Paper weight

Pub date September 3, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


Call me wasteful, call me Luddite, call me nostalgic, call me obsolete. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I like paper. I like it a little too much. These days, when I look at paper, I have a pair of scissors in my mind if not my right hand — I want to take the complete form of detritus that a single sheet or a full book represents, and cut it into a new shape. Maybe it’s a visual extension of editing words for a living. Maybe it’s a basic reaction to the stacks of visual and text-based matter that I shuttle from one space to another in the city when I’m not staring into the Valhalla of the computer screen or — heaven forbid — reminding myself that I have a body.

This week, I’ve been carrying a couple of heavyweights from work to home and back again: Glamour of the Gods (Steidl, 272 pages, $65) and The Stamp of Fantasy: The Visual Inventiveness of Photographic Postcards (Steidl, 216 pages, $60). Both books are testaments to the specific charms of paper, with tactile qualities — a gloss and an undivided directness, for starters — that no expensive flat-screen monitor can match. They’re made to be ravished, not ravaged. They also tell — via numerous knockout illustrations — a story. That story is of paper’s important role in relation to art and photography (or photo-documentary) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

A few weekends ago I went to a paper expo in San Francisco, where I admit to being nonplussed by the dozens of vendors with box upon box of postcards that cost $25 or more apiece. The sheer surplus of matter, coupled with the collectors’ prices, was off-putting. The Stamp of Fantasy, however, instantly reminded me of the artistic value of the postcard, a form I first fell for in high school, when I’d thumb through decks of cards for a well-executed trick image of a person with a cat’s or baby’s head. Curated by Clément Chéroux from the collections of Peter Weiss and Gérard Levy, the book presents those types of pictures, along with other puns and surrealist touches: melting Eiffel Towers; Victorian women with roots for torsos; human faces blooming from trees, emerging from mountain- and moonscapes or blooming from the tail-ends of trails of pipe smoke. Less predictable visions — a mass of Chinese baby faces akin to one of Weegee’s Coney Island photos; children riding butterflies in a realm not far from Henry Darger’s imagination — have a wow or jolt factor. They also effectively preview Hannah Höch’s innovative postcard-based collage.

Hollywood movie-star stills — the oft-luminous portraits that icons like Joan Crawford would autograph and send to thousands of fans — are the subject of Glamour of the Gods. It draws from the peerless collection of the late biographer and gadfly John Kobal, who helped bring renown to artists such as Crawford’s favorite cameraman, George Hurrell, via the 1980 book The Art of the Great Hollywood Portrait Photographers. When I look at Greta Garbo’s reliably stunning close-up collaborations with the undersung and influential Ruth Harriet Louise, I think of Garbo’s remarkable skill at blocking paparazzi shots from any angle with her hands (demonstrated in Gary Lee Boas’ sweet 1999 book Starstruck) and ponder the old camp quip about the lie that tells the truth. Something has been lost in the journey from glossy paper to the infinite sea of candid digital imagery. Ramon Novarro and Clara Bow weren’t all about going to Starbucks for Frappuccinos. As someone once said, they had faces.