Summer 2000

Picture books: luxury and meaning

The design of lavish illustrated tomes often shows a lack of confidence, or perhaps a confident lack of understanding, in the marriage of words and images. Yet the best books are poetic: a minimum of means produces a maximum of meaning

So here we are in post-postmodernism. Self-referential, irony-laden critique is thankfully coming to an end through a change in the condition of things: the electronic media economy’s endless demand for new stuff that the older, specialised practices have yet to figure out. Symptomatic of this are the uncomfortable hybrids: books with CDS or CD-ROMS with books. In retrospect, isms have always collapsed in the face of changes that come from the flank: changes in what can be done, changes in demand and possibility. Perhaps we are in a fin de siècle situation analogous to the emergence of Modernism, which happened not because people became ‘Modernists’, but because the means to do new things arrived. Or maybe our situation is more like that of the late 1950s – an earlier media age when there was some correspondence between the style and substance of film, theatre, music and the print and broadcast media.

Some things have changed quietly. Huge books such as S, M, L, XL and New York 1960, which until recently retailed at £85 to £100, now cost a mere £25 to £30: it has never been cheaper to produce compendious, well illustrated books. Until recently, publishers were reluctant to fork out on lavish imagery – we lived in a world of textbooks filled with black and white reproductions. Now, nearly every new design book is a coffee-table book and even the most marginal subject is given a luxurious four-colour treatment, from histories of the motorway service station (Always a Welcome, by -photographer David Lawrence) to work-in-progress books, such as Tomato’s Bareback.

This increase in production is not a reason for unalloyed joy. All too often, images are simply placed in mute juxtaposition to words. Early in Neil M. Denari’s Gyroscopic Horizons, for example, a full-page image of the top of a palm tree sits under the heading ‘Conditions’ and across the image lies the sentence: ‘The basic conditions indispensable to the projects here: build space within the world of systems with materials, colour codes and escalations.’ The banality of the composition is audacious. Books about design often miss the point established by Eisenstein and Barthes (not to mention Harold Evans) that a ‘text’, be it film, advert, newspaper, book or website, is the integrated, meaningful sum of its elements.

The effect of such poor use of images is to subtract from narrative delivery to the extent that it would be better were they not used at all (particularly where they are used simultaneously, as in New Media Culture in Europe). Given the new opportunities to produce good illustrated work cheaply, why is there so much dross? There have always been bad books but now there are fewer excuses.

An evocation of possibility
The answer does not lie in the past. Bad books are timeless and old innovations rarely work in new contexts. (Anyone who has tried to read something such as an old Blackie children’s book or an Everyman classic will find the fact that it ‘looks nice’ does not make its tiny, heavily leaded text easier to read.) The answer lies in collaboration: In an opera or a film or an album, many specialists contribute to the final ‘performance’. With books it all too often appears that each stage of production exists in isolation from the others.

Perhaps a way to move into a new era is to look at what was made the last time this happened, to look at work produced with a vital new spirit before repetition reduced it to style and cliché. In 1960, Michael Joseph published French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David. As the author acknowledged, the book was made possible by the editor of Vogue paying for her to go to France to study her subject: that’s a form of collaboration. It is not copiously illustrated – there is a sleeve photograph by Anthony Denney and some monochrome illustrations of evocative groupings of comestibles by Juliet Renny – but this was an advance on her predecessors’ books brought about by new means of production. The front cover is a Kodachrome image of a half-finished bit of pâté, a glass of Burgundy and a Gitanes ashtray on a terrasse somewhere. The text is part story, part recipes but mostly an evocation of possibility – a world of conviviality en plein air where restaurant and home kitchen are the same. The world is the same one that Len Deighton’s spy hero Harry Palmer aspires to on his days off (see The Ipcress File’s 1964 monochrome dust jacket by Raymond Hawkey – half drunk cappuccino and fag stub next to a revolver). David’s book, like Deighton’s, is illustrated enough to set the scene. Both covers are exemplars of Roland Barthes’s essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image ‘ [from his book Image Music Text], which analyses the ‘Italianicity’ of a Panzani advert.

