[Tom Biederbeck] “A portable wonder cabinet of 19th-century America,” is how author Johnny Carrera describes the Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary. At 3½ x 5½ in., this counterpart to the full-size volume of 2009 qualifies as pocket-size. With its charming, puzzling and humorous illustrations—mostly from actual 19th-century dictionaries—it’s full of wonders. What’s more, Carrera has arranged the visual elements and built in a numbering system full of clues (there was a contest!) to make it a worthy companion for inducing inspiration…while passing the time.
I asked Carrera about the book’s curious power to generate ideas, and how he made that possible.
In your introduction, you write about the recombinant effect on the imagination as something one can’t escape. You say, “Humans instinctively look for connection between proximal objects.” How do you exploit it in this edition?
The smaller version is more apt to create juxtapositions for the reader, as the playing field is smaller. The images jostle a little more and there are fewer on each page, allowing our eyes and brains to take them all in, in a better way.
You also write that you intend this edition to be “an even more powerful distillation” of the earlier Chronicle edition. How have you made it more powerful?
I wanted to keep a good collection of flora, fauna and things—think 20 Questions. Some images I have always liked, like the “Aim” [a rifleman]. For the As, I wanted to have the entire alphabet in order—Aa, Ab, Ac, Ad, etc. I deviated from that a couple of times: I inserted a j into the vacuum of the air pump, as I had no image for Aj…just as there is no J street in Washington, D.C.
I removed a lot. Chronicle gave me the page count for the book, and I computed that I could do eight pages for each letter, leaving some space for intro and end matter. I knew X and Z would afford me the chance to be more generous with the Ss. Lots of good Cs, too, plus it is my favorite, as my last name starts with C, and I’ve always felt that C was underrepresented in standardized tests. My attitude was “What can I simply not live without?” I moved images from the ampersand section to join the others, so I could have wonderful pages like the one in the Bs that has a boat, bicycle and biplane.
In arranging the visual elements, you paid close attention to texture and pacing. What can you say about the selection and arrangement from a strictly visual point of view? You might think of this in terms of a question: Why is it the same page has an image of a crocodile and a curling stone?
On the crocodile page, I was thinking more about the stacking of the crawfish and crocodile—similar, long shapes. The curling stone was just so different, it had to go into the book—but it relates back to the facing page, the cogs and another round thing, a coupling gear. The sword relates back to the long images on the top…but think about the stone and the sword—the slide and the dulling effect, perhaps? I would direct your attention to the Ds, where you have a section of “D is for diagonal”: In two spreads, your eye is drawn up and down, up and down.
Do you have personal favorites among the entries? There’s a lovely raven, an awesome walrus, an elegant still… .
Definitely the Buddha page. For this book, I removed the base from the Bell Jar image so that it “reads” as if it might actually fit over the Buddha, making blissful detachment visually recognizable. In my mind, though, the bell jar cannot be separated from the descending depression that Sylvia Plath describes: the separation from the world that surrounds you, not born from a state of relaxed bliss, but of gnawing anxiety and fear and sadness. This is one of the dichotomies of the world. One way to dispel the depression is, evidently, to meditate—and here in the page I have taken two buckets that show how you lift up your troubles, hold them, and then with a long exhaling breath, release and relax.
I do love the still as well…”I’ve been a moonshiner,” one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs on that bootleg album. Of course I love the book press, too, and I moved the bicycle wheel [mounted to a stool] to the Rs for Readymade—which is what Duchamp called it. The latter is one of my own engravings, and one of my favorites, as is the oak tree for Quercus Press [Carrera’s own letterpress shop]. I engraved both of these in end-grain boxwood.
At the end of the book, you reveal that the numbers below the images can be deciphered to reveal a meaningful code or convention! Would you talk about this…without giving all the answers to the contest away.
Having a new set of information associated with each set of images just gives another point of reference. The Ms are all Mozart pieces of music—the Köchel numbers. The Ls are the numbers on the sides of prescription medicines. “Load” [another rifleman] has what is printed on Viagra, and Lunestra’s number is under the Luna Moth. How about T is for the typographical numbers printed on Linotype matrices? F is for the Fibonacci sequence… .
A reader from Canada got almost all of the numeric references, including the golf yardages of Pebble Beach and the Masters. He must have done some fancy web searching!
On March 23, 2013, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will debut the exhibition Life’s Work: Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera, which will include Carrera’s Pictorial Webster’s project.
Top photo: © 2012 StudioAlex. All others, courtesy of Chronicle Books.
Read our own Alyson Kuhn’s article about how 26 book artists creatively rebound the original Pictorial Webster’s volume.