Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press, 2014. 9780399169441.
Sarah: This is one of several books that Joanna Ebenstein has done through a couple of art imprints on strange historical things, often related to the odd and morbid. She runs the Morbid Anatomy Museum that I think lost its space recently, so now it’s a pop-up. Her co-author Dr. Pat Morris has written a lot of books on the history of taxidermy. Walter Potter was a guy working in the late 1800s in Britain, a taxidermist in a small country town.
Gene: This reminds of something I saw online.
S: Potter did normal taxidermy stuff for hire.
G: “Normal stuff?”
S: Then he started a hobby…
G: (looking at the book) What the hell is that?
S: This is someone else’s work that inspired him. It was Hermann Ploucquet’s work shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Potter may have seen it as a kid. It’s a retelling of the Reynard the Fox stories using actual stuffed foxes put in storybook poses.
G: He saw that and thought, “I could do that!”
S: The thing is, if you live in a farm town, there are animals…
G: I don’t like sentences that start like that.
S: …and life is cheap…
G: How many dead kittens are in this photo?
S: This is The Kittens’ Wedding. There were generally cats on the farm and they weren’t fixed. So when they had kittens, the farm would keep one of them and the rest would… not be kept. So Potter had access to a large number of dead kittens, and he made them into a wedding party.
S: Similarly, he had a lot of dead rabbits.
G: Where did he get the eyes for the kittens, Sarah?
S: They’re taxidermy eyes.
G: There’s a thriving market in fake animal eyes?
S: You just buy those as a part of your taxidermy supplies.
G: This is in the late 1800s?
S: Yes. He created a series of tableaux. His most famous was the Death & Burial of Cock Robin.
G: A large and creepy scene.
S: And The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party. He started exhibiting them in a museum that had some other stuff, but in which his work was the main focus.
G: This is so wrong. But that’s the fun of the book, I guess.
S: Yeah. The thing is, when he made these, they were just a curiosity, that he told a story in this way, a tourist attraction. (Rabbits’ Village School really upsets Gene.) Over the course of generations, these exhibits got more and more disturbing to the general viewer.
G: It’s not just me?
S: No, it’s not just you. This is interesting to me, how we feel about animals has changed so much. Maybe because our lives are further from the farm? Maybe because we’ve changed culturally?
G: How did he get access to these squirrels?
S: They were a pest, the farm dogs would kill them. They’re also a different type than are now common in the UK, because they got out-competed by grey squirrels.
G: There’s a squirrel smoking a cigar. Did he make those squirrel-sized playing cards?
S: Some of the stuff he made, some stuff he found or re-purposed. Eventually these little roadside curiosity museums couldn’t make enough money to support the people who ran them. The pieces ended up being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, they got bought by different people. Eventually, in an auction in the early 2000s, this collection was broken up and sold off piece by piece. They are now all over the world.
G: I don’t want to look at these pictures anymore.
S: The reasons people pick this book up today are completely different than why people would have visited the museum. I kind of like that aspect of it, it’s this weird function of history that we can feel differently about he same object over time.
G: I’ll be honest with you, if you described this book to me I would think, “I would love to one one of those creepy little scenes.” After looking at this, I don’t want one at all. Would you want one?
S: No! If you ended up with it in your house, you’d walk by it every day and shudder.
Monet: Itinerant of Light by Salva Rubio (writer) and Richard Efa (art). English translation by Montana Kane. NBM, 2017. 9781681121390. 112pp.
I’m not an art expert and I don’t read many biographies — I’m a guy who races through museums, often giggling with my daughter, to find the few works that catch my attention and make me stare at them. I’ve been caught up by a few of Monet’s huge, bright paintings but know little of him or the Impressionist movement — it’s worth noting that Efa’s art and design pays homage to many of his works — but I was still surprised how much I enjoyed this beautiful graphic novel.
