Warszawskie Getto

 

Warszawskie Getto
1988
Interpress

design by Hubert Hilscher
printed in Poland
 

After a sustained and regrettable hiatus, I’m returning to Other Library to share a powerful book deserving of close reflection for its sobering subject and remarkable design. In my mind it manages to overcome the difficult challenge of recording human suffering in a dignified and respectful way that avoids exploitation or minimization of the people involved. Warszawskie Getto is a haunting portrait of Nazi-occupied Poland, told through the lens of Polish photographers and released by the Polish publisher Interpress in the late 80s. This deeply affecting photobook depicts everyday life in the largest Jewish ghetto during World War II, culminating with the ultimate uprising against the Nazis and their lasting effects on the city.

Photos are divided into chapters, featuring everything from the quotidian minutiae of everyday life, to the violent fires and death that plagued the city. The book’s portrayal of these atrocities is unflinching, yet measured. Not once do the photographs veer into sensationalism nor do they fetishize or aestheticize the tragedy. Instead, the images are imbued with a profound humanity, capturing people with grace and dignity in the face of overwhelming oppression. It is a narrative lovingly told with empathy and remorse, seen through the eyes of the people who lived through the experience first-hand.

Given the solemn nature of the subject, the task of compiling and designing such a book no doubt required a nuanced approach and a sensitive hand. The Polish designer Hubert Hilscher responded with a book bereft of extraneous ornament or flourish. The typesetting, almost exclusively Helvetica, is applied in a crude and unadorned fashion. The photographs don't occupy a delicate, consistent place on the page. Instead, they spill out across each spread, shifting in size and shape to best accommodate the subject. Consequently, there is an incredible cadence to the pacing of the photography, with some spreads densely packed with claustrophobic, tiled portraits, while the following page can open up to an expansive single image of a cityscape. The result is a document that breathes with life, charged with a dynamism that is unpredictable and evocative. Another powerful element of this book is the intense, void-like matte black of its pages which brings additional gravity to the imagery.

 

I struggle to put into words how or why I believe the sum total of Hilscher’s decisions, carefully applied and masterfully sequenced, equate to this salient and respectful portrait of Warsaw and its people. But I know for a certainty that he has managed to avoid common tropes I’ve seen too many designers fall victim to when the subject of a design is human suffering or oppression. An immediate example which comes to mind is the work of Pentagram partner Harry Pearce who attempted to commemorate the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a poster featuring his blood photographed in the shape of an atom bomb explosion. The design, along with the process of its making and its subsequent reception, felt as though Pearce had flippantly used the horrific tragedy as a prop to explore an “interesting” design execution or worse, focus attention on himself rather the victims. If you’d like, you could read my deeper analysis of the poster, but my point is to draw a stark contrast between both works of design. Where Pearce’s poster focuses almost entirely on execution, craft, aesthetics, and “Smile in the Mind”-cleverness, Hilscher’s book is a poignant and dignified glimpse into the victims of a horrific tragedy that eschews visual tricks and gimmicks in deference to its subject.

I hope I’ve managed to present this book in a thoughtful and respectful way. Even the task of photographing its pages was at times difficult. I’ve had to largely avoid some chapters and imagery, particularly that of the dead, because it felt inappropriately voyeuristic and simply too painful to feature. However, I’ve tried to balance that anxiety with the strong belief that these stories need to be told. And it’s important to celebrate the work that manages to do so with an elegance and humanity such as this.

 

 

Wppt

 

Wppt
Klaus Rinke
1978
Kunstakademie Düsseldorf

printed in Germany

Sadly, I've found very very little written about this catalog. Complicating matters, what little information I have found exists only in German. And the title of the book also seems deliberately impenetrable. (Perhaps an overt—yet unintentional—theme emerging on this blog might be the fact that I’m regularly drawn to books that utterly confuse me and defy easy explanation or categorization.) In fact, the only information I’ve been able to glean about this book at all comes from an insert that was fortuitously included when I found it at Marcus Campbell Art Books in London. The crude yet charming press release (also documented here and included at the end of the slideshow) describes an exhibition catalog, documenting a student exhibit at the Kunst-und Museumsverein Wuppertal organized by artist and professor, Klaus Rinke.

The awkward marriage of the book’s peculiar title and its front and back cover design was immediately seductive. The red-orange type vibrates against the black and white photograph, bluntly wrapping the book and ensuring that the title is never completely legible when viewing just the front or back of the catalog. Peculiar design decisions like this echo throughout the book in various, seemingly haphazard ways.

The only consistent element within is the stark section titles which precedes each new artists’ work. The rest of the content ebbs and flows through increasingly surprising forms with every section giving the impression that it was designed by the individual artist themselves. The result is an engrossing medley of type and image—intertwined and erratic—that successfully breaks many conventions of book design.

As I was paging through this book for the first time, I immediately wondered if Irma Boom had ever seen it. The grand and flamboyant gestures on each page reminded me of her approach which often eschews subtlety and nuance in pursuit of a visceral immediacy. There is an unmistakable energy and point of view in here, but I’m saddened to say I have no idea who to credit for this majestic and weird thing. If anyone here knows anything more about it and would like to contribute to piecing together and sharing its history, please reach out.

