The beginning & the middle of “The End”

[Alyson Kuhn] The End is a very big book of photographs by Rodney Smith. I have never seen a Rodney Smith print in person, but looking at The End in person must be the next best thing. I have temporary custody of a copy — in fact, the same copy that the judges in Mohawk Show 11 looked at when they awarded The End one of five Best of Show awards. I am entranced by this book as an object, and entranced into the universe of Rodney Smith — who in his youth thought he was going to be a novelist. As he put it, “I think I had the sentiment but not the skill. But I have always loved books, and the way imagery reproduces on paper.”

To produce The End, Smith worked with his set of habitual collaborators: graphic designer David Meredith, writer Walter Thomas and printer Kim Blanchette. I had the illuminating pleasure of speaking with all of them. I basically asked, in a fairly incredulous yet admiring tone, two questions: “What were you thinking?” and “How did you do it?” Before you read what they said, you might want to look at The End of Rodney Smith, a witty little website that beautifully evokes the look, the tone, the details — but cannot convey the physical experience — of this magnum opus.

Rodney Smith: People have been telling me for years, “The pictures look so great when they are really big.” The prints people buy from me are usually as large as I can make them, which is mural-size. But my last two books, The Hat Book and The Book of Books, were both quite small.

David Meredith: Rodney’s idea was to have this book be the opposite. We determined the maximum size that could be bound at the chosen bindery and worked our way back from there.

RS: Walter Thomas has been writing text for me for years. He invented the fictional character of Mr. S. We do a quarterly newsletter, The Smith Report. So we sat down, Walter, David and I … and The End is the end result. We collaboratively chose the 100-plus images from about 3000.

Walter Thomas: Rodney was incredibly generous in giving me so much freedom, complete freedom. This is his life’s work. I tried to create something — using language, since I’m a writer — that would be the equivalent of the attitude and feeling of Rodney’s work.

DM: I’ve also worked with Walter for many years. Throughout this project, we took turns going first. I laid out the book in miniature spreads, and we each made comments about the images, design and copy, regardless of our individual roles.

WT: I didn’t want to do the same “thing” twice, which is why it took me so long to write. Some [spreads] are lists, some are stories, one is kind of a one-act play. Others are aphorisms. It took me a long time to kind of reinvent each iteration for the different pictures. I think the text had to be of unknowable origins, timeless in nature, wry and unexpectedly clever — if I can be so self-congratulatory. That’s how I see Rodney’s work.

DM: I have two favorite typefaces — one serif, the other sans serif. They are Hoefler Text and Helvetica. I know the leading that feels perfect, I know the letterspacing and kerning. I’ve learned how to make those tyepfaces have balance and composition. I rarely use any other fonts and would be happy to only use those two for any work I do.

Kim Blanchette: The word “magnitude” is apt — and not just for the size of the book. I don’t think that in my career I will see another book that is as well done as this one. Each image is treated individually, each is itself a limited edition. Rodney’s book is a reproduction of his life story. When we take on his book, we are an extension of him. My job is to reproduce his photography, his medium, but in my medium, printing. He doesn’t tell me how to reproduce it. You start, and then you ask yourself, How can I do it better than the last time I looked at it?

RS: I always have a print with me that is “the master” — an ideal for contrast, separation of tones, subtleties in the shadow areas. I can’t do the translation to “printer speak,” but Leslie [Smolan, to whom Smith is married] is great at that. So she and Kim would go off, and Leslie would convert my “darkroom vocabulary” to communicate to Kim what I felt was missing or off, and Kim would redo the plates.

DM: We had a number of dummies made to see how the pages would hold out. We wanted the paper to be heavy, but not snap. It still needed to lay flat when the book was opened. We tested several weights and then had the 80# cover custom-milled to the ideal size for Blanchette Press.

KB: We know Superfine intimately. It’s just lovely; we have a lot of respect for it. I don’t remember who suggested we use Eggshell finish, but it was the right choice for the images — and for the feel. You can feel the paper.

RS: Superfine is my favorite paper in the world.

Rodney Smith has a blog, which he started a year or so ago. Bright and early every Monday morning, he shares something that’s on his mind, and selects one photo from The End to illustrate it. I in fact read Smith’s dozen most recent posts while I was supposed to be writing this post. And, now that I’m done, I’ll be heading back for more. And, speaking of more, for this Friday’s Design Destination on Felt & Wire, Smith takes us … guess where?

Alyson Kuhn spoke with Smith, Meredith, Thomas and Blanchette in separate phone conversations. The fact that their comments fit so nicely into a single narrative is further testimonial to the brilliant balance of their collaboration.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by paperlover on 10.4.10 at 9:32 am

    It’s not every day that books inspire reverence. But this is such a beautifully crafted book, that everyone who participated could be credited as an author.

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