The most influential cookbook of the 1990s was Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’s River Cafe Cook Book, and one can only concur with the cover review from Vogue Living that it was ‘… a volume that is destined to become the sourcebook for low-key entertaining.’ The book is an icon of ‘now’ values lavishly illustrated throughout by photographers Jean Pigozzi (ambience) and Martyn Thompson (food). It makes David’s book seem like radio compared to TV. Designed by The Senate in a combination of ascetic typefaces for minimalist recipes and vibrant Designers Guild colours, the River Cafe Cook Book is a style bible of minimalist spaces and middle-aged sublimated eroticism.

The effect of the contrast between the clear narrative of expense-account dining and recipes that would fit on a menu is that you just look at the pictures of people eating, attractive waiting staff, exercised cooks and plates of food. The food photographs perform a function equivalent to fashion plates that show you how to wear a little black dress: there is one wonderful demonstration of what a bottle of Amarone looks like when it becomes the main ingredient of a risotto – purple rice. In the end, though, the recipes are not important. The River Cafe Cook Book and its successful sequels are – somewhat like Elizabeth David’s books – aspirational. They may be ‘overdesigned’, but then that is how many people want to live and the publishers recognised that this was a coffee-table book rather than a serious cookbook. The book’s layout is notable for the way it picks up on a current obsession for authentic ingredients. It is hard not to admire a book that can make an icon of Cavolo Nero.

Soft-porn shininess
Both these cookbooks represent the state of upmarket eating at a particular time and have spawned a host of imitations. They use images in a way that is evocative and ambient, and substitute a visible fantasy for intangible taste to bring to life the dry data of the recipe. Cookbooks may be formulaic productions from publishers motivated by little more than a desire to cash in on the lifestyle fad of the moment, yet they are frequently accomplished team exercises in bringing drama to the contents of your shopping basket. A. A. Gill’s Le Caprice book is not. Although it uses the same illustrative format of the first and second River Cafe Cook Books, Le Caprice is an homage to the restaurant of that name. The various recipes, including cocktails, are arranged on menu headings, bracketed with essaylets by Gill in his familiar equestrian style. The text reads like the sleeve notes of a 1970s concept album, a motif cheesily maintained by the glossy appearance of the book. The photographs include archive work by Bailey and Snowdon as testimony to the restaurant’s glamour, but the contemporary stuff by Henry Bourne has the kind of soft-porn shininess Bob Carlos Clark brought to his subjects. You wonder who will actually buy it. Clearly, it will be disowned by people of taste – a bit of an own goal given Gill’s insistence on the quintessential chic of the place.

Almost as many cookbooks are being published as those on design: never before have there been so many books on contemporary design whose price is so reasonable. One would expect these of all books to be an effective marriage of image and text but while they may not use the formulae of cookbooks there are some depressing tropes in design publishing, the worst of which is the ‘high concept explained’ type. Tomato’s Bareback is iconic among these concept books in its juxtaposition of portentous text with alternatively banal photographs and tectonic forms, as open and opaque to interpretation as David Bowie’s lyrics. In this openness lies their attraction since like pop lyrics, or the face of a model, their conventional form demands that they are read, but their emptiness leaves the reader to use them as a mirror of their own desire for significance. More typical of the current crop of design books is Gyroscopic Horizons by Neil M. Denari, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. The book is an account of his ideas together with twenty of his projects. It combines bafflingly pompous text – where walls become worldsheets – with computer-generated architectural imagery that gives every project the same visual currency. Worst is the first section of the book in which the architect sets out his world view. Beneath the underside of a landing jet seen from 300 ft away lies the opening shot of this autobiographical book: ‘Since 1960, the North American landscape, especially the Southwestern part of the United States, has undergone massive development due to the expansion of the military-industrial complex that served the space programme and the sustained conflict in Vietnam … During the last quarter-century, forms of urbanisation that emphasise the terrain vague of the horizontal conditions have mirrored the decentralised structures of information industries … This is the cultural and physical landscape that forms the basis of my own developing identity.’ This kind of writing is not new. In ‘Monumental Follies’, New Society, 1968, Peter Hall wrote that ‘the prevalent (architectural) criticism in England [is] an amazing mixture of arid technical jargon and hip culture language which would have provided an object lesson for George Orwell’, providing his own pastiche: ‘Parametric shifts in technologic possibilities, released as fall-out from defence-oriented goals, create forms appropriate to space-age desires and raise potentialities for hallucinogenic light-and-sound cultures …’