The book opens late in the painter’s life, in 1923, with Monet reluctantly getting much-needed cataract surgery, fearing for his vision, and then reflecting on his life. Art was the only thing that took young Monet out of his grief over his mother’s death, and his first mentor was Boudin, who helped him see nature and taught him to paint it outside. Soon Monet dropped out of school, against his father’s wishes, and moved to Paris. But the school he attended there didn’t help him realize his vision, and through many struggles (financial, emotional, internal) he had to find his way to success and acceptance in the art world. He wasn’t always the nicest guy to his family, but his single-mindedness really made me admire him.
As Rubio notes opposite the last page, this is not a history book — a lot of license was used to develop characters, and the works are not always presented in the order they were created. But it gave me a great sense of the artist and his time.
For librarians and art lovers: At the end are 16 pages of reproduced art works (not all by Monet) and the panels in the book they inspired. (If I were going to read this for the first time, I’d probably start with his section, but only because I’m unfamiliar with so many of the paintings that are referenced. But discovering it at the end of my read had me flipping back through the book and enjoying it again, which was fun, too.)
Emanations: The Art of the Cameraless Photograph by Geoffrey Batchen. Prestel, 2016. 9783791355047. 200pp.
Large gallery show and museum catalogs are reliable repositories of reproduced art. In Emanations Geoffrey Batchen does more! And he made me sad I couldn’t take a trip to the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth, New Zealand, back in 2016, to see his work.
He disingenuously bemoans the lack of a general history of cameraless photography in an introductory 47 page essay with 33 “figures.” In addition to these smaller illustrations, there are an additional 144 “plates” where the large format and heavy, glossy paper make for breathtaking reproductions. Anyone wanting to author a general history of cameraless photography now has a fastidiously referenced place to begin.
The breadth of the selected works in the book might upset a reader’s established view of photography. As early as 1839, astronomer and botanist John Herschel painted his pioneering mix of photochemicals on writing paper so he could, in mid-letter, make a print of the plant he was writing about! Many of the artists in the 1920’s and 1930’s used photo paper post cards, conveniently available back then, and an easy size to work with. Others went big: Robert Rauschenberg and Susan Weil draped human models over large sheets of blueprint paper; Zhang Dai’s “Man and Woman on Bikes” was exposed on a 91 inch by 118 inch canvas coated with cyanotype media; and Robert Huarcaya’s “Amazonagramas” works were made using 30 meter (98 feet, 5 inches) rolls of photo paper!
Not all exposures are with visible light. Wilhelm Roentgen made sure to include the feminizing touch of his wife’s wedding ring when he made an X-ray picture of her hand. More recently, and more ominously, Shimpei Takeda used soil samples taken near the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor complex to expose his media.
The two most-represented of artists are Man Ray and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. Six of Man Ray’s “rayographs” and six of Moholy-Nagy’s works are reproduced.
In Emanations passion, vision, and inspiration are on display. There are also incidental traces of the history of photography as art, craft, and technology. It is both an ambitious and rewarding book.
Guest review by Robert (no longer in San Diego).
The Collected Doug Wright: Volume One: Canada’s Master Cartoonist by Doug Wright. Introduction by Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse). Drawn & Quarterly, 2009. 9781897299524. Beautifully designed by Seth. 240 wonderfully oversized 240pp.
Gene: Do you know who Doug Wright was?
G: He was kind of…
S: Is he that Canadian guy?
G: He’s that Canadian who the Doug Wright Awards are named after.
S: Oh yeah.
G: I was going to say he’s kind of like the Charles Schulz of Canada? His comics don’t look much like Peanuts, but they were beloved. They ran for a long time in Canadian newspapers. His most famous was Little Nipper or Nipper, which became Doug Wright’s family.
What I really like is that this is an oversized book that has blown up some of his drawings, especially from the beginning of his career, and it shows you how amazing his comics were. They were mostly, I think, black and white and red, so black and red ink plus white space on the page. They’re all about a little boy, Nipper, and his family.
