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Designing Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964
This weekend marks your last chance to experience the special exhibition Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964, on view at the de Young until June 3. As book designer and guest blogger Martin Venezky aptly notes, the catalogue represents a lasting impression of an otherwise temporary exhibition. Today, Venezky shares with us the process behind the creation of this unique publication.
The catalogue for the special exhibition Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 provides a nice case study into the inner workings of a book design. The book itself is deceptively simple. It contains reproductions of sixty-eight photographs from the exhibition, an essay, an interview, locations and credits, a foreword, and a set of additional images—some historical, some personal, and some working contact sheets. But beneath the seemingly placid surface there were hundreds of options to consider and decisions to make.
One way this project differed from many other catalogues that I've worked on was that I—the designer—was invited to participate very early on in the process with Karen Levine, the then-head of publications, curator Jim Ganz, and Arthur Tress himself.
In these early meetings the final set of photographs had not yet been chosen from among the hundreds available. The pictures lined the long tables in the Legion of Honor’s reading room, with additional materials stacked nearby.
Attending—let alone participating in—these meetings is valuable because it is a window into the curatorial process. Why, for example, are some pictures more powerful than others? What makes a well-rounded selection? Which images are most meaningful to the artist? And how do they all fit together? Which are redundant and which provide deeper contemplation?
A catalogue is a companion to an exhibition, offering further commentary and context and—after a show is de-installed—a catalogue remains the one permanent vestige of the exhibition. Because of this permanence, every choice gains a heightened importance. Unlike the gallery walls, a catalogue will necessarily “marry” pictures together—that is, the meaning of images on facing pages will change because of their proximity.
So once a rough cut of images was made, Jim spent a lot of time grouping the pictures into pairs, sharing his choices with the photographer and inviting his input. For a designer, this process always raises red flags. Even when well-meaning, these pre-pairings are often too obvious and too cute. But the Ganz-Tress team performed brilliantly, their choices allowing the images to resonate with their partners in unexpected ways.
Had I not gone to the early meetings, I would never have noticed a box full of Arthur’s contact sheets sitting off to the side. I am always drawn to these gestures of process, and with Arthur’s blessing we were invited to include them in the book.
Considering the pacing and flow of turning the pages in a book is very different from actually visiting the pictures as they are hung in the architectural space of the gallery. So my strategy for organizing the book remained separate from the exhibition design. I needed to consider the pairings, organize them, offer alternatives as options, and, from the contact sheets, select images that best revealed Arthur’s decision-making as he walked through San Francisco with his camera.
It was important to develop some sort of logic to the process—for this book, I loosely followed a path from solitary people to small groups, crowds, then back to individuals and even empty spaces. These two extremes—an exuberant teenage crowd and a quiet solitary sunbather—populate both the front and back covers of the book.
At the same time, I developed a visual language for the book, choosing fonts (Akzidenz Grotesk for the sans-serif and Sabon for the serif), sizes, margins, structure, plus a set of symbols to be used throughout the book. The final sunburst—a nod to Tress’s daylight photography, as well as an upbeat, hopeful (but not clichéd) modernism—is also deceptively simple.
Whereas the lines form an even outer ring, they have three different interior starting points. This detail creates a slight visual gradation and a sense of spaciousness at the center. The full symbol was then simplified into two additional smaller elements to be used between paragraphs and at the opening and closing of sections.
Furthering the symbol’s flexibility, I developed a pleasing pattern for the book’s endpapers and had the sunburst stamped in copper foil on the cloth case and back cover.
There were many additional images we would have liked to include to tell Arthur’s San Francisco story, including personal photographs, artifacts, and letters home.
But space is a premium, and with an allowance of 112 pages, we could only include a small sampling. Compromise is always part of the process, and the designer’s challenge is to make the book seem complete, even generous, regardless of the necessary edits.
Arthur Tress: San Francisco 1964 closes this weekend at the de Young.