An Interview with Alastair Johnston, Author of ‘Dreaming on the Edge: Poets and Book Artists in California’
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: The California Historical Society, where I used to be a volunteer, had a contest to find the best unpublished manuscript about some aspect of California history. I thought about it, and realized no one had ever written an overview of the book arts in the state, at least not since Louise Barr in 1930.
Q: How long did it take?
A: Three years. I wrote the first seven chapters in a rush to enter the CHS competition, but came in second. Not bad considering it was only a quarter of the book. But in addition to the three years of writing I had been thinking and even writing about this for a lot longer.
Q: What was your entry point?
A: Probably when I came to California in 1970 and found a poetry book by Jack Spicer, whom I had never heard of, that introduced me to the whole small press world.
Q: Did you continue in chronological order?
A: No, I conceived the chapters as stand-alone articles: the one about WET magazine started out as a book review on the booktryst blog, but then I kept rewriting and expanding it. I tried to make the tone light and journalistic and not academic. Once I had the framework I could see where I needed to go back and do more work. I also tried to limit it to one or two key books per artist to keep it focused and not go off into a whole history of each subject.
Q: I know you have already written quite a lot on this topic; what did you expand on and what new things did you bring to the book?
A: Over the years I have learned more and more about Auerhahn, White Rabbit, Zephyrus Image — small presses about whom I’ve have published bibliographies — also Semina magazine, Everson and Waldport, plus printers Graham Mackintosh and Dave Haselwood. Jack Stauffacher, who is now in his 90s, and the poets Philip Whalen and Joanne Kyger would relate to me personal stories or anecdotes which I stored away.
Q: What were your best discoveries?
A: Everyone has heard of Gelett Burgess and his Purple Cow. I went through his papers at The Bancroft Library and found not only letters and unpublished articles, but a prototype for an artist’s book called “How to Look Eleven Years Younger!” Someone should make a facsimile of it. Burgess wrote a great collaborative novel with his friend Will Irwin called The Picaroons. I was browsing the Will Irwin pictorial collection at Stanford and found a tintype photo of him identified as “Will Irwin and friend.” There are not many photos of Burgess as a young man, but there is a silhouette in the Lark and I found later photos and tweaked them in Photoshop to be the same size and orientation until I could make a certain identification. So that’s a remarkable find. At CHS I had a great time going through Haywood H. Hunt’s archives: there were so many wonderful photos of him, he must have been a real character. He is the one who had a secret bar in the back of his printshop.
Q: Were other discoveries as exciting?
A: I sent a draft manuscript to Victoria Dailey who writes very perceptively on the Southern California art scene and she told me about people I had overlooked — two in particular: Ida Meacham Strobridge and Merle Armitage. I had looked at Merle Armitage’s work but it has a New York imprint. It turns out he didn’t think that Los Angeles had enough credibility as a publishing center in the twenties so got a friend in New York to loan his imprint. There’s a story I retell of the printer of his monograph on Edward Weston setting fire to a forme to warm it up enough to take the ink properly. As Victoria Dailey herself wrote, “in an ironic twist three of the best artists in Southern California were not painters, but were Armitage, a book designer; Paul Landacre, a printmaker; and Edward Weston, a photographer.” So you have to alter your viewpoint. In fact you could also point to the presence of George Gershwin and film director Delmer Daves as key cultural figures in LA in the late 20s and early 30s. There was a lot of richness in art and architecture there in the 20s and 30s, particularly because of Hollywood and the arrival of German expatriates like Galka Scheyer, Thomas Mann, Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.
Q: You are pretty tough on the Grabhorns and John Henry Nash.
A: I let their contemporaries explain the fundamental contradictions in their work. And I wanted to change the narrative which up to now has been about them as the exemplars of California presses. In the Nash-Grabhorn era it was still an elite world, financed by private patronage, but things changed in the forties with Bern Porter and in the fifties with Henry Evans, who are the true fathers of the small press movement. Then in the ’60s and ’70s we have the Women’s movement and even the NEA grants that funded small presses, as well as the obsolescence of letterpress as a commercial technology which led to artists adopting it.