There’s a huge biographical essay in the book about Wright’s life, which I didn’t read much of. But there are some pieces of his art that are very cool. It’s supposed to cover 1949 – 1962, so it’s before this smaller format Nipper collection which I also have, which covers 1963 – 1964.
Look, his early comics were so old school.
S: Lots of detail!
Continue reading “Doug, right?”
Polaroid: The Complete Guide to Experimental Instant Photography by Rhiannon Adam. Thames & Hudson, 2017. 9780500544600. 240pp. 840 illustrations. (A weird thing to say, especially about a book about photography, but it’s noted on the title page, so there.)
Gene: This is not the kind of book I read cover to cover, and I don’t think it’s supposed to be that kind of book.
Sarah: I’ve got to start bringing more cookbooks. I don’t “read” them, so I don’t think of them as being “books I have read.”
G: Bring any books you’ve loved. (Flips the book over for the reveal.)
G: You seen any experimental Polaroid photography? Where people draw on photos or scratch them and do crazy things?
G: I find analog photography compelling, just the idea that you can’t mess with it forever like digital. Somehow it feels like mistakes are more natural, more allowed, more a part of the process. And here’s my guidebook. There’s a How to Use This Book section, which I of course skipped. There’s a Quick Start Guide, which tells about types of cameras. And then there’s a Film Compatability Guide, because there’s a lot of old film stock out there and folks covet it. Will it fit your camera? Find out here. This is instant camera porn. There are so many more instant cameras in the world (and in this book) than I ever knew about.
S: Here’s a Party Time Instant Camera.
G: It goes right up to now, with some instant cameras funded via Kickstarter. I think the core of this is the Impossible Camera. There are lots of dated photos. It starts with old peel-apart cameras. It details which accessories are compatible with which cameras in case you’re buying on the secondary market.
S: This is the book to have next to you when you’re shopping eBay.
G: And it gives a user guide with troubleshooting tips for each style of camera covered. It explains how peel-apart film works — apparently you can do things with it you can’t do with other film types.
S: Double exposures and stuff?
G: Weirder. And apparently it depends on how you peel.
And there are tips on dealing with jams, and lots of buying advice for each type of camera.
These are boxes for drying and storing instant film. And then there are little bits and pieces. Large format 20 inch x 24 inch Polaroid cameras, which are a thing. A primer on how instant film works, the chemical processes. It is apparently one of the most complex chemical processes developed by man and available at the consumer level. And then different camera series. It gives ideas of what happens to film when things go wrong (but maybe that’s what you want?). Pictures on different kinds of film stock.
S: More buying advice.
G: Here’s my favorite, the Tasmanian Devil instant camera. And look, the outline of the photo makes it look like the camera was in the character’s mouth (which is what the camera looks like). There’s a Hello Kitty camera of course, but also a Jaegermeister branded camera and other oddities, Legoland, McDonald’s, other branded cameras.
S: Is that an ER medical camera?
G: It’s for emergency medicine, somehow. Then there’s a transparent camera.
Here’s a guide for swapping film. This whole thing is very practical.
It starts to hint at how to do different things. This camera has a stand people use to create instant film mosaics. It doesn’t quite explain how… Accessories continue, different types of cameras, and then it gets to the Impossible Camera Lab, which you can use with your smart phone to create instant photos. Ridiculous? Maybe. But cool.
These are the instant cameras that took photos on little stickers, like Japanese photo booths.
S: I remember those, yeah.
G: And this is the Impossible Camera that I talked about earlier, which you can control with your phone and of course it has an app. There’s a user guide, lots of info. There are machines that let you print from slides onto instant film.
That’s a little more than 1/3 of the book.
And then it gets into creative techniques, all the cool things you can do with the film, my favorite of which is lifting off the front part where the image is printed and using it as a transparency.
G: You can lay it across surfaces to create different effects.
