By Greg Wakabayashi
Among the books I designed during the past several months are SLOW: Life in a Tuscan Town, photographs and text by Douglas Gayeton, and Elvis 1956, photographs by Alfred Wertheimer. As I have a particular passion for photography these are exactly the kinds of books that most gratify me to be able to work on.
Gayeton’s images were unlike anything I had worked with before. Because there was so much to look at in each piece I knew from the outset that as a designer my primary concern was to not compete with or distract from the images. I actually always bear this in mind for every book I do, but in this case it was particularly important because the viewer’s attention had to be able to focus on the images to be able to appreciate them in full. The images, covered with text in Douglas’s uniquely written–more accurately etched–style, were themselves busy enough that it was clear to me that the design of the book around them had to be simpler. I settled on the general parameters of a design fairly quickly–typefaces, format, colors.
One question raised was do we include secondary images to accompany the additional typeset text in the book. Douglas wasn’t so sure, primarily because he did not want people confusing his “art” images with the regular photos that would help illustrate the text that provided a more detailed context. I assured him that would not happen. His artwork was unique enough in style to separate itself from anything else. He was also concerned that the secondary images simply were not of good enough quality–soft, grainy, etc. We were careful not to use anything of marginal quality too large and most of the images were intended to be small anyway. It was actually my hope that the inclusion of the secondary images would enhance Douglas’s artwork by giving it something to compare to. By having the secondary images there with his artwork people would clearly see just how different and unique his work is. The editor, Katrina Fried, had concurrently wanted the inclusion of the secondary images for editorial reasons and when we saw the proofs we knew we had both been right–that including the secondary images would enhance the experience of the book in both the ways we had wanted.
There were a variety of design challenges in this book but all were resolved without much pain as Douglas proved to be a wonderful collaborator. He fought for what he wanted but let us do the same, realizing that we were working together toward a common goal–a beautiful book that did justice to the years of work he had put into his images.
Elvis 1956 was a very different experience. I was already familiar with the photographs. And the task before us was to create what is essentially a catalog of the images that are included in the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, “Elvis at 21.” Such catalogs are often done in a relatively straightforward fashion–show the images as they appear in the show, (often uncropped) as catalogs are often little more than a faithful record of what people see in the exhibition along with added curatorial and editorial text.
I came into the project after my brother, Clark, had designed a cover that everyone had settled on. It was originally Clark’s book to design but schedules changed and it fell onto my plate. I looked at the cover and decided the material would be better served by a more dynamic presentation than many exhibition catalogs result in. I resolved not to be restricted by being unable to crop the photos where it served a purpose, in most cases so that the images could fill the entire page of spread.
The exhibition itself was organized chronologically to follow Wetheimer’s experience following Elvis from New York to Memphis. The book would follow that as well. The exhibition included intermittent panels of interstitial text, as well as Wertheimer’s own words as he described the experience. The result is a book that feels more like the journey the exhibition itself is intended to be and not just a catalog of its content. Many of the images are full or partial bleed, which gives the viewer the opportunity to imagine what lies beyond the edges of the page. The intention was to make the book feel bigger than it is and the experience of it more dynamic. Mindful of the fact that this is an exhibition catalog, we included a thumbnail gallery at the back that shows all of the images uncropped. These thumbnails are accompanied by Wertheimer’s captions, explaining in more detail the context of each photograph. In the end we were all quite pleased when we saw the first finished books.