Q: You tell some of these stories almost as if you were a fly on the wall, which is remarkable given the over a hundred-year span of the subject.
A: The oral histories of printers recorded by Ruth Teiser were inspiring to me, so it was important to get voices into the narrative. I met Saul Marks and Ward Ritchie, both of whom were born in 1905; I remember drinking with Lawton Kennedy (born 1901) in the 70s, but I don’t recall any of the things he told me about John Henry Nash and co. But I interviewed a printer named Thomas MacDonald (for the Book Club of California Quarterly) years ago and he had worked for Nash. In Santa Barbara I met a publisher named Wallace Hebbard, who had published a book called The Wild Gardens of Old California in 1927. His book includes six seed packets and, damn me, if I didn’t forget to mention it in the chapter on Brautigan’s Please Plant This Book, so obviously there will have to be a revised edition.
Q: Speaking of revisions what else did you omit?
A: I left out Gemini G.E.L. and Crown Point Press, since they are essentially fine art printmakers and not bookmakers. I did write something about Martín Ramírez, an accidental Californian, and one of my favorite artists, but couldn’t justify his inclusion. Obviously people will have their own perspective on what should or should not have been included. I tried to steer away from the pricy private press books that are so stultifying, not to mention hard to get to see. Many of the younger up-and-coming book artists will wonder why I forgot to mention them; mainly I did not want to just have lists, either of names or titles, but wanted to string together a narrative.
Q: Apart from courting controversy, did you encounter any problems in the production or compilation of your work?
A: Only in tracking down rights-holders for the images. The S. Clay Wilson chapter was a struggle. I wrote Ten Speed Press for permission to use an image and it turns out they were sold to Viking who are owned by Penguin. I got a letter from Penguin saying I would have to wait 6 weeks for a reply. After six weeks they asked again what it was I wanted to use (a small image in black and white); I explained the context and they sent me an invoice for $200 and I decided to forget it, and look further. I knew about Wilson’s edition of Grimm’s tales, which I had not examined and found there was a far more interesting story behind that, and wrote up Malcolm Whyte who is another neglected figure in the history books. So it worked out for the best, and Penguin, who didn’t even know they owned the rights to Ten Speed’s books, got nothing for their non-involvement.
Q: You found so many strange and wonderful books, do you own them all?
A: No, by no means. While I am not as compulsive as some of my friends, I do hoard old newspaper and magazine clippings, and turned up a Rolling Stone article on Ed Ruscha from 1971 that I had kept. But then when I volunteered at the CHS I discovered George Harding, the first librarian, had clipped every newspaper article he came across that mentioned someone in the graphic trades, even if it was just “So and So, printer, died at home in Eureka, May 1931.” It gave you a name and a date, and they were all filed in individual folders. I went through them all and put them in new acid-free folders. Despite the tedium, I found it occasionally inspiring and of course read every article in the process. One joy of volunteering is you don’t have to justify your time.
Q: One final comment to you as the designer: readers should be delighted by the many nice-sized images that make the book so appealing visually.
A: I wanted to see them well enough to read the small print — our eyes are not so good as we get older!
As an undergraduate student, I studied a plethora of innovative fields: creative writing, film history, investigative journalism, social media, persuasive writing, and researched the complex minds of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. As an English major with a concentration in film studies and a minor in journalism, I aspire to have a career in film and television production. One may wonder why I chose an internship with a publishing company given my experience with all things media. I made the decision to intern with Oak Knoll Books because I wanted to learn the business behind books. Since I was a English major who read countless books over the course of four years, I always had an interest in how the books I read were published and distributed. I have always had a keen interest in press releases, book signings, and publishing companies. I know writing a novel requires a lot of work, time, and energy; then trying to find a publisher was an even bigger challenge. Hence why I came to Oak Knoll, to figure out the difficulties and intricacies behind book publishing. Throughout my time here at Oak Knoll, I expect to be challenged. I also expect to gain knowledge, a new set of skills, and a new outlook and appreciation of the world of publishing.