So many more techniques. More troubleshooting. Lots of examples to inspire you or scare you off, including using expired film to get weird effects, because apparently no one knows what it’s going to do. And the great thing is they don’t care — it’s all part of the art.
Noma Bar: Graphic Story Telling by Noma Bar. Thames & Hudson, 2017. 9780500021293. 400 pp.
Gene: This is a continuation of last Wednesday’s Book Wow! in which you shared Design is Storytelling. In my book’s title “story telling” is two words. It is filled with graphic designer / illustrator / artist Noma Bar’s work. (He also does sculpture, but it’s mostly images.) Most are flat and each tells a story. This is one of my favorites: Which Came First? It’s a chicken inside a question mark where the dot on the bottom is an egg. The illustration asks the question posed by the title.
Sarah: That’s really nice!
G: Most of Bar’s images do this, they have several images embedded in them and that’s his genius. They tell the story, but sometimes only if you know the story in question already. Let me show you some of my favorites.
This is a penguin made with a light bulb shape for the white and yellow, part of an IBM campaign called Smarter Planet. It implies environmentalism and energy.
This one is based on two dogs he saw, one was sniffing the other’s butt — part of the dog’s back end and tail for the face of the other dog.
S: In negative space!
G: These are for movies. In the image for Silence of the Lambs, the grate on Hannibal’s muzzle is a black lamb. In Taxi Driver, the space above and behind a cab forms the shape of a gun. In Jaws, the shark’s mouth forms the shape of a swimmer’s foot.
S: Oh yeah!
G: It’s hard for me to notice these types of details. Illustrations done in negative space seems to confuse my mind, it’s very hard for me to see them sometimes.
S: You have to work at it a little bit and that makes them a little sticky.
G: My grandmother had a knocker on her carport door that was the back end of a cat, but I didn’t see it for years. Everyone said it was a cat and laughed but I thought it was some kind of bird and that they were insane. And then I finally saw it one day.
S: Like the Weyerhauser logo. I thought it was clippers or pincers for a long time. I didn’t see the tree.
G: There’s a tree?
Here are some of the sculptures Bar did, including one of Pinocchio as a ping pong paddle, with a paddle for the eye.
S: Oh, and a hand holding a ping pong ball for the smile!
G: There’s a lot of fun stuff here. This is for the TV show Madmen. The collar of a man’s shirt is the skirt of a woman. Her legs are the white of the shirt, the knot of the black tie doubles as her panties and the rest of the tie is the empty space between her legs. Brilliant.
Here’s the London Underground symbol done with mice. It’s cool, but it needs some context — if you’ve never seen the regular symbol for it, it won’t mean much.
Some of my favorites are the movie images. Here’s Audrey Hepburn’s face created with elements of her look.
S: Have you seen Scott C’s book Great Showdowns? You have to know the movie because it doesn’t tell you what they are.
G: Here’s my favorite image in the book, for the movie Pulp Fiction. Vincent is below and in front of the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, and Vincent’s hair is his buddy’s badass mustache.
And there are penises later in the book, some very smart and funny images, my favorite of which features a penis as a dog, for an Esquire article by Mels van Driel containing a list of facts about “man’s best friend.”
Design Is Storytelling by Ellen Lupton. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2017. 9781942303190. 160 pp.
Sarah: I came to Design is Storytelling thinking it would be more about storytelling as applied to designing objects, but it’s more about using the different techniques of design to influence people. And it ends up boiling down to a lot of stuff about designing a product or service or experience people want and want to interact with.
Gene: Like the Chipotle customer line?
Sarah: Yeah. This is a chapter on the narrative arc, and as an example, how you get food at Chipotle vs. at McDonald’s.
Gene: What’s the takeaway?