 

Industriebauten 1830–1930

 

Industriebauten 1830–1930
Bernd and Hilla Becher
1967
Die Neue Sammlung
34pp.

printed in Germany

At the risk of sounding unbearably cheesy, I'll say that this book has been one of my more emotional acquisitions. The catalog is the very first book published on the photography duo Bernd and Hilla Becher, who would go on to fundamentally alter the nature of postmodern photography. Those who know me will be familiar with my respect for their work and practice. And it's a privilege to have a piece of their history, documenting their first exhibition long before they attainted their historic status.

The Bechers dedicated their lives to capturing the post-industrial landscape of Europe and later America. Where others saw worthless artifacts from a bygone era, they found beauty in the incredible invention of form stemming from practical considerations dictated by the various functions of each structure. They studied these abandoned and dilapidated buildings with undying precision and care using a rigid methodology for composing a shot. In fact, you can compare any two photos taken across the decades in which they worked and they would look exactly the same (save for improvements in the technology). 

Aside from creating a massive body of inspiring work which alone sits above most in the history of modern photography, the Bechers also had a rich pedagogical career, founding the Dusseldorf School of Photography and teaching an entire generation of world-renowned artists working in the Becher's tradition of photographic objectivity such as Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, and Andreas Gursky to name but a few. 

The book itself is printed cheaply and is very brief at only 34 pages long. The design, however, is quite striking. Its cover stuns, demonstrating a remarkable sensitivity for space and type, somehow making the photograph feel larger than life. The unnamed designer does well to let the photography breathe in the upfront section of the catalog. But once the essay has concluded, the book organizes the collection of works by function, grouping like with like and allowing the viewer the ability to easily analyze and compare the architectural forms which reveal intricate variations on a theme. This indexing method has been employed by the Bechers their entire career to great effect. 

Although I have nine other Becher catalogs, all featuring high-quality reproductions of their work, this tiny catalog remains my favorite. It marks a humble beginning of two incredible artists who married exceptional vision with a loving passion for their craft.

 

Shit Plug

 

Shit Plug
Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades
2002
Hauser & Wirth, Walther Koenig
ed. 500, signed

design by Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades

In a way, I don't want to write anything about this book and I'd rather let the images alone speak for itself. Because that is exactly how I came to find it, without any context at all. I was recently in London, shopping at Thomas Heneage's historic art book store. As I was mining the stacks I came upon this utter oddity, hidden above a row of books, at the very top of a large shelf, almost touching the ceiling. It was unlike anything I had ever handled—a kind of raucous fusion of color, form, and typography. The blood-red carpeted cover poorly attempts to wrap the contents of the book. Various paper stocks, sizes, and colors jutted out from every side with no apparent motivation other than to disorient the reader. And almost immediately upon lifting the book, a dual-language booklet, split horizontally down the center, fell out. I was profoundly confused and in love. I purchased the book and spent 45 minutes working with Thomas in the basement of his bookshop to safely package it for my flight back home.

I set about researching the origin of the book with few satisfying answers. I do know that it was created in tandem with an exhibition at Hauser and Wirth Zurich, by the artists Paul McCarthy and Jason Rhoades. The fragmented text within is written by the Situationalist Guy Debort and the accompanying bisected booklet is an essay on the exhibition. It turned out, the damage to the book was not due to an improper handling of the catalog over the nearly 15 years since it was created, but was actually by design. The books themselves came tightly shrinkwrapped and were displayed within the exhibition. The shrinkwrapping, of course, mangled the protruding pieces of the book, bending and tearing their edges—likely an intentional intervention to create a headache for the neurotic collectors. And the overall experience of navigating this catalog is not unlike that of viewing a McCarthy exhibition. It creates a playful, visceral, perplexing, and grotesque world where nuance doesn't exist.

 

Alberto Giacometti

 

Alberto Giacometti
1987
Abrams
224 pp.

design by Herbert Matter
printed in Japan

This is a powerful book documenting an uncompromising view of Giacometti's work through the eyes of the esteemed Herbet Matter. Giacometti himself said that Matter had captured his works in their purest form, celebrating the photographs as a masterful achievement. This book captures the total series in a publication also designed by Matter. It opens with beautiful view of Switzerland—Giacometti and Herbert Matter's home country. The next section delves into Giacometti's cluttered studio, capturing it in a dramatic light, imbuing the space with a kind of poetic nostalgia for the quintessential artist atelier of that era. 

The final photographic section is a sprawling study of Giacometti's sculptures, drawings, and paintings. They capture his monolithic figures trapped between a kind of monumental awe and crushing fragility. Matter (and to the credit of the phenomenal publisher, Abrams) gives these photographic works the time and space they need to breathe and imprint a lasting impact on the viewer. The book is both massive in scale and length, never once feeling rushed or tedious. The variety of scale, light, color, and form create an entrancing experience navigating it. If there was ever a book that comes close to capturing the stirring and poignant experience of looking at a Giacometti in person, it is this.