When I first set foot into Oak Knoll I was enamored by old historic New Castle. Being a Delaware native, seeing this part of New Castle in all of its glory was an awesome experience. Walking down Delaware Street was a pleasant surprise. Oak Knoll is such a quaint, historic, hidden, and antique gem which New Castle should be proud of. It has a feel of an old classic book store with its hardwood floors and brown bookshelves holding collector’s items. When I am not surrounded by the paperbacks and publications of Oak Knoll, I can be found at home in the kitchen whipping up a meal for my family. Whether it’s stuffed French toast topped with bananas foster or, at dinner time, grilled chicken parmesan with angel hair pasta, cooking is definitely a nice break from struggling through Adobe InDesign. When I am not in the kitchen, I can be found binge watching Netflix.
My name is Caroline Beston, and I am a rising senior studying English, with a concentration in creative writing along with a Theater minor at the University of Delaware. At UD, my coursework has focused on literary studies in genre fiction and writing workshops in short fiction and poetry. I have done research on women writers in 1930s science fiction magazines, taken courses on vampires and zombies, and worked as a teaching assistant for a course on dystopian fiction. Some of my creative work has been featured in campus literary magazines. In my spare time I enjoy playing the cello, knitting, and working with a local organic food co-operative.
One of the career paths I am considering is publishing, and I wanted to work for Oak Knoll to learn more about the industry. I hope the opportunity to work for Oak Knoll will teach me new skills in the marketing arena and give me first-hand experience with the publishing process as a whole. My first day has included a lot of creative and detail-oriented work, which I can’t wait to continue. I’m excited to work more with design, branch out into digital marketing, and not let Adobe products rob me of my sanity.
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Oak Knoll attended the welcoming of Mark Samuels Lasner’s newly acquired copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer to the University of Delaware’s Morris Library. Mark talked about his experiences with that famous book at various points during his life and collecting career. Bill Peterson, noted authority and co-author of The Kelmscott Chaucer: A Census, revealed some little-known facts about the decoration and printing of that remarkable achievement. After the formalities, a reception featured blue-green champagne matching the Morris-designed cloth binding and a cake reproducing the title two-page spread from the volume in icing.
Hello everyone! My name is Kim, and I’m a senior at the University of Delaware, studying English and Japanese. I started interning in February, and came to Oak Knoll not knowing anything—about antiquarian books, publishing, software, anything. The past few months at Oak Knoll have been nothing short of enlightening, as I was introduced to new tools, genres, and lovely people.
Oak Knoll is truly a vast store of knowledge. Paging through books in my down time only gave me a glimpse of all that Oak Knoll has to offer; the very best, in my opinion, were the adorable miniature books! It was particularly joyful to me to find Japanese books and see how even the Japanese language has changed, or find antiquarian copies of books I’ve read in school. An illustrated version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of my most cherished finds.
Interning at Oak Knoll has given me a chance to refine skills I already had and learn a plethora of new skills, too. Oak Knoll has encouraged me to embrace my sense of creativity and to not be afraid to try new things. They have certainly pushed me to not be afraid to branch out and to broaden my skill set, or to get my hands dirty and experiment with new software and technology.
At Oak Knoll, I got a chance to see every side of the business. From designing advertisements, to making mailers, to poking around the store, and to printing and stuffing envelopes, I’ve really gotten to explore everything that Oak Knoll has to offer. I’m infinitely grateful for the opportunities Oak Knoll has afforded me and I’m eager to take these new skills with me wherever I go.
Managing Editor Matthew Young addresses a few questions to our newest author about his book…
M.Y.: When and how did you become interested in the subject of books about film?
B.V.: My fascination with film books goes back to the early 1980s. As soon as I began watching films, I began reading about them. When I was a kid I loved to flick through the film encyclopedia The Movie: The Illustrated History of Cinema, which was published as a partwork by Orbis in England between 1979 and 1983, and shortly translated into Spanish by Planeta. My father used to purchase the issues at the newsstand every week, and I remember I couldn’t wait for the week to end, so I could see the next issue!