Sarah: In Chipotle, there’s a defined place for you to go, there’s an interaction that takes you along the line, and then you finish, get the food, pay and you go. In McDonald’s you stand in one of several lines and talk to someone, someone else makes the food, and then it’s delivered to a different spot by a person you’ve never seen before while you’re waiting in an area that’s undefined so you just sort of mill around. The design is not as good.
Lupton brings in a lot of real world examples: how grocery stores are set up, how they draw you through what you buy; how each IKEA is set up…
Gene: The belly of the warehouse!
S: …and she makes a point, people say IKEA is a maze but it’s not, it’s a labyrinth with a defined path that you’re supposed to take.
Gene: Is that the difference between a labyrinth and a maze?
S: Yeah, in a maze you don’t know where you’re going and you might have dead ends.
G: I thought this book was going to be all about graphics.
S: No, the writer is a design instructor, and so in the section on storyboards she shows how to use them to walk people through any potential problems with people interacting with a product or service. How do you find the points where people are going to get annoyed, where it won’t work, and how do you explain the problems in a way so that the solution is exactly this product, which you need. So there’s an ongoing example of people riding their bikes and then wanting to take a bus but its bike rack is full, or a friend offers a ride but their trunk doesn’t have space for your bike. So how do you do multi-mode transportation that includes bikes?
But then she’ll also talk about the storyboard being the product, like an app, that will take you through the actions someone could take and what it will look like when those actions are taken.
And then there’s a whole chapter on the storytelling Rule of Three. In some part she acknowledges that this is based on some particular Western mode of thought and storytelling. (In other cultures’ traditional tales, this rule doesn’t apply.)
G: That’s why foreign films often feel so different, right? Because they don’t use the same basic structure. They feel unfamiliar. It’s one of the reasons I love foreign horror films — I never know what’s going to happen next.
S: So she talks a lot about good design vs. bad design, how to predict future problems and opportunities. There’s an example on future outcomes for a museum where most of their users are researchers but not many regular people. Where did it want to be? A ton of visitors or just a few? A blockbuster exhibition where there’s a ton of folks but nobody can touch anything, or something more interactive. It’s a way to think about the future.
So more and more of this as you read is going to sound like the times your library system made you do focus groups. These are all of the vocab words that seemed so foreign to me as a library worker about how to think about the future and options and all the sort of creative thinking focus group stuff. One of the things she gets into is emotion and how it plays a huge part in our decision making, even though we think we’re rational when making decisions and interacting with things. And how patterns of experience can give patterns of reaction. (There’s a great example about people putting their hands in buckets of cold water.)
She talks about how Starbucks is an experience. If you were just buying coffee you’d buy cheap coffee, but it is an experience of attention and setting and all of this other stuff. They write your name on the cup! There’s nice music! It smells good.
G: Does that mean the guy driving his Porsche is having a better experience than I am driving my Honda?
S: Probably. She gets into this stuff and it starts to sound like mind control. Trying to get you to use things. Making you like them better because of small changes not based on the product itself exactly, but its personality.
G: You mean it works the same but looks different?
S: Yes. There’s this thing about gendered products. Chapstick is gender neutral, but EOS doesn’t appeal to men. Changing something’s color can change people’s assumptions about it. Greenwashing — trying to make a product sound more ecologically friendly than it is. This can just about the physical packaging being green. That alone makes people assume something is ecologically responsible. There are other messages you can send with other colors.
There’s a page of how we find what’s different in two images, what we notice and what we don’t. Affordance. Eye mapping.
G: I want to say for the recording, you’re skimming over a lot of points but this book is full of graphics that illustrate all of these and more. Right now there are a lot of dots and letters and stuff on the page, and they’re making me aware of where my eye is drawn. It’s an exercise in how to emphasize different things. It’s making me think about library displays, and the non-design of them — we can build a great display but it will change as books are checked out and somewhat randomly replaced with whatever available.
S: This is a nice rundown of all of these design ideas, particularly in a commercial context, and how they can be used for good or evil, to confuse or inform.