Friday, April 22, 2016

"What will I do with them anyway?" "Throw them out, dear."

Forget about DSLRs or digital point-and-shoots. These days, anyone with a smart phone can easily shoot dozens of pictures a day. They keep piling up at a rate unprecedented in human history -- let alone the history of photography, which is less than two centuries old, and which for about half that time was amostly confined to specialists. But even in the heyday of amateur film photography there were those who wondered where it was all heading:
Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing a living image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic-drive Nikons and OM-2's and their Leicaflexes, and put their finger on the button, and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep, reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled, and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes at Villefranche. All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced smile into the lenses, then to be filed away, their colors fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, stack loads, view cubes, until one day the person dies and the grandchild says, "Mom, I don't know any of these people. or where they were taken even. There are jillions of them here in this big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them anyway?" 
 "Throw them out, dear."
-- John D. MacDonald, The Empty Copper Sea, 1978

What will happen to the photographic detritus of our time? Who knows? Considering how long it takes to even glance at the contents of a multi-gigabyte memory card, the answer may well be, "Throw them out, dear."

Earth Day Remembrance of Jens Jensen, Wisconsin's poet of the natural landscape


Jens Jensen The Living Green: CLIPS from Viva Lundin Productions on Vimeo.

A couple days ago we saw a wonderful documentary, "The Living Green," on Wisconsin Public Television about Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. It's showing again tonight, on Earth Day, on Channel 21 in Madison (11:00pm). If you can't catch it, this 10-minute series of clips on Vimeo captures many of the highlights and much of the spirit of this extraordinary man.

Jensen and his wife landed in Chicago in 1884 as penniless immigrants from Denmark. He began working for the Chicago Parks Department as a laborer but soon worked his way up and became the system's self-taught landscape architect, starting as superintendent of Humboldt Park in 1895. He was ahead of his time as a passionate advocate of natural, urban green space, and his design work for the city can be seen in such parks as garfield Park, Humboldt Park, Douglas Park and Columbus Park. He was instrumental in helping save the Indiana Dunes near Chicago. He retired from the park system in 1920 and began private practice, with influential projects around the country, including major projects for Henry Ford and his son Edsel.

After his wife died in 1935 he left the Chicago area and moved to Ellison Bay, in Door County, Wisconsin, where he established "Wisconsin's other Taliesin," The Clearing. Like his friend and contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, he was known for his prairie style. Like Taliesin, he designed The Clearing as his home and school, as a way of passing on his vision. He also designed this lovely winding road between Gill's Rock and Rockport. He died in 1951 at the age of 91.


There are two Jens Jensen projects in Madison -- the Council Ring in the sliver of the UW-Madison Arboretum near Monroe Street and the nearby Glenwood Children's Park near Glenway Street. They're fitting memorials to this pioneer landscape architect and visionary, who was so far ahead of his time, and who spent the last 16 years of his long life in Wisconsin.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Vanishing Pleasure

A Vanishing Pleasure

I'm talking about book page design and typography. I've been reading some of my favorite mysteries -- James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux mysteries set in Louisiana bayou country, in hardcover editions published by Doubleday. Most were ho-hum in their design. But a few pages into Purple Cane Road I knew I was holding something special. Not only is it one of the best of the Robicheaux series, in which Dave finds out the mother who abandoned him as a child was actually murdered. The other thing that was unusual was that the pages were physically gorgeous, hearkening back to a time when books were precious objects worthy of a craftsman's care and devotion.

The pages were laid out with wide margins, and the lines of crisp text were laid out with generous leading between the lines. My eye flowed easily down the page. Subtle signposts helped lead you through the book without being obtrusive -- chapter numbers were set off in light gray, screened back cursive. The first page of each chapter was set with even wider margins. The first line of each chapter started with a large initial cap, nicely kerned so it didn't look out of place. Chapter sections had their own, smaller initial caps. Taken as a whole, these subtle cues helped orient the reader in the book in a way that's unique to print books.

These days publishers usually don't bother, because most folks do their reading on screens and devices with type set on computers working on autopilot, or the modern equivalent, HTML cascading style sheets. Since the other books didn't look like this at all, I wondered why the publisher bothered. Then I saw a note on the copyright page: "A signed limited edition of this book has been published by B. E. Trice Publishing, New Orleans." I imagine Doubleday arranged to use the same files to print their edition.

They say e-books seem to have reached their peak and that print books are making a comeback. Maybe it's because there's just nothing like being able to page through a well-designed book.