Of course, this early passion only became a serious interest years later. In 2000, while I was a graduate student at the New School for Social Research, I started writing my PhD dissertation about the film music project that Hanns Eisler and Theodor W. Adorno undertook during the early 1940s here in New York. As a result of that project, they co-wrote the seminal book Composing for the Films, published by Oxford University Press in 1947. During my archival research, I found original materials about the troubled publication process of Composing for the Films, and shortly after I became seriously interested in the history of cinema literature in general.
I was amazed to learn that the first scholarly books on film were published in the 1890s. What were some of the most surprising books you discovered in your research?
They were different surprises for different reasons. Some books were remarkable, as you say, for the early date of publication: William and Antonia Dickson’s History of the Kinetograph was published in New York in 1895; Auguste and Louis Lumière’s Notice sur le Cinématographe, in Lyon, two years later. Some other titles were surprising for their rarity: Victor Allemandy’s Wonders of the Deep (London, 1916), for example, describes the 1914 Nassau expedition in which the Williamson brothers took the first underwater motion pictures; Arthur Meloy’s Theatres and Motion Picture Houses, published in New York that same year, is an illustrated treatise on how to properly build “movie palaces”.
I was particularly astonished by the beautiful design of some of the European avant-garde film books: Jean Epstein’s Bonjour Cinema (Paris, 1921), for instance, or Hans Richter’s Filmgegner von Heute, Filmfreunde von Morgen (Berlin 1929). Oskar Kalbus’ two-volume Vom Werden deutscher Filmkunst (1935) is uncommon because it challenges the classical notion of book: it was published as a cigarette card album that could only be completed with the participation of the reader…
What were your goals while writing the book?
There were two main goals: to show the immense diversity of cinema literature and to demonstrate that film books are among the main protagonists of cinema history –not a mere appendix to it. Film Books, in fact, can be read as a history of cinema sui generis: it’s just that, instead of focusing on films, I have concentrated on film books. I wanted to challenge the conventional historiography of cinema which, in my opinion, has been too focused on films and film directors. We now know that archival materials such as scripts, production contracts, and distribution deals are essential to understand film history. Producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, composers, actors… well, there wouldn’t be movies without them! If we adopt an economic perspective on the movies, then those apparently insignificant lobby cards, posters, and soundtrack vynil albums become key objects to comprehend the film industry and movies as commodities.
A third goal, which only became evident while I was writing the book, was to challenge the idea that there was not cinema literature during the silent era. My research demonstrates quite the opposite. Before World War I, cinema literature was extensive enough to justify a “Motion Picture Bibliography” (as compiled by Sinai Gershanek for the Motography journal in 1916). By 1927 there were literally hundreds of titles in several languages –English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Danish… Although my research was geographically limited to the Western world for obvious reasons, I wanted to include books in all these languages to avoid the cliché of the film book as an American or British invention.
Your study includes all kinds of books about film, but necessarily just a few of the most important examples of each genre. How did you decide what to include and exclude?
That was probably the most difficult task while writing this book: the selection of titles. And I guess it’s going to be the main topic discussed by some of the readers. Why did he include that insignificant title? And how could he forget my favourite film book? But, as I explain in the “Introduction”, I never intented to do a list of the Best Books on the Movies ever. I don’t think a canon is possible – not even desirable. I think rankings can be limiting and misleading.
Having said that, I did my selection following those two goals I’ve just mentioned: to show the diversity and the importance of cinema literature in film history. Needless to say, I have taken into consideration what the international community of film scholars and moviegoers has written about this subject. The seminal books by André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovski, Gilles Deleuze… had to be included. The five books selected in the “Best Film Book” survey published by Sight & Sound in 2010, for example, were also selected in my book –even though I disagree with the fact that David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (1975) was voted the best book of the poll. I chose some books, such as Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylone (1959) for its poetics and mise-en-page, rather than for its historical accuracy. I also decided not to repeat authors and subjects. I have explained in detail my selection criteria in the last two pages of the “Introduction”.
