoroughly Briem fashion), on his Operina website: “Inspiring ideas, firm convictions, lovely dreams.”

Trajan & Hebrew & Arabic, oh my!

Published

Last year I wrote the texts for four new digital specimen books for extensions to Adobe Originals typefaces, and just last week Adobe posted those specimens online. All of them are additions to existing type families: two derive from Trajan (Trajan Pro 3, which extends both the number of weights and the language coverage, and the new Trajan Sans) and two from Myriad (Hebrew and Arabic versions of this widespread humanist sans). The project gave me an opportunity to delve into the history of the inscription on the Trajan column in Rome (which, almost every time I’ve tried to take a close look at it, was chiuso per restauro and wrapped in a blue plastic tarp), and an even more interesting chance to learn about the design of both Hebrew and Arabic typefaces. The latter pair gave me an excuse to engage the considerable knowledge and expertise of Scott-Martin Kosofsky, a typographer of fine sensibilities and an expert in bilingual Hebrew/English publishing, and Mamoun Sakkal, an expert in Arabic type design with a particular penchant for the style known as square kufic (though this is not, actually, the tradition that the Myriad Arabic extension draws on) and a friend who, happily, lives in the Seattle area. Mamoun, along with his software-coding daughter Aida, had been expanding my knowledge of Arabic for some time; Scott I met through this project, and have been learning from quite happily ever since.

I should be quite clear: I can neither read nor write either Hebrew or Arabic, although I’ve learned quite a lot about the design of typefaces in both scripts. And about the quixotic and sometimes contradictory nature of designing “sans serif” typefaces in either script. Not to mention the fraught question of what it means to have an “italic” in either Hebrew or Arabic, neither of which has any such tradition before the digital age.

P.S.: I was quite pleased to notice that one of the samples of Myriad Arabic in action was bilingual versions of three poems by Maram al-Massri (with English translation by Khaled al-Mattawa) that had been published by Copper Canyon Press, an excellent international poetry publisher for whom I have done a lot of book design in the past. Synchronicity is everywhere.

Hong Kong images

Published

After an absurdly long delay, I have finally put some of my photos from last October’s ATypI Hong Kong up on Flickr: here. Although I didn’t take a lot of snapshots, there are few images there that ought to be interesting to people who weren’t there – and to some of the people who were. In particular, I got to the very first letterpress workshop at Zi Wut, which contains the type and printing press from a former printshop in Kowloon, now operated by three women as a teaching resource, with the original owner of the printshop offering examples and showing how the processes worked. Zi Wut has a presence on Facebook, and there’s a nice short write-up, with more images, on the Metropolis magazine blog.