The difference now is that every utterance is accompanied with an enormous image, a photograph of crudely ambient intent. Such illustrations are often devoid of directed meaning, a kind of illustrative non-place. In Denari’s case, the first pages are of a blue sky, a plane detail, a travelator at Heathrow, a grassy prairie, an eye, a palm tree, more blue sky with a bit of military-industrial complex in the bottom corner and a blurred man on an escalator. The effect is gnomic, and one suspects the images are there simply because too much text might be considered undesigned. What appears to be meaningful is often the most obvious, vacuous picture that superficially ‘goes’ with the idea. This inconsistency is invisible to the reader, who reads the images at the lowest level.

The sublime and the ridiculous
Are designers unaware of the dire effect that poor juxtaposition of image and text can have when enshrined in a book? Perhaps they do not recognise the meaning the average reader gives to the signs they daily manipulate. Maybe such designers ascribe an equivalence of meaning to both sublime and ridiculous because they feel an obligation to treat all material with professional disinterest. The ease with which digitisation reduces image, text and layout to the same code, combined with the increasing ease with which production qualities once painstaking and difficult can now be achieved devalues the currency of meaning among its mediators: all elements become the same.

In the 1960s, when a new wave of technological changes had similar effects to those of today, there were many bad (and now forgotten) books, but some that might pre-figure a new approach in our own time. Edmund Bacon’s Design of Cities (1967) begins with a juxtaposition of quotes on the subject of seeing and knowing. Incomplete in their continuity as narrative, their point is allowed to emerge in a poetic way from their juxtaposition with a line-drawn montage that eloquently completes our interpretation. The meaning of the pages is both simple and complex through its lack of either endless equivocation or emphatic, directed closure. This image / text combination is an example of the possibility of illustration since it is incidental to the text – merely an appeal for the reader to pay attention. There may be newer, better illustrated books, but not while pretentiousness and expedience are seen as the only ways to meet print deadlines.

My prize for the worst response to the promise of the digital age goes to New Media Culture in Europe. Subtitled The Virtual Platform/Hybrid Media Lounge, this book is a hard copy of a website accompanied by a snapshot of the site on disc. Why include this CD-ROM snapshot? It’s like making an email copy of a letter and then printing it and sending it with the letter – except that in this case to read the CD you have to install enough software to freeze your desktop. Everything about this book is terrible: its hideous black-and-yellow road-warning masthead; its bogus heavy-metal computer game menu bar – its dazzling newsagent card grid; its vieux punk text; its tired contributors drawn from the social workers of the art world; its lonelyhearts-listed respondents; its sheer government-funded, going-nowhere pointlessness supported by a website designed by autistic technophiles on software that consumes memory and moves with the grace of a one-armed paper hanger. The way the package looks says it all.

Picture books can go beyond determining the interpretation of the text for the reader by suggesting a series of possible interpretations that allows the reader to extrapolate meaning. The best texts, regardless of medium, are poetic – a minimum of means gives a maximum of meaning. Throughout the award-winning The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention (edited by Diana Murphy and designed by J. Abbott Miller, Scott Devendorf and Paul Carlos) the thoughtful layout documents the Eameses’ life and supports the reader’s understanding of their design process. Images tell their own story with minimal textual support in the visual essay, ‘The Eamesian Aesthetic in Popular Culture’. As the brief introduction says: ‘The images demonstrate the assimilation of the Eameses’ aesthetic into the realms of art, commerce, industry and fashion’. No more needs to be said, as the images speak for themselves.

David Heathcote, design historian, York and London

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

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