Let’s start by revisiting a key part of the head you just read: Book Lovers.
I don’t mean those who love reading, nor necessarily bibliophiles, a term which often encompasses collectors and those who deal in antiquarian editions. I also don’t mean those who simply prefer bound books to e-books, again usually for reasons related to the act of reading. Rather, I’m referring to those who are actually enamored of the physical properties of the post-Gutenberg object itself, so much so that they would elevate it to an art object.
How to Make a Book with Steidl, a documentary by Gereon Wetzel and Jörg Adolph and recently released on home video by Alive Mind, finds its true target audience with this group. All right, so maybe this doc is also for lovers of contemporary art and photography. But interestingly, allowing for that hints at what the film does both so well and so subtly: it makes the case for the humble book as the medium through which most of us can really begin to know other media.
Think about it. Unless we travel to the world’s museums, galleries, and private collections, how would we come to appreciate the actual work of, say, Roberts Frank and Adams, two of the towering figures who appear in the course of How to Make a Book with Steidl? Viewing art and photography online or via some device is fine, nothing wrong with that, but it’s book publishers such as Gerhard Steidl who take the time to collaborate with artists to ensure fidelity to a range of aesthetic properties (color, proportionality, etc.).
The film includes numerous examples of this kind of partnership, but shows us the process beginning-to-end by focusing on Joel Sternfeld’s iDubai. This intriguing collection of photos taken on an iPhone presents the challenge of matching their “look and feel” in book form—Sternfeld is adamant about the work not being presented as fine art but closer to a cheap commodity that anyone with a camera phone could produce. Steidl thus proposes a wittily oversized barcode on the back cover, works with Sternfeld to determine an appropriate trim size for the book, and even tries to replicate the backlit brightness of images as they appear on an Apple screen.
If that seems ironic yet fascinating to you—the print medium attempting to capture the content of an electronic one—then this movie is for you. It’s smart, and features many brilliant throwaway moments, but it’s hardly dramatic or full of dazzling filmmaking. Instead, other paradoxes and ironies abound. In a brief but fascinating scene we see Günter Grass apply handwriting to a piece of art celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Tin Drum, and Steidl relentlessly coaches him every step of the way—on “writing” as an act: Grass needs to make some letters bigger, “finish off” others where the lines are not completely joined,and so on. Another scene centers on an ultra-deluxe limited edition of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, turning the emblematic work of the anti-materialistic Beats into a high-priced product whose scarcity increases its value—reflecting an ethos the exact opposite of the paperback revolution which during Kerouac’s lifetime made literature available for the masses.
Which begs the question: if in theory Steidl is helping making art, fashion, and photography available to the public, who is making his often pricey books available in turn—so that they actually reach the public at large, not just patrons of the arts? The answer, obviously, is librarians… which means that on top of everything else that they do, libraries with collections of thoughtfully published art books are also, essentially, museums.