How do you hope your study will change the way we think of books about film, not only in terms of their content but also as physical objects worthy of collection and preservation?
Some film books are art objects and should be treated as such. It’s a pity to see that most public and university libraries still underestimate the importance of the film book. Even the librarians of important cinémathèques around the world keep throwing away the dust jackets because they think DJs are unimportant –and a trouble for them when labeling call numbers on spines! My hope is that Film Books will change this situation. Photography books have been considered artistic artifacts for many years now, and I think it’s time now that the same happens with film books.
Now, as a researcher, I have to say that this underestimation of film books has been, paradoxically, an advantage: I have had fast access to many rare, out-of-print, unique titles –an access that would be unthinkable were I researching, let’s say, artist’s books. The funny thing is that Epstein’s and Richter’s are artist’s books! As a film book collector, it was also convenient, of course. I’ve been able to purchase true gems of cinema literature for a few bucks!
The one most widely read genre, I would guess, is collections of film criticism. Who would you say is the most insightful movie reviewer of them all, past or present?
Yes, collections of film criticism are very popular, particularly here in the United States. James Agee, Otis Ferguson, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kaufman, Andrew Sarris… It’s difficult for me to say who was the most insightful of them all. I particularly like the writings of Amos Vogel, who was more a film curator than a film critic as such, but who also wrote tirelessly about the movies. His Film as a Subversive Art (1974), which collects mini-essays on over 600 art films, is a favorite of mine. Another genre that has been widely read is the “History of Cinema” book. I think David Robinson’s World Cinema (1973) and David Cook’s A History of Narrative Film (1981) are also very good, especially if we consider that both were written in the pre-home video era.
Reading your book suggests possibilities for a follow-up, perhaps about film magazines, for instance. Do you have any such plans?
Yes. My goal is to write a trilogy –on film books, film magazines, and film scores. Despite the importance of film journals in cinema history (how can we understand the French New Wave without knowing the history of Cahiers du Cinéma?), no comprehensive studies on international film journals have been published yet. There are some monographs on specific magazines, such as the influential British monthly Close Up (1927-1933), but not a general visual history of this type of publication. And yet film scholars and moviegoers worldwide know the crucial role played by magazines in film history: Sight & Sound, Iskusstvo Kino, Bianco e Nero, Sequence, Positif, Film Culture, Nuevo Cine… the list is extensive indeed. Not to mention trade magazines like Variety, founded in 1905, or technical journals such as American Cinematographer, whose first issue came out in 1920 (both magazines, by the way, are still running). The peculiarity of the cinema journal is that it intrinsically is a collective endeavor –unlike film books, which tend to be the result of an individual effort. From the 1920s to the 1950s, magazines were also the platform where young screenwriters and film directors first became involved in serious debates about the ontology of the film medium.
What about the book on film scores?
That’s a particularly difficult project, because the format in which film scores have been recorded has changed throughout history. Some of the early musical compositions for the screen only exist as written scores; others only survive as the sound tracks of 35mm film prints. Vinyl recordings became very popular in the 1950s, it’s true, but we know that films were screened with original music as soon as “cinema” was born in the 1890s. The variety of formats and editions of film scores –from 78 rpm slate records to the digital CD– is what makes that book specially difficult and… so exciting!
Breixo Viejo is a Senior Research Associate at the School of European Languages, Culture and Society in University College London, and an Adjunct Professor of Film Studies at the School of the Arts, Columbia University, New York. He has extensively written on film aesthetics, avant-garde cinema, and the work of Luis Buñuel, Joris Ivens, Alain Resnais, Samuel Beckett, and Jim Jarmusch. He is currently co-editing with Jo Evans the book Luis Buñuel: A Life in Letters, to be published by Bloomsbury in 2017, and writing the first critical biography on the Catalan cinematographer Néstor Almendros. He is an avid film book collector and the author of Film Books: A Visual History, recently published by Oak Knoll Press.